Just about every country singer's life was full of blood, sweat, heartbreak, and tears before that one big break when the door to country superstardom suddenly opened wide.
Trace Adkins' life was just a little bit harder.
For much of his adult life, Adkins has worked in the Louisiana oil business, and he explains those years by saying, "For those people who have never roughnecked or worked on a drilling rig, you don't really know what I'm talking about, but it's like in the top five most dangerous jobs in the country. It's a rough job, and it's a different breed of people that do it. You stay out there two weeks at a time, cut off from civilization, and you work your ass off. You give them blood, and you break bones, and you get beat up, and you stay cut up and bruised up, and I loved it. I loved every minute of it."
Even as he was doing manual labor in Louisiana, however, there was a part of him that was always drawn to country music. He had listened to a lot of country growing up, and guys like Merle Haggard and, later, Hank Williams Jr. were big influences.
However, his first major singing experience was as a teenager singing bass in a quartet called The New Commitments.
"We were all members of the same church there in my little hometown there in Serepta (Louisiana), and we just started singing together for fun in the beginning, and then people just really liked it, and so we started branching out and traveling around. We must have sung at every church within a hundred mile radius."
He didn't get back to music in a major way for a few years afterwards, though. "I had dreams of (playing music) for a living, but I'm pretty much a realist, and I didn't actually try till 1985. I went and started playing clubs in Texas and quit my job and did that for about four years."
After much frustration at not being noticed by the powers that be in country music, he then returned to a drilling rig for three years.
Finally, he says, "I got a call from the guy that used to book me in Texas, and he had moved to Nashville, and he said, 'This is where you need to be, man.' He said, 'You don't need to look in the mirror, you know, 20 years from now and ask yourself the question, 'I wonder what would have happened if.' He said, 'Don't let that happen to you,' and I thought about what he said, and the thought of that scared me worse than the thought of selling my house and moving to Nashville, so that's what I did."
Like most artists, Adkins suffered through some lean years after his arrival to Nashville, but he kept his realistic perspective and persevered. "I had resigned myself to the fact that if this never happens, if the music thing never develops and works out to where I can make a living doing it, then I'll be okay. I can earn a living. I'm not worried about that, so I just kept on plugging away, working construction and doing my weekend gig in a little beer joint" near Mt. Juliet, Tenn.
Finally, he got his break when he met Scott Hendricks at an airport through a mutual friend. Hendricks has produced Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson, John Michael Montgomery and Faith Hill in the past and at the time had just recently become the head of the Capitol Nashville record label.
He was so impressed with Adkins' speaking voice, a deep southern drawl, that he thought Adkins might make a great singer, so he showed up one night at the club where Adkins was playing. That night, after just one set, Adkins became the first addition to Capitol Nashville's roster in the Hendricks regime. Not long after that, Adkins was racing to stardom with his first monster hit single, "There's a Girl in Texas." His immediate success is as much a testament to the power of his producer as to his own talent, however.
Hendricks and Capitol pulled out all the stops for Adkins' debut album. Names like Brent Mason, Eddie Bayers, Matt Rollings, Glen Worf, Paul Franklin and Rob Hajacos - in short, one of Nashville's top two or three studio players on every instrument - appear in the instrumentalist credits,and Adkins got to record songs written by the likes of Mark D. Sanders, Walt Aldridge, Kent Robbins and Trey Bruce.
Adkins freely admits that "Scott Hendricks is directly responsible for all that. I mean, when he goes to publishing companies and says, 'I believe in this guy, and he's this and that,' showers me with these undeserved accolades, they buy into it and give us good songs."
Didn't Adkins feel any pressure spending a small fortune of Capitol's money to sing songs by Nashville's top songwriters, backed by country's best pickers?
Hendricks asked him this question, and his response was not surprising. "Look," he said. "Here's something you need to remember about me, man. You don't worry about the old mule - you just load the wagon. All right? That's your job. I'll pull it."
And pull it he did, to the tune of three hit singles so far ("There's a Girl in Texas," a pretty heartbreaker called "Every Light in the House is On," and the current "Thinkin' Thing," which has just cracked the top ten) and an album that just entered country's top 10.
However, one dimension of Adkins' talent that has not been fully exposed yet is his songwriting. He co-wrote his first hit "There's a Girl in Texas," but he only wrote one other song on the debut album.
"I write a lot," Adkins explains, "but I said in the very beginning, if none of the songs I write end up on these albums, it's not gonna hurt my feelings at all because it's gonna mean that we found songs that were better than the ones that I write. That means we've got good tunes. If you think that the ones that I write are good enough to be included, then I'm honored, and thank you very much, and I had two on my first album, and so far I've got one that's gonna be on the next album."
What else is going to be on the new album? "We've got 11 songs cut already, and we're gonna cut some more in April," Adkins says, so he will have 14 or 15 tracks from which to choose the final 10 that end up on the album, which should be released late this year. "I don't think there's gonna be a lot of change" from the first disc, he says.
Adkins had to know he'd hit the big time last month when he played the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in front of a crowd of 50,000. "It was one of the highlights of my career so far. The whole day was one of the best experiences I've had since I've been in the music industry, but that 30 minutes that I was on stage was sheer terror."
The crowds may be bigger these days, but Adkins sounds unaffected. His sudden stardom, he says, "hasn't changed me. It's just changed the way people look at me. I'm still the same old guy. I drive the same old pickup truck."
And he still has the same old attitude. "My goals are to work as hard as I can today and tomorrow and in the near future, and I think that the distant future will take care of itself. "That roughneck work ethic is what I carry over into music, too. When I hit the stage, I give you everything I've got. You can leave one of my shows at the end of the night knowing that I'm backstage wore slam out."
Adkins is just a blue-collar guy doing what he loves to do and doing it the best he possibly can. He may not have the most talent or the most distinctive style among Nashville's newcomers, but he just might have the most desire and the strongest work ethic. And whether you're a country singer or an oil rigger, hard work and determination can go a long way.