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The Real World

By on November 1, 2008
RoadKing Mag

It’s Saturday afternoon in Nashville, and in a few hours the Grand Ole Opry radio show will begin. Right now there are lights and sound to be tested, songs to be rehearsed. Flanked by members of his own band, the Opry house band and a nine-member gospel choir, Trace Adkins stands silently on the Grand Ole Opry House stage.

Once everything is tuned up and turned up, the music begins. Adkins, dressed casually in a white T-shirt, jeans and boots — plus a black cowboy hat, of course — steps to the microphone and begins to sing. “Eighteen wheeler dropped me off at that city limits sign/Sunday morning sunlight hurt my eyes …”

This is “Muddy Water,” a song about a lost soul who comes home seeking redemption. The rehearsal has been low-key so far, but suddenly the emotional temperature in the room starts to climb. Adkins pours his soul into this story of sin and salvation, closing his eyes and feeding off the energy of the choir. As the last notes ring out, the audience of about 20 seen-it-all technicians and music-biz types is clapping and whooping with genuine delight.

Adkins seemed possessed by the song, an impression he confirms a few minutes later as he relaxes backstage in the Opry’s Dressing room No. 2 beneath a framed photo of bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. “It’s one of those songs that I have to sing wide open or I’m not going to sing it at all,” says Adkins, 46, removing his hat and pulling back his long hair. “You’ve got to put the pedal down on this one. It haunts me. It takes me back to another time, a hundred years ago, when I was singing bass in a gospel quartet.”

That was back home in Sarepta, La., where a teenage Adkins was a member of the New Commitments. It was only the first step in a journey that would lead him to country-music fame — but not right away. First came years of work in oil fields and on construction sites, following in the tradition of a father who retired last year after 43 years of employment at the same paper company.

“I didn’t get a record deal when I was 19,” Adkins notes. “I was 32. I had real, labor-intensive jobs all my adult life. That’s in my blood — a blue-collar working stiff, that’s me. I just got lucky.”

A dozen years after rising to fame, Adkins can claim 13 Top 10 hits that range from hell-raising anthems (“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” “Ladies Love Country Boys”) to heart-wrenching ballads (“You’re Gonna Miss This,” “I’m Tryin’”). He recently celebrated his fifth anniversary as an Opry member, an honor he considers “the No. 1 thing on my list of wonderful things that have happened to me in my career.”

He has eight gold, platinum or multiplatinum albums, and there’s no reason to believe his latest, X, won’t do that well or better. (“I know there’s a song on this new record truckers are going to like,” he notes. “It’s called ‘I’m Only Hauling One Thing.’ It’s about a truck driver who’s taken a load off somewhere and he’s dead-heading back home, trying to get back to his wife.”) He has even branched out into acting, most recently with a role in the holiday comedy An American Carol, and last year wrote a book called A Personal Stand: Observations and Opinions from a Freethinking Roughneck.

Adkins could be forgiven if he felt disconnected from his roots after enjoying such wide-ranging success. But while he no longer has to make a living with back-breaking manual labor, he still does it anyway — for his own satisfaction.

“I stay all scratched up and skinned up because I go out to the farm and get on my tractor and knock trees down, move rocks around,” says the singer, who was hospitalized after a tractor accident in 2002. “I’ll grab a chainsaw and cut underbrush. That’s what I dig. It makes me feel good about myself to get to the end of the day and be nasty from head to toe and dehydrated and cramping. I love that. I need that.”

As satisfying as a well-received performance or a radio hit might be, Adkins says, “I have to have tangible results for my efforts. Spiritual gratification only pacifies me for a short period of time, and then I have to be physically fed.” He looks away. “Good feelings don’t last.”

Adkins takes the same starkly realistic attitude about the future. Asked what he’d like to accomplish in the coming years, he names not pie-in-the-sky dreams but reachable goals: making the albums due under his record label contract and improving as an actor. “I’m a realist, man,” he says. “I don’t shoot for the stars. I learned a long, long time ago.”

Suddenly it’s clear that the rapturous response Adkins got a little while ago for that rendition of “Muddy Water,” as grateful as he might be, wasn’t the point. The reward was in the singing, in the few minutes he spent getting back to the gospel-group baritone he had once been. It was in the way his current job allows him to tell the world who he is and where he comes from, and demand that the value of that be acknowledged.

Press him a little, and Adkins will confess a dream that sounds, if not wildly ambitious, at least pretty fun. He savors the thought of spending his golden years performing every weekend right here at the Grand Ole Opry, giving younger singers the kind of hard time he had to endure on his way to the top.

“If I’m still around, I’ll be that crotchety old bastard out here on Saturday nights hosting the show,” he says with a chuckle. “The new kids are coming out and I’m saying, ‘Come on out here, boy! Try not to suck, or I’ll kick you off the show!’

“I can’t wait to be that old man. That’s going to be me.”

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