Trace Adkins is maybe not quite who you might think he is.

The sometimes gruff-mannered country singer with very strong opinions can seem intimidating — especially since he's big enough to pulverize most other people with little to no effort. But underneath that vaguely threatening demeanor lies a friendly, good-natured guy who can also be a gentle giant. That was the side that came out in a recent phone interview.

Adkins is celebrating 25 years since his country music debut in 2021, and he's marking the occasion with an ambitious new album titled The Way I Wanna Go, set for release on Friday (Aug. 27). The massive collection of new songs finds the veteran country star pushing himself musically and vocally while still delivering the kind of down-home country themes and good-time party anthems that have made him a fan favorite for a quarter of a century and counting.

Adkins' new album offers a number of disparate influences and collaborations with country and non-country artists, including Blake Shelton ("If I Was a Woman"), Luke Bryan and Pitbull ("Where the Country Girls At"), Melissa Etheridge ("Love Walks Through the Rain"), Snoop Dogg ("So Do the Neighbors") and even Keb' Mo' and Stevie Wonder ("Memory to Memphis").

Both musically and personally, Adkins seems to have a newfound sense of contentment with where he is in his life. The singer married actor Victoria Pratt in 2019, and many of the songs on The Way I Wanna Go speak to themes of settling into a more fulfilled way of life.

That sense of peace also radiates clearly in Adkins' laid-back demeanor in the following interview, in which he describes the past year as "the best year of my life":

Talking about the new album, The Way I Wanna Go ... What does the title mean to you?

Well, that song — I mean, I've said before, if I didn't ever get to record another song, that'd be the one that I want to end with. It just kind of said everything that I wanted to say about my career and the way that I've done everything. It's a very important song to me, and that's the reason it's the title cut.

At what point in the process of the record did you find that song?

It was pretty early. We found that one pretty early on.

Did you recognize right away that it was going to be the anchor track?

I didn't. I wasn't really positive about that. But it was good. I knew it was gonna be tough for something else to knock it out of that position.

What's the first thing that you worked on for the album, and how many years ago is that?

The first thing that I recorded was "If I Was a Woman," that, Blake and I did that a few years ago, actually; I've never had the chance to put it on a record. And then, "It's a Good Thing I Don't Drink," I recorded that years ago, too, and I hadn't had the chance to put it on a record, so I put it on this one. But everything else we recorded last year, except for "The Way I Wanna Go." I think I recorded that in 2019. So that was one that, I had that one recorded before we started working on this record. So those are the only three that I had for it. We cut everything else last year.

This is 25 tracks, an enormous record. At what point did you decide you are going to go that route and cut so many things and put them together?

Well, I thought that's what we would do in the beginning. You know, this is 25 years — my first single came out in 1996 — so I thought, "Okay, let's just record 25 brand-new songs to commemorate 25 years," you know, and we had plenty of time to do it. I mean, there wasn't anything else to do. So we just kept cutting. We cut 27 songs, and that's where we finally quit.

So you worked all year during the pandemic? Did you have to follow all kinds of different protocols than you normally would?

I didn't, no. [Laughs]. The musicians union kind of made some of the guys toe the mark, but I didn't pay any attention to it. And I did, I think, three movies last year; we were able to do movies. You know, you just show up on the set that morning, they give you a COVID test, one of those rapid response tests, and, 15 minutes later, everybody went to work. So I was able to do that, too. So, you know, creatively, last year was the most productive year of my life.

That's the very opposite experience from so many of your contemporaries who just kind of felt locked down to a certain degree.

Yeah, well, you know, I had projects on the farm, too, that I'd been procrastinating over for years, and I got a chance to get a lot of stuff done. So, like I said, it was a productive year for me.

You've got some really, really cool collaborations on this record, extremely diverse stuff. And we've already talked about one of them. Did you already know all the people before that you collaborated with? 

I didn't know Pitbull. I did not know Melissa Etheridge — I had met her once before, but I didn't really know her. But her voice, you know ... I've done very few duets with females, and mainly because it's hard to find a female vocal that lands with mine because my voice is so deep, and her vocal is the perfect [option] ... I've never sang with a woman that had a voice that landed with mine the way hers does. It's absolutely the best. So that was a smooth move on [producer] Mickey [Jack Cones] and them's part, you know, suggesting her, and then when I thought about it, I was like, "Oh my God. Yeah. She's the perfect female vocalist for me to sing with."

The Snoop Dogg thing — I mean, Snoop owed me one. I sang on one his records a few years ago. And Keb' Mo' and I have worked together for years. I've known Keb' for a long time, and I finally ran across a song that I thought he'd absolutely destroy, and I was right. So that was good. And then Luke, you know, he's my buddy and he lives right down the road, so that's easy. And Blake, you know, he's always begging to be on my records. So I had to let him.

Stevie Wonder on harmonica, that's a name right out of left field. How did that come about?

We share an attorney, and I didn't even know. [Laughs]. I have a music business lawyer in New York, and he represents Stevie. And when he got an advance copy of the record, he heard that thing I did with Keb', and he played it for Stevie. And Stevie said, "Oh, wow, I'd love to put harmonica on that." You know, I wanted him to sing on it, but he wanted to just play the harmonica, and that's awesome. Let's go. So that's just how that happened. I mean, sometimes these things happen organically. And it's just, there's no rhyme or reason to it. But it's a beautiful thing.

This is an incredibly diverse record: There's a lot of stuff outside of just straight country, there's a lot of blues influences and some really modern elements. Was that what you intended going into it, or it just happened in selecting the material?

It's the same way that I approach every record that I've ever made. I've made no secret about it, I came to this town to make Ronnie Milsap records. And that's what I've always kind of — you know, that's the template that I go by. I've always liked the way that, from one cut to the next on a Ronnie Milsap record, you didn't know what you're gonna get. Now, it could be something like "Lost in the Fifties Tonight," and then something he would do with the Pointer Sisters, and then you do a rock song, you know, a ballad that breaks your heart, a gospel song ... You just never know. I grew up being influenced by all those different kinds of music living in Louisiana, and that's the kind of records that I wanted to make. I wanted the freedom to do that. And that's what I've always done. So this record is really no different in that respect. It's just got more songs on it.

Some people would argue that the album format itself is dying or dead, and that everything is about singles. You've doubled down on a really, really huge album here. What's your view of albums versus singles and how that works?

Well, I'm old school. You don't get to know an artist just from the singles. That's not where most artists express themselves. People have asked me before, "What's the best way to get to know you ... read your book or whatever?" And I'm like, no, listen to the album cuts. Any artist, you know, if you really want to know what makes them tick, where their heart is, listen to the album cuts, because that's where they get to express themselves. That's the way it is with me.

You're celebrating 25 years this year — pretty incredible, really, and it didn't dawn on me that it had been that long until I saw the press release about it. What has changed about the way that you approach music in that 25 years? What have you learned that you had no idea about when you came to town?

Oh, wow. I think I've just gotten better at my craft and more learned, just more experienced, and I think I'm better at my job than I've ever been. And this record, in particular, is the first time I ever had an opportunity to make a record when my voice was rested. Because even my very first record, I was still gigging. So, throughout my career, I've gone out on the road and then I've come back into town, rested a couple of days, then go into the studio and sing. This time, I was literally going into the studio with weeks of vocal rest, and it shows in the work. I think it's the best-sounding record ... Mickey Cones, who's been engineering and producing my stuff for 15 years, told me, "Man, I've never heard your voice sound this good." I said, "It's because I'm rested." And so, I think it shows in the work, especially,

Vocally, it really is a fine-sounding record, and you're singing in some pretty different ranges, too. The song with Melissa, if somebody had played that for me and not told me who it was, I would have struggled to identify it for a minute there.

I try sometimes, if I think, "Okay, this is a song that vocally should be treated this way," you know, and it's kind of like acting. Like, "Okay, this role requires this mindset and this approach," and it's the same thing: This requires this, and approach it this way. And, you know, pinch down a little bit on the voice and try to thin it out a little bit. It's just the same thing as acting, you just approach it differently.

If you could go back 25 years and tell your younger self something about the road ahead when he was first coming to town, what would you say to a younger Trace Adkins?

Just be patient. You know, this business moves at its own pace, this industry moves at the speed it's going to move at, and there's nothing you can do to change that. You know, the train's on the track, and it's going to move as fast as the engineer wants to go, and it doesn't matter whether you're pulling or pushing, it doesn't make any difference. So let things come to you at the rate they're gonna happen and try to be patient, or you're gonna drive yourself crazy.

There are quite a few songs on here that all sort of hint at the same thing as the title song, which is finding a place of satisfaction and being more comfortable in your own life. "Finding My Groove" is one of those, and there are a few others. Is that really the takeaway from this album, is that you're at a more comfortable place in your life?

I think so, man. I didn't really think about that until we were done with this. And a lot of these songs speak to where I am today. That's a song right there, ["Where I Am Today"]. "Finding My Groove," "Live It Lonely." There's so many songs on here ... "The Way I Wanna Go," the title track, there's a reason that's the title track. "It All Adds Up to Us." It's just on and on and on. I mean, it's like I wrote every track on this record.

How is your life different today than you might have envisioned it, say, five years ago?

Wow. You know, I wouldn't have thought five years ago that my best work was still ahead of me. I thought, probably, my best work was behind me. But COVID afforded me the opportunity to, like I said, go in the studio with a completely rested voice and do something that I haven't ever had a chance to do. I never — I wouldn't have thought that was gonna happen.

In that way, did you actually welcome the break? I've been surprised by how many artists have told me recently that the pandemic forced them to take a healthy break that they never would have taken on their own.

Man, I told somebody the other day, it was like being retired while I was still healthy enough to enjoy it. I enjoyed it; it was the best year of my life. Blake and I were talking about that the other day, and how we felt guilty about saying that, because we both feel that way. And we were discussing it, and I'm like, "Yeah, I kind of do feel a little guilty about it." But I'm not gonna lie about it, either. It was the best year of my life, and creatively, it was the most productive year of my life. And, you know, I'm not going to apologize for that. I feel for everybody else. Especially people that lost loved ones and all that. But, man, it was a great year for me.

It seems like people are rearranging their priorities a little bit, having realized, "Gosh, I've been on a treadmill for the last 25 years."

Absolutely, man. Yeah. It did force us all to take stock and look at what's really important, I think, and it served me well.

There's a song on the album called "Somewhere in America" that's really a song of unity, or a song that says things aren't as bad as they seem to be. What's the thought process behind that song?

I just really enjoyed what it said. I'm a sucker for everything that Hardy writes anyway, you know; I'd stand outside of that boy's house and cut everything he threw out, you know what I mean? Such a great writer. And it just seems like he somehow gets in my head and knows exactly the way I feel about stuff. It's uncanny. Sometimes some of the stuff that I get from him, the stuff he writes, it's crazy,  it's like I wrote it myself.

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