As I walked from the parking lot up to the entrance of the amphitheater last Friday night, I overheard two employees—a shuttle driver and a kid directing traffic—chatting about the evening’s crowd. “It’s gonna get worse when people start drinkin’,” one said. “Yeah,” the guy replied, “there’s a whole lotta stupid goin’ on.”
I was, for the first time in my life, at Konocti Harbor, a place that’s been the punchline to many jokes about toothless women and shirtless men made by us big city Santa Rosa types. But I can now say with authority that these jokes are mostly unfounded; after a long, winding drive, I found out that Konocti Harbor wasn’t at all the chintzy Las Vegas atmosphere I’d always assumed it to be but a serene hamlet of beauty and fresh air. In fact, strolling past the trees, tennis courts and rustic cottages with a quaint view of Clear Lake, it recalled more the summer resort from Dirty Dancing, and thus every girl in high-rise jeans made me think of Jennifer Grey. There were a lot of ‘em, too—this was, after all, a country show.
I’ve been listening to a lot of country radio lately. Most of it’s terrible, but alongside all the bullshit like Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney and Dierks Bentley, there’s this guy from Louisiana, Trace Adkins, that I’m a huge fan of. Those who know me might find this incredibly out of character—believe me, I was pretty surprised to find it out myself—but after immersing myself thoroughly in the subject, I can say that Trace Adkins has one of the most penetrating and compelling voices in country music today.
During his hour and a half-long set at Konocti, Adkins played hit after hit, demonstrating the versatility of style in his output. The lightshow-laden opener “I Got My Game On” kicked things off promising that “it’s gonna be a hell of a ride,” and from the tender moments of “I Came Here To Live” and “Every Light in the House” to the good ol’ boys romp of “Rough and Ready” and “Ladies Love Country Boys,” Adkins was clearly having a great time. “We’ll try to do some songs that we know pretty good,” he joked to the crowd early on, “so they won’t suck too bad.”
Adkins has a natural ability to be both serious and stupid, oftentimes in the same sentence. For example, the “American Man” tour, which hits casinos, state fairs and football fields, is named after a song that Adkins told the crowd was inspired by his dad: “He’s basically at the top of my hero list,” he said, speaking from the heart. “Real hard-noser, though. Someone said to me the other day, ‘Your old man reminds me of John Wayne.’ I said, ‘Hell, my old man makes John Wayne look gay.’”
When Adkins finds a song in the direct middle of these two extremes—the pensiveness of “You’re Gonna Miss This” and the crass yahooism in “Chrome,” say—he’s at his best. “I Wanna Feel Something,” one man’s plea to experience emotion in a numbing modern world, was one of the set’s highlights on Friday night. Occupying similar emotional ground was “Arlington,” which Adkins went out of his way to introduce with “nothing but the utmost of respect and honor.”
In the country world, “Arlington” sparked controversy when it was released as a single, probably because it doesn’t conform to the simpleminded let’s-fuckin’-kick-their-asses narrative of all the remedial Toby Keith fans in the world. Instead, it explores the complex point of view of a dead soldier sent back home from war who finds at least a small, final solace in being buried in the hallowed ground of Arlington Cemetery. The verses, in particular, represent some of Adkins’ richest singing, and at the end of the song, Adkins was visibly choked up.
“I gotta be honest with you, it’s hard to keep my mind on things, singing that song,” he said afterwards, explaining that his manager’s son was over in Afghanistan; two days ago, there’d been an attack which had killed at least two soldiers, and they still hadn’t heard from him. “We’re goin’ over there in September, though,” Adkins announced. “Funny thing is, we go over there to make them feel good, and you know what? They make us feel good! Now, I don’t give a damn if you support the war or not, but we gotta support the boys in the fields!”
(Of course, the crowd went crazy at this, but for as hot as Adkins is on soldiers’ issues, not all of his fans seem to share his concern. During the show, two women—a mother and a daughter trashily dressed in matching tube tops and pumps—walked next to me and stood directly in front of an aisle full of WWII veterans, blocking their view and blatantly ignoring their repeated requests to move. I went up and pointed out that their tickets were for a different section, and that they were upsetting a row full of old people, but they absolutely did not care at all; it was only when security came along that they haughtily strutted back to their seats. So much for war heroes, I guess.)
“Hot Mama” marked an end to the “wholesome part of the concert,” and Adkins talked a little bit about the song’s steamy video (“it was the first time since I got a record deal,” he said, “that my mamma was very disappointed in me”) and then went into a weird thing about the Bible and Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit. This all came back around to his big closer, “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” which prompted everyone in the crowd, who had been standing the whole time, to completely get on down. I decided to walk around and watch all of Lake County’s finest—including, yes, a girl missing some teeth and an overweight guy wearing no shirt—shake their back-country asses to the most totally stupid and completely enjoyable country hit of the last few years.
The band vamped the song at the end, with Adkins finally delivering his send-off line.
“Lemme tell you,” he said, while the band played, “I didn’t get in this business for the fame, or the money—I got in this business for one reason and one reason only. . .”
The music stopped. Adkins threw his arms open wide.
Like the man said: a whole lotta stupid goin’ on. But when no one’s takin’ it too seriously, and when an amphitheater full of people on the lake are having a hell of a good time, it’s hard to do anything but laugh your ass off and join in.