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With a new hit that's making women - and their men - smile, and an incredible 2003 under his belt, Trace Adkins is on a serious roll

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"It's been a great year," declares Trace Adkins in a huge understatement as he looks back over a 2003 that saw him emerge from an alcohol treatment facility in great shape and release his two fastest-selling albums ever (Greatest Hits Collection, Vol. 1 and his current release, Comin' on Strong).

Trace also became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and has seen his career finally reach the star status most people expected him to achieve years ago.

"I've got a lot to be thankful for, and to celebrate," he admits. "I'm singin' better than ever and it's been the busiest year I've had since '97 when we came out and hit it hard. But I'm just one of those kinda guys - I believe you've gotta strike while the iron's hot, you know? You've gotta make the most of it."

His sizzling current Top 20 single, "Hot Mama," is helping him do that. It's a tune that takes a mature look at relationships and lets women know they don't have to look like they did when they were 17 to be sexy.

"I've heard from a lot of women saying thanks," declares Trace. "They love it. And I've had a lot of guys tell me, 'Thanks for that song. I've been wantin' to tell my wife, "Give it a rest, Honey. I think you look great." ' It's been a cool song for us."

The video ain't bad, either. It features Lisa Ligon, the former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who helped turn up the heat in Trace's "Chrome" video. And just how many times will she grace his videos before Trace has a little explaining to do at home to wife Rhonda?

"I don't know," he says with a laugh. "It might be interesting to find out how many times I can get away with that!

"But it's torturous," he jokes about working with such a beautiful video co-star. "I just don't know if I could take it again. Seriously, she's just a dream - a total pro. And she's smart and she's sweet. And then tack beautiful onto that. She's a joy to work with."

If Trace isn't careful, "Mama" and some of the other songs on the CD might just temper his "man's man" image with a touch of romance. But is he a romantic guy in his personal life?

"I would suppose that depends on who you ask," he chuckles. "I would say, yeah, I kinda try to be romantic. And Rhonda would probably say that I don't try at all! But you know, we have a wonderful marriage and a great relationship. And it's based on friendship.

"We started out bein' friends and we're still friends. And then love has just continued to grow. That's the ultimate. Some people never find that person, but I was lucky."

Trace also considers himself fortunate to have found the songs for his current CD. They deal with adult themes and mature subject matter and, in many ways, paint the story of his life. And it's not always a pretty picture. The haunting "One Nightstand," about a man sitting with a gun and a bible, trying to decide which one will end his misery over his failed relationship, is a case in point.

"I've been there," he confesses quietly. "With a .357 and a fifth of Cuervo. I was goin' through my first divorce when that happened, and you know ... they were tough times. I can sing that one with conviction."

Another song that truly moves Trace is "Missing You," the story of a man missing his woman as he works on an offshore oil rig, the way Trace once did.

"That's really my favorite song on this album," he declares. "I've lived it. That song is the one on the album that just breaks my heart. It makes me cry when I listen to that one."

Yep, there definitely is a romantic heart inside that big, strong former roughneck. But how does he show it at home?

"You know, after you've been married for several years, sometimes just washin' the dishes without bein' told to is really romantic," he laughs. " 'I appreciate you pickin' up your clothes after you took 'em off last night - thanks!'

"I've found if you set the bar low enough for yourself, it's not hard to reach it every now and then.

"And, man, when I need to, I can jump and fly over that bar!"

-- Story by David Scarlett