Trace Adkins is the biggest and tallest drink of water anyone ever dared refer to as an apprentice. Sometimes that largeness translates to actual largess, in songs where he plays the courtly country gentleman and quintessential Southern family man. Other times, he’s been best known for his belligerence, with conservative anthems or bar-hopping rockers that promise a beatdown to anyone who rubs him the wrong way.
On “Proud to Be Here,” his tenth collection of original material, Adkins has it both ways, as he always does. But that’s true only if you buy the deluxe edition.
The 10 songs on the shorter “standard” version of the album have a streamlined fixation on Adkins’ polite side, with ruminations on true love, fatherhood, and the eternality of small-town virtues. If you want to hear him bait liberals or reprise the word “badonkadonk,” you’ll have to buy the expanded version, since his bad-boy side is relegated to that edition's four bonus cuts.
Usually the decision about whether to buy a standard or deluxe edition is an economic one. But in this instance, the way the different versions of the album have been structured, it’s a thematic choice, too. Do you prefer your Adkins red-eyed, or red-necked?
As someone who’s always favored Adkins’ softer side over the one that wants to kick my ass, I’d go with the shorter version of the album, hesitant as I usually am to endorse abridged editions. In its basic, 10-track form, "Proud to Be Here" has an emotional throughline that’s rare among country albums these days. The surplus of balladry that can be so deadly for other Nashville-based artists never seems like much of a problem for Adkins, if only because, with a baritone that deep and a presence that tough, there’s only so goopy he can get.
“Just Fishin’,” the first single off the album, is close to a career peak for the 6’6” singer. It describes a lake expedition that, for a father, is all about cherishing intimacy with a kid, even though “she thinks we’re just fishin’.” Adkins recorded the song for his last album but decided not to release it then because it was too thematically similar to his previous father/daughter smash, “You’re Gonna Miss This.” He may be returning to a nearly identical well with this song, but by being a little less overtly sentimental this time, he’s reeled in an even greater country classic.
Nothing else on the album is on that level — nor, amid all the simple country pleasantries, is there anything as emotionally complex as “I Wanna Feel Something,” an amazing but underperforming ballad he released five years ago. But neither is there anything as knuckleheaded as “Swing” or “Brown Chicken Brown Cow,” either. His evocation of rural bliss in “Days Like This” and “Poor Folks” is some of the most sincerely sweet stuff country’s own Incredible Hulk has yet come up with.
And then come the not-so-sweet bonus tracks, for anyone who ponies up the extra dollars. His mysteriously MIA sexual rambunctiousness briefly makes a comeback in the horn-driven (and horniness-driven) “If I Was a Woman,” a just-okay duet with Blake Shelton.
Trace the Patriot returns in a bigger way in “Semper Fi,” a tribute to the Marines, and “More of Us,” an angry declaration that God and prayer need to be returned to government and the courts. Adkins’ (or his songwriters’) constitutional argument comes down to this: “There’s more of us than there are of them.” Apparently the size of his conservative contingent is what matters to a fellow who’s always had the luxury of knowing that there’s more of him than there is of anyone else, too.