Trace Adkins will not play the blame game. The country singer, who endured a two-year stretch of bad press that included a fight on a cruise ship, a wobbly concert and a divorce from his wife of 16 years, owns each one of his missteps – many of them brought on by a past problem with alcohol.
In a town and industry where drinking can be part of doing business, it'd be easy to say, "Nashville made me do it." But Adkins won't bite.
"I'm not one of those guys that says that there are any outside circumstances, or influences, or powers that can make me do anything. If I drink, it'll be because I want to drink," says Adkins, who checked into rehab in 2001 and again in 2014. "It wasn't because I felt tempted or pressured."
Indeed it's hard to imagine the imposing Adkins being pressured to do anything. Seated backstage at the Grand Ole Opry – he became a member in 2003 – his large frame commands the dressing room.
"I don't feel the need to [drink] because of the industry or the business I'm in. It's got nothing to do with that," he says. "That's all on me."
Adkins is now sober and in visibly fine shape. He's also refocused on his music and, with his new LP Something's Going On, has released his strongest album in years. The record is a collection of 12 age-appropriate songs (there's no "Brown Chicken Brown Cow," Adkins' unfortunate 2011 single, here) and is also his first for Broken Bow Records, where he signed in 2015.
The project's lead single, the fantastic ballad "Watered Down," dovetails with exactly where the 55-year-old is in his life. Written by Matt Jenkins, Trevor Rosen and Shane McAnally, the soul-searching lyrics, which address being on the "backside of 40," immediately resonated with Adkins. (Watch him perform "Watered Down" on NBC's Today below.)
"I couldn't say backside of 50, because it didn't rhyme," he quips. "It's true, I'm on the backside of 40, but, hell, man, I'm not going to hide it. Someone asked me the other day if I felt like maybe I was moving into an elder statesman role and, yeah, I dig it. I'm glad I've been around enough that someone might look at me like that."
When he was still coming up in the business, the famously deep-voiced Adkins looked to Buck Owens that way. And the pioneer of the Bakersfield Sound gave him some advice – albeit backhanded.
"He sat me down and said, 'Trace, that low note you can hit, you need to do that in every song that you record, because that's really all you got going for you,'" recalls Adkins. "He was as serious as a heart attack. I said, 'Ok, Buck, I'll keep that in mind.'"
On the album standout "Whippoorwills and Freight Trains," Adkins puts Owens' tip to use, burying the final note of the song's chorus. "I thought, 'This is for Buck,'" he says.
The song is representative of what Adkins does best: moving ballads that play well on radio while nodding to country music's roots. Hank Williams sang often about those lonesome whippoorwills and trains.
"It's a beautiful metaphor for that pain that wakes you up in the middle of the night. This guy, he's lamenting about that, but at the same time, he's like, 'I'm past that now. It doesn't wake me up anymore,'" Adkins says of the character he inhabits in the song.
To those outside country music, Adkins may be best known as an actor (he starred opposite Mark Wahlberg in last year's Deepwater Horizon) or for his time on reality TV: he won Donald Trump's All-Star Celebrity Apprentice in 2013. But even he can't figure out what motivates the current President of the United States.
"People asked me 18 months ago, 'Do you think he's going to run?' No way. And I was wrong. When he got in [the race] I said, 'He'll just fool around a little while, stir things up and get out.' I was wrong again. If nothing else, he is unpredictable," says Adkins, who offers that Trump was utterly cordial to him during the competition. "He's always been good to me. I've got no problems with the man."
While it may not necessarily be a kinder, gentler Adkins – he appears to relish how intimidating he can be in person – the Louisiana native seems to not have issues with anything at this point. Even if it means taking a stab at more pop-oriented songs like the Something's Going On track "Gonna Make You Miss Me." It reminded Adkins of a Taylor Swift song, he says, and he ad-libbed a name-check to the superstar prior to recording. "The thing with most of the songs written today," he says, "it's not that I can't sing those things, it's just the lyrics are too young."
So to Adkins, is age really just a number?
"Ask Keith Richards," he growls.