Trace Adkins’ debut album, ‘Dreamin’ Out Loud’ was one of the first Country albums I ever bought, back in the murky depths of 1996, alongside ones from Garth Brooks and Mindy McCready, so he and I have a long history together. Adkins has had a long & often turbulent career, mirroring many of the Country greats: losing loved ones, painful divorce, alcoholism, rehab, reality TV appearances and public fights. It would also be fair to say that the quality of his output has declined as the number of miles on his clock has increased. Current album, ‘Something’s Going On’, his first project for Wheelhouse Records, a division of the powerful Broken Bow Records, then, is something of a do-over, a reset and a third second chance for Adkins to re-capture some of the early promise and quality he showed on songs like ‘Every Light In The House Is On’ or ‘Big Time’.
This whole project seems like a fresh start for the singer who was inducted into the Opry way back in 2003 but who won’t be familiar to many of the current crop of new Country fans raised on the likes of Thomas Rhett and Sam Hunt, but let’s get one thing straight – Adkins is something akin to Country royalty, and whilst he has made some seriously bad choices with songs over the years he deserves some respect and a fresh crack in a genre that seemed to have left him behind. He also has a live set of greatest hits that would get any self-respecting Country fan shaking their badonkadonk!
Adkins benefits from the fact that there are 28 different writers credited with input on ‘Something’s Going On’, so there is literally something for everyone on here. Tasteful, mature and reflective songs will appeal to an audience, like me, that has aged alongside him. ‘Jesus and Jones’ and, particularly, ‘Watered Down’ give us a singer in a better, wiser frame of mind. Not excusing or running away from his ‘wilder’ past but able now to understand the choices he made and still look forward to a future where he still has something left to give. ‘Watered Down’ benefits from that Shane McAnally touch that purists like Saving Country Music detest but those of us who accept the genre is a broader church these days, enjoy. “We still love our whiskey,” Adkins sings, “but now it’s just a little watered down.”
Penultimate song on the album, ‘Whippoorwhills and Freight Trains’, inhabits that same territory. Reflective yet redemptive, Adkins told Rolling Stone Magazine, ”It’s a beautiful metaphor for that pain that wakes you up in the middle of the night. The guy is lamenting that but saying ‘I’m past that now.’ In that context ‘….Freight Trains’ could be the poster child for the whole album. It could have been recorded anytime between 1996 and now, having that timeless Adkins baritone and electric guitar backing. Similarly, final track, ‘Hang’ echoes the same sentiments and music lineage. Tasteful electric guitars, reflective lyrics and catchy, sing along melodies that any Country fan, irrespective of their age or experience, would enjoy.
No Trace Adkins album is going to be complete with some bigger, louder, brasher moments. These have proved tricky for Adkins before in the past – veering into cringy territory and attracting vague accusations of misogyny on tracks like ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’. The party songs on ‘Something’s Going On’ are still loud and brash but steer clear of anything controversial. ‘Lit’ is a drinking song that could have come from any of his previous albums – a timeless up-tempo song designed to get people on their feet with a big chorus that screams 90’s Country classic – it will appeal to fans of classic Blake Shelton but maybe not to fans who haven’t listened to anything that pre-dates Luke Bryan or Dierks Bentley. ‘Country Boy Problems’ has the same issue – a classic Country rock song, a fist in the air, stomping boots on the grass, type of song that will appeal to fans of classic Country, inhabiting that middle ground between the troubadours of yesteryear and the pop acts of today – a sub section of the genre that doesn’t actually have a lot of representation these days.
Adkins has always released songs with a darker tone. My favourite song of his in that vein is ‘This Ain’t No Thinkin’ Thing’ from his debut in 1996. The title track, ‘Something’s Going On’ could be ‘..Thinkin’ Thing’’s long lost cousin. Darker, slower and seductive, it suits his deep baritone voice and the ‘sexy times’ nature of the lyrics are just about age appropriate for a guy in his 50’s. One of the stronger tracks on the album and another one that has a timeless quality. Similarly, ‘Still a Soldier’ fits in that mould too. Polished radio-friendly guitars chug the song along in a pleasant way whilst Adkins sings about the pride of a veteran who is ready and willing to take up arms anytime he is needed. There is a definite commercial sheen to this song that could see it released to radio – where the tub-thumping nationalism of the lyrics would play well with the heartland folks of middle America.
‘Gonna Make You Miss Me’ has also been produced with radio in mind. This one, the catchiest song on the album, leaves me in two minds whenever I listen to it. On one hand it’s as catchy as hell and Adkins knows it, he even sings, “I’m gonna make a memory, that’s gonna makes you miss me, you won’t be able to get me out of your head, like one of those catchy little Taylor Swift songs.” Yet on the other hand it feels contrived, a throw away piece of fluff that doesn’t quite sit amongst the other, more reflective songs, sung by a guy espousing how great life is on the ‘backside of 40’. (Aside, Adkins is in his 50’s now!) I suspect Wheelhouse had a hand in making sure this one was included on the album – it will be interesting to see whether Adkins includes it in his live set or whether it’s on here so that he can record the type of song, like ‘Watered Down’ or ‘Whippoorwhills and Freight Trains’ that he really feels is reflective of where he is right now but won’t necessarily sell a million downloads to frat boys or tan legged Juliets.
‘Something’s Going On’ is not perfect but then not many albums are. It is, however, a triumphant return for Adkins – full of a quality and an assurance that has been missing from much of his recent work. Long-time fans will find much here to enjoy whilst new fans, looking for something with a little more depth than much of what is in the Country charts these days might be surprised with what they find. This is 90’s classic Country rock given a modern polish by a singer who has had his fair share of good and bad times. Adkins now has a wisdom and a perspective worth listening to, and as long as Wheelhouse aren’t expecting him to be selling out arenas and breaking download records, they might well benefit from Adkins’ ability to resonate with older fans who want more than ‘Body Like a Back Road’ type shenanigans. We still do like our whiskey, it’s true – it’s just we might take it now a little watered down!
James Daykin (@rockjames)