Trace Adkins: Man in Motion

Trace Adkins takes a cool, slow walk into a Nashville recording studio, saying nothing at first but still dominating the room. His presence is so intimidating, the walls even seem to back off a little.

“There’s the big man!” shouts one of the studio engineers, as if that description is really necessary.

After some back-slapping and a few hellos, Trace grabs a cup of coffee and gets ready for the business at hand. Though it’s a sunny morning in late April, Trace is in holiday mode, preparing to record some vocals for an upcoming Christmas album. 

It’s yet one more project for the ever-busy singer, still energetic and physically imposing at age 51. Trace released his latest album, Love Will . . . , on May 14, and at press time was very much in contention on the current season of NBC’s business competition series All-Star Celebrity Apprentice (Trace actually won!), matching wits and hairstyles with host Donald Trump. He’s also completed filming a new movie version of the classic Western The Virginian. That may seem a daunting schedule, but Trace treats it with the philosophy of a big-time gambler: He simply loves the action.

“I like when the creative stuff is happening,” Trace says in his trademark deep voice. “That’s what’s exciting to me. It gets that adrenaline going.” 

In It to Win It

Trace certainly gets the chance to put his brain and business savvy to work on Celebrity Apprentice. He served as project manager for two tasks and nearly got the boot from boss Trump due to an error that he failed to detect in a magazine ad. But he was allowed to stay, much to his relief. Trace was on board, after all, to come out a winner. He was close on his first Celebrity Apprentice stint in 2008, and vowed to give it the all-or-nothing approach when asked to make a return appearance.

“I did know what to expect this time,” Trace says. “Last time, I had no idea what I was getting into.” Trace explains that on his first go-round, he tried to play the novice card, “staying in the shadows,” as he puts it, until he was confident enough to suggest an idea. “I knew I had to approach it differently this time. I couldn’t just keep my head down and try and get a feel for everything like I did before. I stepped up from day one. I told myself that if I was going to do this, I had to be determined about it. I’m doing this to win!”

Trace will allow, however, that it took a pep talk from his wife, Rhonda, to give Apprentice another shot. As Trace settles into a studio couch, he recalls that Chuck LaBella, who handles talent relations for the show, and fellow co-conspirator Rhonda convinced him. “I’ve known Chuck for about a decade now,” Trace begins. “He was wrangling talent for Politically Incorrect, that show with Bill Maher, and I appeared on that a few times. He called me about doing Celebrity Apprentice again and I said, ‘Dude, I don’t want to do that.’ So, when I said that,” Trace adds with a wry smile, “he knew exactly what to do and he called Rhonda. It was game over after that.” 

Trace is geared to win the competition not for personal satisfaction alone. The American Red Cross, the charity he’s playing for on the show, also stands to benefit from his efforts. He touchingly remembers how the Red Cross came to his aid when his family home near Nashville was destroyed by a fire in 2011. “The Red Cross was right on the scene, right behind the first responders,” he says. “They respond to over 70,000 house fires a year, and I was ashamed of myself that I didn’t know that. You always think of natural disasters like floods or storms when you think of the Red Cross, but they respond to fires every single day.” The organization’s trained volunteers proved a calming influence on Rhonda the day of the tragic fire. “They take you aside and ask you these very important questions,” says Trace, who was out of town the day the tragedy hit. “They asked Rhonda things like if she had her driver’s license, her keys, any medications. Those are things you’re not thinking of in that situation because it is so upsetting. Rhonda told me later how much it meant to her to have a trained person at the scene. They made the situation a little easier to deal with.” 

During one episode, Trace did his part for the American Red Cross by raising nearly $600,000 from one of his team’s projects. That came into play in a later segment in which project manager Brande Roderick (Baywatch) was dismissed by The Donald. Trace demanded that Mr. Trump send Brande home with a lovely parting gift, namely money for her charity, because she had done so well on the previous task that helped the Red Cross. “I felt bad for her,” Trace, ever the team player, explains. “I felt like I hadn’t contributed to our project very much. I feel bad when somebody loses and I didn’t help them enough.”

Trace embraced all of his fellow contestants, but developed a particularly close bond with illusionist/comedian/author Penn Jillette. While not one to go overboard on compliments, Trace nonetheless calls Penn “absolutely brilliant” and an overall fascinating character. “He’s a musician, too,” Trace says. “Not a lot of people know that. He plays bass and he’s like a musical encyclopedia on top of that. And he knows everybody in the entertainment world. Penn and I just hit it off from the get-go.”  

Whatever the final outcome, Trace feels comfortable with his return to All-Star Celebrity Apprentice. “I don’t regret the decision at all,” he says candidly. “It’s kind of hard to watch myself on the show because I start to pick things apart. If it weren’t for the charitable aspect,” he adds, “I wouldn’t have done it.” 

Out of the Comfort Zone

Trace will admit, though, that the brainstorming sessions Apprentice provides get the juices flowing. As unbusinesslike as he may appear, generally garbed in T-shirts that display his cannonball pecs, Trace does possess a sense for business, if not exactly a love for it. 

“It doesn’t really excite me to do marketing and I wouldn’t want to be in business for a living,” Trace begins. “But it’s fun to sit around and brainstorm and get that creative thing happening. It’s not unlike what I do already. You know, we sit around and pick songs and plan recording sessions, things like that. You’re constantly around creative people and trying to come up with interesting stuff, so doing Apprentice was not that foreign to me.” 

Trace is also drawn to the challenges that television and films throw his way. The outsized character, who seems tailor-made for the big screen, has appeared in movies such as The Lincoln Lawyer and An American Carol, and looks forward to the release of The Virginian. “I was in Canada for a couple weeks doing that,” Trace recalls. “I’ll be interested to see how it comes out. I’ve seen the original movie with Gary Cooper and I remember the old TV series. One thing that the director told me was that the version we just did was actually closer to the book. I haven’t read it,” Trace says, smiling, “so I really wouldn’t know.” The release format, whether theatrical or DVD, has yet to be announced. 

“Basically, I like getting out of my comfort zone,” Trace says, “and that’s why I enjoy doing movies and being on television. That’s how you grow and keep things interesting. It’s exhilarating, you know?”

All About the Love

Love Will . . . , Trace’s latest album, speaks to all the various properties of our favorite subject: love. But it didn’t start out with that concept. Trace had an album set for release late last year, until All-Star Celebrity Apprentice came beckoning.

“With the filming of the show, there was no way I would have been able to do any kind of promotional stuff for that album,” Trace says. “So we delayed the release. In the meantime, I started listening to the album again and I thought that now that we have more time, let’s look around and see if we can find a couple more songs.”

And upon further review, Trace began to spot a recurring theme. “I looked at the stuff on the album and it had eight love songs on it,” Trace recalls. If the team could find two or three more with the same theme, Trace reasoned, the album would consist entirely of odes to love.

“So that’s what we did,” Trace says. “I’ve never done a themed album, ever. This is a little bit of a departure for me.”

Trace enlists a number of guest vocalists for Love Will . . . , including pop singer/songwriter Colbie Caillat for the poignant “Watch the World End” and veteran band Exile on a version of their No. 1 hit “Kiss You All Over.”

Trace notes that the latter tune has remained a favorite since his teen years in Louisiana. “After football practice, we’d go to the drive-in and that song would be playing on the jukebox at least half a dozen times,” he says with a wistful grin. “It never gets old. But if I was going to do this, it had to be done with the band.”

Trace notes that “Watch the World End,” co-written by Brett Eldredge, was one of those final three songs pitched to him. “I had to do it as soon as I heard it,” he says. He heard Colbie for the backing vocal almost as instantly. “She has that soulful, sultry thing about her voice that I absolutely love and that’s what I wanted for this.”

And as showbiz trite as it may sound, Trace’s people contacted Colbie’s people and the deal was soon done. Colbie was actually in Hawaii writing for her next project, but through technology and digital wizardry, she laid down her vocals via computer and sent the files to Trace.

The album wraps with the anthemic title tune, featuring a stirring performance by the Harlem Gospel Choir. “That a cappella thing at the end is so amazing,” he says. “They did it perfectly.”

Though the album carries a particular theme, Trace cautions, “It’s not an album full of sappy love ballads. It’s not a crooner record. But it’s still me doing my thing.” 

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