Dave Adkins

Dave-AdkinsDave Adkins
Rightfully Putting His Unique Bluegrass Voice Front And Center
By Derek Halsey

The biggest complaint that some in the bluegrass community have about modern day acts is the lack of individuality and uniqueness found in their music. The musicianship may be incredible, the vocals solid, and the new songs written for the genre may be right on point and new ideas may be explored. But, if you’re listening to bluegrass radio these days, it’s not unusual to find yourself looking up to read the name of the group currently playing to identify them. With many or most of the first generation bluegrass performers, you could tell who they were within the first few seconds of a song. That’s still the case with many of the top bands and artists in the genre today, and that is especially true with the powerful and soulful vocals and music of Dave Adkins.

Southeastern Kentucky-native Adkins has seen all sides of the music business, from going to Nashville to try and make it as a country star to singing in many bluegrass bands along the way. His best work, however, happens when he steps up to perform and record as himself, with the name Dave Adkins front and center. That’s exactly what he’s doing with his new album Right Or Wrong on Mountain Fever Records. Adkins starts off the 2018 bluegrass season with a strong effort, an album that showcases the depth of his amazing voice, and showcases a wonderful set of new songs.

Like other bluegrass artists such as Rhonda Vincent, Donna Ulisse, and Ricky Skaggs, Adkins moved to Nashville at a young age to seek out a niche in the country music world. His love of bluegrass was always there, but like the other artists mentioned, a potent and distinctive voice tends to lead folks to Music City USA with thoughts of climbing the country music charts. Nashville, however, has chewed up and spit out many a good musician. And folks who seek out a creative field know what it’s like to try and explain the journey to family and friends who might not understand the “hard work for little money” aspect of making it in the arts. Adkins was a young talent who decided to relocate to Tennessee, and he learned some hard lessons about the music business along the way.

“I’ve played music all my life and there was a time when I thought I had done everything I could do with it,” he said. “I started out with bluegrass music and spent 12 or 13 years doing that, including playing at Dollywood for two and a half years, and then I went to Nashville and made some really good waves. But then, things got stale on me there, and I thought it was time to go home. The man that handled John Michael Montgomery—Estill Sowards of the Hallmark Direction Company—worked with Blake Shelton, the Rayburn Brothers, Ricochet, Montgomery Gentry, and others and had a big roster. He took me to Nashville and paid for my house and put me up and gave me a vehicle and all of that, and I had a deal with Atlantic Records for a little while. But, that deal fell to the wayside and it really devastated me. It was a tough thing.”

Adkins was smart in that he didn’t make a big commotion about going to Nashville during the beginning of his adventure. It’s tough to return home having not succeeded. You’re back among your friends and relatives with real life staring you in the face while dealing with discouraging questions that you don’t really want to answer. Willie Nelson supposedly once said, “Some of the best guitar players in the world are working at a gas station somewhere.” Talented people get discouraged, defeated, and discarded by the business, or they get married and choose to get a day job and settle down. They might play out on the weekends or occasionally with friends. Many artists have gotten off the road for those reasons, and that includes Dave Adkins when he left Nashville in the rear view mirror.

“I didn’t put it in the local newspaper that I had been signed to the record label or anything like that,” Dave said. “I’m really private about things, unless it’s already said and done, because so many things can go backwards. There are no guarantees in this business or in life. So, I never said anything about it, and no one knew about it. They just knew I was in Nashville and that was it. I guess it’s different when you’re younger. But when you’re older, I still don’t say a lot about things, until they actually happen. It’s a lot easier to not tell anyone about it, then to have to explain why it didn’t happen. Until you go down there, you have no idea how hard it is to make it—the sacrifices and the hard work it takes to actually get recognition in Nashville. You have so many people there that are amazingly talented.”

Back in southeastern Kentucky, Adkins got married, worked a good day job, and started singing again at church. While at church, a local musician friend heard him sing “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” and immediately began to try and convince Adkins to rejoin the music world. But, he thought his life was set in stone. Adkins had been there and done that. He was married and ready to live a settled life. But, the persistence by others and the encouragement of his wife Katrina eventually led Adkins to clear his vocal pipes yet again.

“My wife has been the biggest support system I’ve ever had in my life. She said, ‘I don’t think it will hurt a thing, and I’d love to see you singing again.’ I said okay, and the rest is kind of history.”

For those that follow the roots music world, Adkins’ second act in the music business is widely known and appreciated. After getting back in the saddle, he spent time in groups such as Republik Steele and Adkins & Loudermilk before eventually recording his own albums. His singles, including “Pike County Jail,” climbed to the top of the bluegrass charts. Along the way, however, people wondered when Adkins was going to step up and put his name on the marquee for good.

Then, an unexpected diversion happened out of the blue that turned out to be an amazing experience. One day, Adkins posted a video of himself and local friends Richie Rose and David Taylor singing a gospel trio song in an empty room. With just three voices, a single guitar, and a video recorder, they sang the Hank Williams’ classic “House Of Gold” and did it in the old-school gospel way. The video was uploaded online and immediately went viral. It garnered thousands of views in a matter of hours. As of the beginning of 2018, the two-year-old video has been viewed 430,000 times and shared nearly 10,000 times. With a song blowing up like that, there was only one thing to do—record an album on Mountain Fever Records under the name The Dave Adkins Trio.

“I had wanted to do a gospel record for a long time and Richie and David are local buddies of mine and we’ve known each other for years and years,” Adkins said. “So, we made that video and put it up online and it got to 10,000 views within the first hour. I thought, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Something crazy is going on here.’ The next morning, I woke up and it was almost at 20,000 hits in 12 hours. For me, to now have 436,000 views of my video, it just blows my mind.”

The House Of Gold album came out in the spring of 2017 and has done really well for Adkins and his friends. But, the project proved to be a pleasant diversion that had many wondering if Adkins had changed his musical course yet again.

“The gospel album wasn’t billed as the ‘Dave Adkins Band,’ and it wasn’t just me on it, so the guys wanted to call it the ‘Dave Adkins Trio.’ You wouldn’t believe how many people thought I had started another group and was quitting my own band. I would say, ‘No, I’ve just done a side project.’ I mean, Doyle Lawson and all those guys do them all the time. People thought, ‘Well, he’s not doing bluegrass anymore. He’s playing gospel.’ I even ran into promoters who would say, ‘Hey, I was going to book you, but we don’t really book all-gospel bands.’ I’d just say, ‘But I’m not doing just gospel music.’ I simply wanted to make an old-time gospel record with songs on there that would bring to mind folks sitting in a pew with their grandma when people would listen to it.”

Now, Adkins is set to end the speculation once and for all with his new album Right Or Wrong. The project will hopefully prove to the bluegrass world that one of its better and most-identifiable vocal voices is ready to take his rightful place in the genre. Right Or Wrong showcases the many sides of his vocal abilities. It’s a mature album that shows his soulful side with a set of songs that proves he is more than just a belter who can raise the roof.

“As for my last bluegrass album, the self-titled one, I’m blessed because people took to that record in a big way. That’s the biggest record that I had made so far, with many songs from it charting and getting airplay. So, I knew that now would be a perfect time for me to do something different. Mark Hodges of Mountain Fever went ahead and let me do the gospel album and then said, ‘Ok, a year from now, let’s get going on a bluegrass record.’

“As for the cuts on the new album, the songs I pick have to trigger something in me. It’s a feeling that I have, and I can’t tell you what it is or put a finger on it. But, when I hear a song that I want to record, I know it. And that’s true with the songs I write as well. I have several songs I wrote that have been recorded by other people that are coming out later this year. I love those songs, but I thought they were better suited for other people.”

Adkins listened to 400-500 demos before choosing the songs he thought would work on the album. For instance, “Blue Blue Rain” is an upbeat bluegrass stomper from Jerry Salley that gets Adkins’ voice rocking, setting the mood for a love gone wrong with rain that’s beating on my tin roof, running on the ground / sounds like lonely, feels like pain, tastes like teardrops. “Cold In The Ground,” about a man who is a slave to my wicked ways, until I am cold in the ground, is rootsy, real, and otherworldly.

One fascinating song on Right Or Wrong is the true-life historical tale “Hatfield And McCoys.” Tagged to be the first single off the new album, Adkins wrote it with award-winning singer/songwriter Larry Cordle. “Man, I’m so proud of that song,” said Adkins. “It is historically factual. Larry Cordle and I studied on it for about six months. Cord and I would buy books about the feud and trade them back and forth. My stepdaughter was in the outdoor production of the play Blood Song: The Story Of The Hatfield And McCoys, which is produced every summer in McCarr, Ky., where some of the shootings took place. The infamous Hog Trial also took place there in 1873—the jury literally consisted of six Hatfields and six McCoys. When you are over there watching the outdoor play and the characters are dressed in their historical outfits and you’re at the actual place where it happened, it really touches you. I told my wife that I had to write a song about the Hatfields and McCoys.”

Then, Adkins ran in to Cordle at a gig and mentioned his song idea. “I sang some lyrics to Cordle one day at a festival. Cordle grew up about an hour and a half from where I was born and raised, and he’s always been a big influence and a hero to me. I sang it to him and he said, ‘I love that. I’d love to write that with you.’ I was on cloud nine. So, I’d make trips back and forth to Nashville and we read the books and studied it and finished the song about six months later. It’s one of the most special songs I have ever had a hand in writing. Just to work with Larry Cordle and have him sing it with me as a duet on the album is something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”

“Tired Of Lonesome” is another highlight from the new project, a song that Adkins wrote while on the road. “I was coming home from a really long road trip and I only had two days at home and then I had to leave again. And, I was only home for about three or four days that whole month. It was just constant moving. One night, I told my wife Katrina, ‘I just can’t wait to see you. I’m tired of being lonesome.’ I thought, ‘Wait a minute. There’s something to that.’ I wrote the song and I wanted it to sound different, which is why I wrote the chorus with that little minor part in it, and it turned out great. I love that song. Hopefully, it will be a single from the album down the road.”

Along with Cordle’s vocals, the new album features Adam Steffey on mandolin, Terry Baucom on banjo, Mitchell Brown on bass and vocals, Kyle Leapard on guitar, Tim Crouch on fiddle, Justin Moses on fiddle and resonator guitar, Amanda Cook on vocals, Carl Caldwell on vocals, Mark Hodges on vocals, Carlyne VanLierop on vocals, Missy Pyne Delgado on vocals, and Katelyn Delgado on vocals.

“I can tell you that I honestly love every song on this album,” Adkins said. “I’ve heard people say, ‘You only want to put three or four really good songs that you’re a hundred percent positive about on one album.’ The thought is that you only get to make so many records, so don’t use them all up. But I really try to put something for everybody on my albums. With this record, I could have shut my eyes, scrolled down the page with my finger and picked any song from this album as the first single, and I would have been happy with it. That’s how in love I am with this new record, and that’s hard to say.”

There have been others in the bluegrass world to make the claim that Adkins’ voice is the real deal and worthy of praise. The one legendary artist that folks compare Adkins to is the late Dave Evans, who passed in June of 2017. For many, both of their voices are instantly recognizable and soulful and commanding. Others in the business see the similarities as well. Adkins has started a new tradition near his home in Elkhorn City, Ky., with the annual Russell Fork River Bluegrass Show. The concert is held at Breaks Interstate Park, which features a 1,650-foot deep, five-mile-long gorge known as the “Grand Canyon Of The South.” In November of last year, Adkins’ special guest at the show was IBMA Hall Of Famer Larry Sparks.

“About halfway through his set, Larry called me up onstage and said to the audience, ‘Folks, this is one of the best voices in music coming up today. The first time I heard Dave Adkins, it reminded me—and still does—of another singer that I said the same thing about years ago. This guy is one of the best I’ve heard since Dave Evans.’ After that, I couldn’t say hardly anything for the tears in my eyes. Then, we sang the song ‘Ramblin’ Letters’ together and it brought the house down.”

A few years before Dave Evans passed, Adkins was given the nod by the man himself. “I miss my old buddy Dave. There are pictures on my Facebook page of Dave coming onstage and putting his hat on my head and telling folks that I was the closest thing to him that has ever been born. He used to get onstage all of the time and tell people that he couldn’t figure out why I was in bluegrass when I was plenty good enough to be in the country music business. Dave would say, ‘I told Travis Tritt the same thing, but you ain’t got enough sense to listen to me like he did.’”

Country music’s loss is bluegrass music’s gain. Adkins is forever grateful to be able to play the music he loves. “I am blessed. I have a new album that I’m so proud of. Mark Hodges of Mountain Fever has been great to me. My manager and booking agent Penni McDaniel is amazing. I’ve got many wonderful friends in and out of the business. Some people call other people that like what they do ‘fans.’ I think a fan is something that keeps somebody cool. I always say that if you buy a record or if you buy a ticket that lets me live my dream and feed my family, you are not a fan, but a friend. I’ve got the best friends in the world. My wife Katrina, no joke, without her I couldn’t do this. I have my band returning for a second year, and being in Bluegrass Unlimited has been a dream of mine since I was a kid, and it means a lot to me. I am just thankful. Every day, I wake up and get to go and play bluegrass music and make a living at it, and it’s a dream come true.”

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