By Brian Ives
Trace Adkins has mellowed with age… a bit, anyway. He addresses this in ‘Watered Down,’ the latest single from ‘Something’s Going On,’ which is due out on Friday (March 31). As he told Radio.com, the song — written by Matt Jenkins, Shane McAnally and Trevor Rosen — seemed to be about him. It’s one of the highlights from his new album, which also addresses subjects as varied as the military and Taylor Swift. Adkins, an imposing figure, was friendly in person, happy to talk about his new album; he also discussed the controversies that entangled the Wounded Warrior Project — an organization near to his heart — last year.
The song “Watered Down” sounds like you could have written it.
Just the lyric of the song, it’s where I’m at in my life it seems. You live the kind of life that I’ve lived, and at some point, you have to step back and say, “I’ve got to temper my vices a little bit or I’m not gonna live much longer like this.” So that’s kinda what the song says. I’m still crazy, and I still have some vices, but they’re just a little watered down.
Your daughters must have been happy to hear the song.
My 29-year-old reached out to me and told me that she really loved the song. My oldest daughter likes the song. My younger ones, I don’t think it speaks to them so much.
“Ain’t Just the Whiskey Talkin'” is very modern sounding.
I don’t really look at songs and say, “Is this song commercial? Is this gonna be a radio hit?” I just like to record stuff that I like to sing. Mickey Jack Cones, who produced this project, presented me with a couple songs. “This Ain’t Just the Whiskey Talkin’,” that’s an example of one of those songs that he said [to record] and I was like, “Man, okay, I’ll try it. I love the lyric of it. Let me try it.”
But there’s another song on this record, “Gonna Make You Miss Me.” That was one that Mickey said, “You gotta do this song.” And I said, “Dude, I can’t sing this song. I can’t sing this song.” It’s a pop-sounding thing. He said, “Come on, man, you can do it. Let’s do it.” And so I said, “All right.”
So he challenged me, and I went for it and had a blast doing it, man. And it ended up being one of my favorite songs on the record. It’s a poppy little, catchy little thing, and it was kind of a tip of the hat to some of those Taylor Swift things. I even said her name in the song, and that was a total rewrite on my part. I was singing the song, and I just threw that in there, and Mickey goes, “Oh, that’s funny.” So we left it in there.
I like to try new things, I like to challenge myself. You gotta get out of your comfort zone or you’re not gonna grow. If you just stay in that spot where you’re comfortable and you can just keep phoning it in, you’re not gonna grow. You gotta challenge yourself; you gotta be uncomfortable every now and then to continue to explore and have fun, see what you can do.
And a lot of times I’ll listen to a song and think, “I don’t hear my voice on that song.” Fortunately, I have A&R guys at the label and producers that go, “No, man, your voice on that song will sound cool,” and I’m like, “Okay, I’ll give it a try and let’s see.” And sometimes they’re right.
Willie Nelson has done a reggae album, a blues album, and standards albums; it’s cool to try new things.
You know, Rodney Carrington told me one time, “Man, success is when you get to a place in your career where you can make choices about what you do, based on the answer to one question: ‘Would that be fun?'”
And that’s a beautiful place to be. Really, it’s as simple as that. When you get to a place in your career or a place in your life where the next thing you’re presented with is an opportunity that all you have to ask yourself is “Would that be fun to do?” if the answer is yes, do it. If the answer’s no, don’t do it. That’s a beautiful place to be.
On “Still a Solider,” you probably know the guy in the song: the guy who came home after serving and is moving on with his life.
I do know a lot of these guys. They’ve done their few years in service, and so they mustered out, but they don’t look at it as like they retired. They’re still on call.
And that’s what this song is about, it’s about a guy that’s going back [home], and yeah, he’s resuming his normal life, but he still looks at it as though he’s on call. If his country ever needed him he’d suit up and go back in a heartbeat. And there are a lot of those guys out there, and this song was just a tribute and ode to them.
Yeah, I was disturbed, but at the same time, I defended them because I’ve been on the front lines for years, and every night we do a show those guys come to the meet and greet every night. We meet wounded warriors at every show that we do.
And never once — never once — have I ever had one of those guys come up to me and say, “Wounded Warrior told me they were gonna do this or that or whatever, and they didn’t come through. They didn’t do it.” Never once. You would think that in all those years of me being the face and the voice of Wounded Warrior, that I would’ve had somebody come up to me and lodge a complaint. It never happened. It never happened, not once.
So all that stuff at the top that went down, I don’t know anything about that. I don’t know those guys. But I know those guys that have benefitted from that program, and I never heard one of them come up and complain that they’d ever been not served by Wounded Warrior project.
Those guys are not shy about telling you what they think. And I never heard any negative stuff about ’em from any of the guys that actually were served by Wounded Warrior project.
I know the leadership that’s there now—beyond reproach. And so it’s solid, it’s good.
Back to your album: “Whippoorwills and Freight Trains” is another song that sounds like it could have been written by you.
I love that song. Yeah, I love that song. That was one of those songs, man—there were a couple songs, three songs on this record that in the studio when I was singing these songs, I had to stop and compose myself because they hurt, and so I had to stop. And “Whippoorwills and Freight Trains” was one of ’em. It hurt me and I had to stop for a while, and then I would start back, then it hurt me again. It took a while to get through that one. And I still haven’t sang it live yet. Yeah, that was a cathartic song.
And I hit that note at the end of it that goes—Buck Owens told me one time, he said, “Trace, you know that low note that you can hit? You need to do that in every song, ’cause that’s really all you got going for ya.” So I took his advice seriously.
How do you decide how much of your new music you’re going to play live?
I’m not gonna do a show and stand up there and just do 45 minutes of new stuff that people haven’t never heard. You get to a certain point in your career if you’ve been around long enough, then you’ve got catalog, and that’s what people come to hear. They wanna hear catalog. You can throw a couple of the new things in here and there, but they wanna hear catalog, and I get that.
But I still have things that I wanna say, and I’m not gonna reach that wider fan base that I used to reach, but hey, man, there’s still people that wanna hear what I have to say.
What new artists do you like? Who would you want to open for you?
Chris Janson, I love that kid. That dude is just, he’s the real deal, man. I like him a lot, man. I like him a lot. Craig Campbell, I like Craig Campbell a whole lot. And then another guy that I still look at as being kinda new — I couldn’t afford to take him on tour anyway unless I opened for him — and that’s Brett Eldridge. I love Brett. He’s a great guy; I like his singing, so maybe he’ll let me go open for him. He’s very versatile. I like people that it’s hard to put ’em in that one box, put ’em in that one category. He’s not this, he’s not that. I like that.
Have you done any more movies lately?
I did a movie, it’s called I Can Only Imagine, and it’s about this band called MercyMe, a Christian band. It’s about Bart Miller, who wrote the song, “I Can Only Imagine,” that was a huge hit for them, and I play their manager in the movie, and Dennis Quaid plays his father. It was cool to be able to sit with Dennis Quaid.
I just finished another western called Abilene with Luke Hemsworth. That’ll come out this year. So I just keep doing it when I get those opportunities and have fun doing it.