Despite a 16-year run of blockbuster hits, a handful of Grammy nominations and a personal history that reads like a country singer stereotype, Trace Adkins insists that he’s not out to represent country music.
He’s been shot in the heart by an ex-wife (literally), worked offshore on an oil rig and got his chance at stardom when an industry bigwig heard him playing in a Nashville, Tenn., club.
Since getting his break in 1996, Adkins has built his fame through songs about fast cars, pretty women, God and family. If there’s a paradox in kneeling in church on Sunday morning before watching the NASCAR race over a 12-pack later in the afternoon, Adkins embraces it fully.
Love him or leave him, Trace Adkins embodies the red-blooded American country star. He doesn’t hesitate to follow up a song about the honor of dying for your country (“Arlington”) with one about his love for a woman’s rear end (“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”).
“I don’t have an official card or anything that says I’m a standard-bearer,” Adkins said over the phone from his tour bus in Colorado in an interview with Charleston Scene. “I’d just assume not be able to say that some of these things have happened to me. But scars give you character.”
Raised in rural northwest Louisiana, Adkins grew up on gospel music, farming and football. After leaving Louisiana Tech University, he took a job working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1994, he survived being shot by his first wife, the mother of the first two of his five daughters. Despite a bullet through both lungs and his heart, Adkins’ trajectory was set.
“I’d moved to Nashville in ’92, and I was working construction,” Adkins recalls. “I put together a little garage band — I’d been playing clubs in Texas and New Mexico for four or five years prior — so I started playing a weekend thing. Nashville’s all about meeting people and making the right acquaintances, so it took a while; about three years.”
Two years after surviving a bullet, his 1996 debut, “Dreamin’ Out Loud,” went certified platinum on the strength of hit singles “Every Light in the House,” “There’s a Girl in Texas” and “I Left Something Turned on at Home.”
With his 6-foot-6-inch frame and long blond ponytail under a black cowboy hat, Adkins immediately established himself as a fixture on mainstream country radio with every release that followed, including 2001’s “Chrome” and 2005’s “Songs About Me.”
“Songs about loving and living/and good hearted women and family and God,” Adkins sings on the latter disc’s title track. “Songs about scars and cars and broken hearts.”
Everything that people either loathe or love about modern country music is likely to be present on an Adkins album.
His latest release, 2011’s “Proud to Be Here,” features the singles “Million Dollar View” (about how the view of his home and wife is better than any exotic locale) and “Just Fishin’ ” (about bonding with his young daughter over a fishing trip). There’s even a patriotic ballad, “Semper Fi,” to close the disc.
Adkins doesn’t write the vast majority of his songs, and he’s got a stable of full-time songwriters in Nashville who write directly for his persona.
“I know all these guys, being around Nashville for so long,” Adkins said. “They all know what I’m about, so when they know that I’m about to make a new album, they just shamelessly write songs for me and put them right in my face.”
For his summer tour, Adkins decided to take a step back from headlining arenas and create a more intimate experience for his fans.
Dubbed the “Songs and Stories Tour,” his full band is playing theaters and smaller venues, with frequent pauses between songs to offer anecdotes and inspiration behind particular songs.
It’s the first time Adkins has played an extensive theater tour in his career, an experience he likens to gathering around a campfire and swapping songs.
“The show goes down at a different tempo,” explains Adkins. “It’s not as in-your-face ... as the arena show.”
The format allows for flexibility, including set lists that vary night-to-night. Fans are encouraged to submit song requests and shout-outs via Twitter, which Adkins personally checks and responds to from his tour bus.
After undergoing knee surgery in January, the star took the time to learn how Twitter works, taking over tweeting duties from his publicist.
“I just started looking at it and figured, ‘This could be fun,’ ” laughs Adkins. “I’ve put some pretty crazy things on there. Sometimes it’s better than twiddling your thumbs. I spend a lot of time on the bus, and there’s only so much news you can watch.”
Part of the fun for Adkins and fans has been revisiting requested cuts from early albums that he hadn’t played in more than a decade.
“There are songs we haven’t done in 10 years that some of the hard-core fans are going back to with their requests,” Adkins said. “We’ve had to go back and relearn two or three of them.”
Outside of generating one country hit after another, Adkins has built his fame through his willingness to take on projects ranging from cartoon voiceovers to unexpected sit-ins.
Classic rocker Meat Loaf’s latest album includes a song, “Stand in the Storm,” that features Adkins sharing guest vocals with rocker Mark McGrath and rapper Lil Jon.
“It’s bizarre, isn’t it?” jokes Adkins, who met Meat Loaf at a Grammy event a few years before. “It was fun. I enjoyed that whole thing.”
Adkins also gave voice to the character Elvin on the cartoon sitcom “King of the Hill,” and in 2008, he made it to the final two before losing to Piers Morgan on “Celebrity Apprentice.”
In 2007, Adkins authored a book of political and social commentary, “A Personal Stand: Observations and Opinions from a Freethinking Roughneck,” crossing lines of political correctness that he typically avoids touching from stage. (He notably compared the war on terror to being stricken with herpes: “It’s not going to kill you. You can live with it. It’s going to flare up and cause you a problem from time to time.”)
In addition to being a published author, Adkins has had roles in several feature films, including “The Lincoln Lawyer” in 2011.
In April, he even garnered his own line of sausages, manufactured by Hightower’s Country Smoked Sausage, a family-owned company near his hometown in Louisiana.
“It’s a north Louisiana, northeast Texas regional kind of thing,” explains Adkins, adding that anyone can order his sausage online. “That old man (Marvin Hightower) has been making sausage there since 1972. He knows what he’s doing.”
From Meat Loaf to sausage, Trace Adkins’ varied ventures have given him a life he could never have expected as a small-town boy.
“I would never have allowed myself to dream this big,” Adkins said of imagining his life now as a child. “I just look at every year that goes by without having to fill out a job application as another victory.”