[17 January 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
As if mandated by federal law, nearly every article about Jamey Johnson’s The Guitar Song has mentioned that Johnson co-wrote “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” for Trace Adkins. One of Adkins’s best-known hits, “Badonkadonk” shows off his goofy side. Adkins’s new two-disc compilation, The Definitive Greatest Hits: Til the Last Shot’s Fired, sums up his time on Capitol Records (he’s now on Toby Keith’s Show Dog label), and roughly a third of its songs are played for laughs. “Badonkadonk” kicks everything off with a strutting chunk-rock beat, a smack-your-grandma-simple guitar riff, and the eternal question, “How’d she even get them britches on?” It’s some kind of art.
Adkins is one of country radio’s most reliable purveyors of novelties and just-plain-funny songs because he delivers them all straight. Where a nitwit like Rodney Atkins (“Farmer’s Daughter”) cloys for our good will, Adkins’s funny songs barely deign to wink at us, and sometimes they make him sound a little intimidating. We can chalk this up to three factors:
1. Trace Adkins’s funny songs are all about the delirious joy of being Trace Adkins;
2. He knows how to exploit the low end of his range for comic effect;
3. He can rock harder than most rockers.
When Adkins croaks out the rapped verses of “Chrome” (the “favorite color” of a lady he admires), or wraps his tongue around the various pick-up lines and baseball metaphors of “Swing”, you can savor the pure physical pleasure of his voice right along with him. Also infectious are the braggadocio of “Ladies Love Country Boys” and “I Got My Game On” (two other Johnson co-writes), and the giddy horndoggerel of his early hit “I Left Something Turned On at Home”. (Hint: it’s not an appliance.)
Adkins is a good enough singer that he can convincingly deliver dramatic showstoppers, too. His two military odes, “Arlington” and “Til the Last Shot’s Fired”, are moving precisely because they’re not jingoistic screeds of the type favored by Darryl Worley (“Have You Forgotten?”). Rather, they’re plainspoken soldier songs, sung with stoic restraint and accompanied with a refreshing lack of bombast. Or at least “Arlington” is. “Last Shot” starts off as a simple prayer for peace, and then balloons into a time-traveling war fantasia, complete with a well-enunciated contribution from the West Point Cadet Choir. Sort of a “serious novelty” in its country context, it’d fit in well on the latest Josh Groban album. Another serious novelty is the baptism tune “Muddy Water”, where Adkins gets dunked by the same gospel choir that lures his wife toward the bedroom in “Hot Mama”.
Ultimately, Adkins is a master of the Throw-It-At-the-Charts-and-See-What-Sticks school of country singing. He’s a master because most of his stuff sticks and he sings it with ease, even when he picks the most boilerplate ditties offered him. (Adkins co-wrote only two of these 28 songs.) His non-novelties range from forgettable (“Big Time”) to maudlin (“All I Ask For Anymore”) to actually pretty good (“Every Light In the House”). Your tolerance for this stuff may vary. Depending on your mood, generic country songs can be as satisfying or as boring as generic John Wayne movies, but they’re shorter and they create a good ambiance for getting your bake on. (Pies, smart aleck: this isn’t a Willie Nelson album.)
With the right voice and the right song, even country-by-numbers can whup you upside the head. In Adkins’s case, that number is “You’re Gonna Miss This”, his biggest pop hit and a contemplation of lost time worthy of Proust, or at least Prine. Adkins sings it with the same rueful machismo he uses to joke around, only for chills instead of laughs. As the country-convert hero of “Songs About Me” can attest, this guy knows how to make his songs speak truth, whether they’re silly or high-minded. There’s just not a whole lot he can do with the dull ones.