january 2009

Hello, Toby. Hello, Dierks. This is Trace.Whatta Ya Think Of Me Now?

By David McGee

Trace Adkins: On top, and planning to stay there

Trace Adkins
Capitol Nashville

In the world of brawny baritone country belters, Trace Adkins helps form a ruling triumvirate with his contemporaries Toby Keith and Dierks Bentley. All three have new albums either out (Keith and Adkins) or on the way (Bentley, in February), an unusual celestial convergence that has produced two exemplary long players thus far. Whereas Bentley can go off in a rootsy direction with acoustic instruments and a little bluegrass burst from time to time, Keith and Adkins stick with panoramic, electrified settings, working on a large scale and expressing outsized emotions. These are men with a sure sense of themselves as artists, and they don't play games with their artistry. So X has plenty of thundering, pounding drums and howling guitars supporting Adkins's expressive, rumbling baritone along with the expected dollop of suggestive humor and rocking badonkadonk frivolity. But it has its serious side, too, complete with strings and even a choir, and quiet, reflective moments that allow Adkins to express his sensitivity. Unlike Keith and Bentley, Adkins's voice is supplied by other writers, but he's a compelling interpreter, effectively personalizing his source material into a statement reflecting his values and agenda.

The start is prototypical Adkins—"Sweet" kicks off the disc with a roar, the singer emerging from the screaming guitars and gut-punching percussion to extol the virtues of a gal he's pretty sure his mother wouldn't approve of, given her navel piercings and other exotic trappings; but there's a subtext to Adkins's vocal that lets you know he knows she's bad news, but he's going to enjoy the ride for as long as it's going somewhere good. Dedicated family man that he's become, Trace gets down to business on the second track, with the first of several cuts honoring the stable, centering forces in his life. "Happy To Be Here" is a celebratory, hard charging exultation of all the good things his woman has brought to him, and it's followed by a solemn hum of strings ahead of a soft-picked acoustic guitar, an evocative piano line, even a lightly plucked mandolin (courtesy the estimable Aubrey Haynie) introducing "All I Ask For Anymore," a deeply felt ballad beseeching God to protect his family while he's at work; as the song unfolds, so does the music, opening up verse by verse in intensity until it's a full-blown power ballad by the time the bridge comes around. The lusty side of the relationship gets an appraisal or two as well. A rich B3 and some sweet steel lines set the funky ambiance for "Let's Do That Again," which concerns precisely what you think it concerns, from lips meeting to "skin on skin," and Adkins employs his most affecting lower register come-on in expressing his yearnings, with a little atmospheric assist from Pat Buchanan's suggestive harp lines. In the same way that "All I Ask For Anymore" and "Happy To Be Here" complement each other in sentiment and setting, so do "Let's Do That Again" and the song immediately following it, the frenzied southern rocker, "Hauling One Thing." This latter's about a long-haul trucker who's unhitched and heading home in a lusty fury, "only hauling one thing" in his single-minded focus to get back to his woman. The music surges relentlessly, with Adkins giving the double-edged lyrics a determined, suggestive reading as an electric guitar interjects spitfire solos along the way that underscore the man's insatiable longing.

A compelling interpreter, effectively personalizing his source material into a statement reflecting his values and agenda

And yet—and yet—Adkins engages almost an equal number of songs depicting the bittersweet side of a relationship's demise. To these he brings a macabre sense of humor (one supposes a man whose second wife shot him in the heart and lungs is entitled to a macabre sense of humor, at the very least), as in "Better Than I Thought It Would Be," which he describes on disc as "a little funkabilly" as the song sputters and jukes out of the gate. The title refers to life post-breakup, and like "Hauling One Thing" it works on multiple levels. In this case he recounts waking up alone, eating cold pizza, drinking solo, "lonesome and blue/all tore up over you." But true to the song's rather upbeat rhythmic pace, at the end, after cataloging all his miseries, Adkins reveals why he might not be as devastated as his litany of hardships suggests. "You know what else is better than I thought?" he queries triumphantly as the song winds down. "Your sister!" Nice recovery, Trace. Starting off as a down-home acoustic country blues outing, "Marry For Money" begins with a verse recalling how the singer, upon being dumped by the gal of his dreams, learned the lesson summarized in the song title. As the music breaks into a hard rocking strut, Adkins fairly frolics in his vow to find a rich woman—"I don't care if she's ugly"—and to enjoy the good life at her expense, the obvious moral being that living well is the best revenge, this from a man who's clearly in revenge mode. On the other hand, there's neither revenge nor sardonic humor at work in the surging ballad, "I Can't Outrun You," an alternately quiet and anguished recounting of a man's inability to escape the memory of his old flame. It stays resolutely downcast, even when the gospel-flavored piano (that could be Gordon Mote, and it sounds like Gordon Mote, but Jim "Moose" Brown is also at the 88s on some tracks) and John Catchings' mournful cello elevate the affair to a more exalted plane of pain.

There's a clever, cautionary honky tonk drinking song (one supposes a man who in this decade has been charged with and pled guilty to DUI and has spent 28 days in an alcohol rehab program is entitled to one cautionary honky tonk drinking song, at the very least), "Sometimes a Man Takes A Drink" ("sometimes a drink takes a man" goes the chorus) done in the classic style with rich pedal steel, twangy electric guitar and Sonya and Ben Isaacs lending their voices to Adkins's in keening harmonies; and the record ends with a tough, roiling cry for redemption in "Muddy Water," a man's cry to be "washed clean in amazing grace," a plea enhanced by a flood of background voices rising dramatically in unison, serpentine pedal steel riffs, rich organ hums, howling electric guitars and cannon-shot drums. The song likely to linger longest in memory has nothing in common with any other theme on the album but a whole lot in common with the temper of the times. Somber and foreboding, kicking off with fingerpicked acoustic guitar and soft, brush drums, "Til the Last Shot's Fired" chronicles the horrors of battle from the Civil War ("I was there in the winter of '64/When we camped in the ice at Nashville's door") to World War II ("I waded in the blood of Omaha's shores") to Vietnam and Afghanistan, all verses linked by a chorus praying for peace in the world ("Let us lay down our guns/sweet mother Mary we're so tired"). While implying that all of these causes were just, the message from writers Dave Turnbull and Jimmy Melton is strictly humanistic: stop the killing. Though its choruses are big and resounding, the verses amount to a thoughtful, meditative contemplation of a bloody history of human suffering. To emphasize the point, Adkins gives way at the end to West Point Cadet Glee Club, whose ensemble harmonies lend a spiritual quality, and an urgency, to the poignant chorus. Adkins has always been forthright about his feelings on matters political and cultural (as set down in his 2007 book, A Personal Stand: Observations and Opinions from a Freethinking Roughneck, now available in paperback), but he has never been as eloquent as he is in the five minutes in which he brings vivid life to the lyrics of Turnbull and Mellon by refraining from any dramatic embellishment. In not calling attention to himself, in a sense, but in respecting the integrity of the song he explains everything about how he's landed on top and how he plans to stay there.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024