Trace Adkins

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If you didn't know better, the blasting guitar riff on "Sweet," the opener from Trace Adkins'X (Ten), might be mistaken for one off a .38 Special cut from the late '70s. The track has the single potential of one of Adkins' many hits. The song has an infectious hook in its refrain -- and yes, it rocks. But by the time the set's second number, "Happy to Be Here," commences with a similar big guitar entrance -- albeit on a midtempo ballad -- "Sweet" isn't even a memory. And the same happens for the latter when "All I Ask for Anymore" arrives with strings, an acoustic guitar, and a pedal steel whispering in that big gritty baritone of Adkins. It's a ballad drenched in personal truth, and gratitude that is profound. Adkins is actually trying to get across something of a "message" here, albeit one that is humble in scope. The funky B-3 and snare WHOMP that introduces "Let's Do That Again" is a nice curve ball, even if it sounds like an outtake from a Josh Turner record. The wide-open slide and pedal steel guitars ride the shuffling rhythm; the singer's delivery has that balance of swagger and warmth that makes it soulful. The acoustic country blues (à la John Hurt style) on "Marry for Money" is deceptive in that it is merely the intro to a modern honky tonk tune that is the lyrical Nash Vegas equivalent of bling rap -- and is every bit as sexist.

The album's best track is easily "Til the Last Shot's Fired," written by Rob Crosby and Doug Johnson. It's an antiwar song from the point of view of the ghosts of soldiers who served in the Confederacy, on Omaha Beach during WWII, in Vietnam, and in Afghanistan. Its dobro, acoustic guitars, brushed snare, and gorgeous choral arrangement at the end make it stand out from the pack, not just on this set, but from contemporary country in general. It's followed by the stellar "I Can't Outrun You," a broken love song about a different kind of ghost. And like its immediate predecessor, it sounds like Adkins means it. The façade of the good-time shaggy-dog honky tonk boy is ripped away, and what remains is a man with some regrets, some baggage, and some hard-won, hard-lived truth, helping him move through the world. With every '70s rock and funky-lite cliché in the book tossed in the mix, it's debatable. If you need further proof of the dilemma, check the straight-ahead melody, whining steel, and shimmering drums on the honky tonk ballad "Sometimes a Man Takes a Drink," a paean to alcoholism. It's a country song that isn't a bevy of ridiculous lyrics celebrating the "good" life, but a story that points to something more poignant, larger, and embedded in the bone of the singer. It isn't even the singer's fault that half of this -- no doubt the more commercially successful half -- will continue to perpetuate Nash Vegas' identity crisis that walks between '70s radio rock and its own tradition. If one wants to really hear the gifts that Adkins is endowed with as a vocalist, one that can reach people in the marrow of where they live, toss away the hits and listen to the rest.

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