With such a big, booming voice answering with a hearty hello, it was natural for callers to assume they had the man of the house on the other end of the line. Thinking back on it still makes Trace Adkins smile. “I think I was about 14,” Adkins recalls. “I would answer the phone at the house, and someone would go, ‘Mr. Adkins?’” It caught the teenager off-guard the first time it happened, but he quickly caught on. “I would get the biggest kick of it,” he says. “I just thought it was hilarious.”
This was in the tiny northwestern Louisiana town of Sarepta, some 20 miles from the Arkansas line. Adkins was already playing the guitar his father gave him as a Christmas present when he was just 10. By the time he discovered his talent for singing, his voice had dropped dramatically into the low, rumbling register that’s grabbed the attention of music lovers for decades. “I started singing bass in a gospel quartet when I was 17,” says Adkins, walking us through the beginnings of his remarkable musical journey. “It was just some guys in our church that I grew up with. I was really shy, and if it hadn’t been for the quartet situation—getting up there with guys that I knew and was comfortable with—I probably never would have sang in public.”
With that boost of confidence, he started performing solo with his acoustic guitar at various gatherings and sitting in with local bands, singing some of the country songs he’d heard countless times on records his father played over and over. For many years, music was something Adkins did on the side, even when he was in college and during the 10 years he worked offshore on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. He finally got serious enough about it to move to Nashville in the early ‘90s, and that’s where he found his big break. “I just kept pursuing it,” says Adkins, who turned 60 this year. “I tell people all the time I’m one of those really blessed individuals whose hobby turned into a career.”
Standing six feet, six inches even without his boots and trademark black hat, Adkins has literally been a towering figure in country music for more than a quarter-century. He marked this musical milestone last year with the release of The Way I Wanna Go, which contains 25 songs and clocks in at just under an hour and a half. The number of songs was partly symbolic, representing his silver anniversary as a recording artist, but also the result of having down time because of the pandemic and easy access to first-rate songwriters, musicians, and recording facilities.
Music isn’t the only creative outlet he enjoys. Adkins also has numerous television and film credits as an actor and voiceover artist. He has portrayed his share of cowboys and bikers, but in a new FOX series, Monarch, he has a major role that in some ways hits much closer to home. In this new network drama, he stars opposite Susan Sarandon as Albie Roman, a country music legend who is also the patriarch of a talented but troubled musical family.
“He comes from that old Texas outlaw school—you know Willie and Waylon and those guys,” Adkins says. The character isn’t a carbon copy of the real-life Adkins, by any means. “He’s wealthier than I am, and he smokes more weed than I do,” Adkins jokes, before adding that there are some similarities: “I can recall a time in my life when the train was perpetually off the track, and that seems to be what Albie is dealing with. It’s not always his fault, and as the father of five daughters I understand that, too. There’s always drama, and it’s not always of your making.”
The fictional character that Trace Adkins plays on the TV series has a catalog of legendary songs, too, so Adkins has been busy in the studio recording versions of country classics like “A Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams Jr. and “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” by Merle Haggard. It might have been tempting to have put his own spin on them, but he says he showed restraint out of reverence for the originals. “I’m not going to stray too far because these songs are sacred ground,” he says. “I have so much respect for them that I’m not going to go crazy and turn it into my own thing.”
Trace Adkins CREATIVE ENDEAVORS
Though making music and acting are entirely different artistic endeavors, Adkins does find some interesting and rewarding parallels. “My favorite days in the music business, truthfully, are the days when you’re in the studio with seven or eight of the finest musicians in the world, and you have a really qualified engineer and a good producer, and you take a really good piece of material, a song that’s just been written, and you turn all of those creative geniuses loose and you try to create something beautiful,” Adkins says. “It’s that creative environment—there’s no bigger high than that. Sets for television and movies are the same way—you’re surrounded by these incredibly talented people, and that atmosphere and environment are stimulating.”
Depending on the material or the people involved, different sessions can be memorable in different ways. Adkins says he will never forget when record executive Scott Hendricks played him a demo of what’s become his most famous song, “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” The comic tribute to a lady dancer’s big ol’ booty was a surprise success on the country and pop charts in 2005 and was recently certified Triple Platinum. “That song made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it, and that’s hard to do,” Adkins says. “Jamey Johnson wrote it with Dallas Davidson and Randy Houser, and it was Jamey singing on the demo. Jamey’s country vocal singing those words is what made me laugh so hard. I just said, ‘We’ve got to record that.’” But it was all in fun, he says, and he never expected it to be a single, much less a smash hit. “I had no idea that it would be —that was a happy accident.”
Another enduring Adkins song is a tender ballad that proves this gentle giant isn’t afraid to show his sensitive side. He had planned to sing the sentimental “You’re Gonna Miss This” only at his oldest daughter’s wedding. The tearjerker surely wet a few eyes at the ceremony but also caught the ears of a record executive who urged him to release it. It’s become such a fan favorite that there would certainly be angry backlash if he didn’t sing it at every show.
REFLECTING ON THE HOLIDAYS
“We try to get as many people together as we can, and we all belly up to the trough and eat too much and do all that, but it’s a challenge, especially with everybody being scattered.”– Trace Adkins
For Trace Adkins, a personal favorite of his 12 studio albums is The King’s Gift, his Christmas release from 2013 that puts a Celtic spin on timeless carols like “Oh Holy Night,” “We Three Kings,” “Away in a Manger,” and “What Child is This.” Throughout the collection, lilting fiddles, penny whistles, and uilleann pipes (the Irish version of bagpipes) offset Adkins’ deep baritone. “Musically, that’s the most beautiful album I’ve ever done,” he says. “I’m so proud of that record, and I wish everybody had a chance to listen to it—not because I’m singing on it but because of the instrumentation.”
When the holiday season rolls around each year, it’s natural for Adkins’ thoughts to go back to northwestern Louisiana. He still has some family there, including his mother, Peggy. Sadly, his father, Aaron, passed away in 2014. Adkins regrets that he never took the opportunity to ask his dad exactly what prompted him to give him that guitar as a Christmas gift 50 years ago.
Adkins says about half of his extended family lives in Louisiana or Arkansas while the other half is in the Nashville area, much closer to him and his wife, Victoria Pratt, an actress whom he first met on a movie set. So far, his daughters have blessed him with six grandchildren—three girls and three boys.
Because he works so much, and family members are spread apart, he admits that it’s difficult for everyone to get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas, like his family did growing up. This is something he feels guilty about, he admits, and wants to improve upon. “I do try as best I can to have that traditional holiday thing like I grew up having,” Adkins says. “I had that Norman Rockwellian upbringing as far as stuff like that goes.”
In fact, he and his own siblings got a double dose of those holiday memories he hangs on to so tightly. “Both sets of my grandparents lived in my hometown, and I’m talking about a town of about a thousand people, which both of my parents grew up in. One set of grandparents lived about a mile from me, and the other set lived about two miles from me. Every holiday, all of the kids and grandkids would come to my grandparents’ houses, and we would just ping-pong back and forth. I wish I could replicate that for my kids, but I just can’t,” he says. “We try to get as many people together as we can, and we all belly up to the trough and eat too much and do all that, but it’s a challenge, especially with everybody being scattered. The holiday bar was set so awfully high for me.”
For more interviews with country music artists, click here.