Photo: KRISTIN BARLOWE
Trace Adkins On His New Star-Studded Album 'The Way I Wanna Go,' Bantering With Blake Shelton & Celebrating 25 Years In Music
When touring came to a halt in March 2020 due to COVID-19, Trace Adkins faced the most leisure time he's experienced since launching his career 25 years ago with his debut project Dreamin' Out Loud. Rather than taking it easy, he focused on a myriad of projects, including filming three movies and heading into the studio to create his 25-song album, The Way I Wanna Go, due out Aug. 27 via Verge Records.
"We started recording for the album in 2019. Then COVID came along last year and we just kept cutting [records] because there wasn't anything else to do," Adkins tells GRAMMY.com. "COVID has been horrible for everybody else. I feel guilty saying this, but for me, it was awesome. It was one of the most productive years of my life."
It wasn't just one of the most productive, but also one of his most collaborative years, too. The album features music with Adkins' country star pals including Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton as well as collaborations with Melissa Etheridge, Keb' Mo', Pitbull and Snoop Dogg; Stevie Wonder even contributes harmonica. It also features Adkins' signature, deep baritone at its finest.
"This is the first record that I've made that I wasn't gigging at the same time that I was making the record," Adkins says.
"In the past, I would come in off the road on a Sunday, rest a couple of days, then go to the studio. Doing this record, I was going in the studio with weeks of vocal rest. My producer, Mickey Jack Cones, who has been working with me for like 15 years, said, 'I've never heard your voice this strong. It's better than it's ever been.' I've never had an opportunity to make a record where my voice was rested. I think it shows in the vocals on this record, and it's probably the best record I've ever made. If it's the last record I ever make, then it was a good one to go out on."
GRAMMY.com caught up with the "Where the Country Girls At" singer about his epic new album, The Way I Wanna Go, his return to touring and what his career bucket list still holds.
You have a surprising range of collaborators on this album.
That was my producers, Mickey and Derek George, coming up with these ideas. Some of them, I thought, "That's crazy." Like, Snoop's not going to do a record with me. But they said, "Well, we're going to reach out to him and see," and these people said yes.
You collaborate with Melissa Etheridge on "Love Walks Through The Rain." Looking back over your discography, you've only recorded one other duet with a female artist on your albums—with Colbie Caillat. What drew you to working with Melissa?
It's hard for me to do duets with females because my voice is so low. It takes a particular kind of voice to blend with my voice, and Melissa's is perfect. I've never sang with a female that blended with my voice, the way her voice blends with mine. We felt this song lended itself to a duet. She recorded her vocal part and sent it to us and it just killed me, absolutely killed me. It was perfect.
"Memory to Memphis" features Keb' Mo' and harmonica from Stevie Wonder. How did that come about?
Keb' and I have known each other for years. I met him at an awards show one night, I can't even recall now which one it was. He told me that he was a fan of mine. I said, "I can't believe that. Wow. GRAMMY Award-winning Keb' Mo' likes my stuff."
That was a huge feather in my bonnet, so to speak. We've been threatening to record together for years—he lives here in Nashville. We finally got around to working together. This was the perfect song for Keb' to do, that Delta blues sounding kind of thing.
The Stevie Wonder thing happened just by accident. My attorney in New York represents Stevie. We sent him an advanced copy of the album, he heard that song and thought, "Oh wow, I'm going to play that for Stevie. I think he'd like the song." Stevie said he wanted to play harmonica on it, and of course, I loved that. I wish he would've sang on it, but he played harmonica and that was more than I could've ever asked for.
You co-wrote "If I Was a Woman," and brought in Blake Shelton to sing on it. This song previously appeared on the deluxe version of your album Proud To Be Here. You and Blake have a long history, with your previous collaboration "Hillbilly Bone" earning a GRAMMY nomination.
Blake had to do it with me, because I would've beat him up if he wouldn't have done it. Somebody should have videoed that day we went to the studio together—I wish I had it for posterity's sake because we laughed so much. I can't even believe we actually got a good vocal on the song because we were laughing the whole way through it.
I wrote that song with him in mind. I wanted to do this duet with him, this back-and-forth kind of thing because that's what we're like in real life. We're always digging at each other. I talked to him on the phone this morning and that's just the way we relate to one another.
There's plenty of good-natured bantering throughout the song, but especially at the end.
That was all just off the cuff. We had to choose what kind of banter we put in there, because it was endless. Probably the stuff that is the funniest, we couldn't even put it on the record.
You have co-written some of your own hit songs, such as "There's a Girl in Texas" and "The Rest of Mine." You co-wrote two tracks on this album. What is your writing process like?
Honestly, I've become such a lazy songwriter. I had a hand in a lot of songs on this record, but my name doesn't appear as a writer because I will get a hook or melody stuck in my head. Then I think, "Okay, whose wheelhouse is this in?" I've been in this town so long now and have so many world-class songwriter friends, like Monty Criswell, who wrote a lot on this record. I'll call him and go, "Okay man, here's the idea. Here's the melody and the groove." We're friends, we've known each other for decades. Then a couple of weeks later, I get the song and it feels like I wrote it.
I don't always enjoy the process of hammering out a song. I love when a song idea is so clear and so obvious, that it's finished in 30 minutes or an hour. I don't like those songs that take multiple meetings to hammer it out. I'm being honest in saying that, it's just not something that I enjoy too much anymore. But I love hanging out and going fishing with my writer friends—we write songs like that, too.
You have often released songs that honor military members and veterans, such as "Arlington" and "Still a Soldier." You do that on this project with "Empty Chair," about a group of military veterans who meet at a coffee shop. What do you recall about hearing that song for the first time?
It slayed me. You can just visualize the lyrics. It's one of those songs that you don't have to really have a video, because you can see it as you listen to the lyrics. Every small town in this country has, hopefully, that little diner—I know my hometown did—where those guys can meet every morning, have a cup of coffee and solve the world's problems. It's a beautiful song. I'm so fortunate that I got to cut that.
The title track, "The Way I Wanna Go," feels like an anthem of your life perspective.
It encompasses everything that I would want to say, if that was the last song that I ever recorded. I'm going to go out the way I want to go out. Nobody's going to show me to the door. Nobody's running me off. My fans aren't going to allow you to cancel me or run me off. They allow me the freedom to say what I want to say, and sing what I want to sing. That's a beautiful place to be.
You are slated to join Blake on his Friends and Heroes Tour this month.
We hope. I mean, the way things are getting now with COVID—they canceled shows in D.C. and Philadelphia, so I wouldn't be surprised if more happens, but who knows.
How are you and your team handling COVID precautions out on the road?
Fortunately, we haven't run into any problems in that respect. I don't worry about it. I'm still doing meet and greets. I don't even really think about it. I mean, if you think I'm irresponsible for conducting myself in that manner, oh well, that's just how I live my life. I'm not going to live in fear. I'm not going to worry about that stuff. You can be scared if you want to, but I'm not going to worry about it. It's been proven that I'm hard to kill.
In addition to making this album, you worked on three movies over the past year or so, including Apache Junction, which releases September 24.
I worked on Apache Junction and the day after I left the set in March 2020, they shut down production because of COVID. They didn't get to finish it for a while, that's why it took so long for that movie to get done. It was a Western and I'm pretty much relegated to playing cowboys or bikers.
You also played a music manager in 2018's I Can Only Imagine.
Yeah, every now and then I get to play something different. I did a shark movie a month or so ago. I'll look at the script and if it's something that I think I can do believably, I'll do it. With acting, I really get a kick out of it.
When people ask me why I do movies, I tell 'em it's because my favorite days in the music industry are still the days when I'm in the studio with these incredibly talented musicians, and we take this raw piece of material and hopefully turn it into something beautiful—that's what it's like to be on a movie set. You're surrounded by these incredibly talented people. Everybody there is bringing their creative best to the set. I'm going to keep doing it as long as somebody will let me.
Are there other types of music projects you still want to make?
I still want to do a crooner record. I want to do a gospel record. There's still a lot of projects I want to do.
What is your dream movie role?
A mute gunfighter that gets all the girls. I don't have to learn any lines.