HARD TIMES AND HARD LIVING—any country singer worth his hat has had his share. But Trace Adkins, 35—he's something else again. Nearly died in two car accidents (lost his nose in one, though it was sewn back on). Almost lost his legs to a bulldozer. Weathered a hurricane trapped on an offshore oil rig. Cut off his left pinkie while opening an oil-barrel lid (talked his doctors into reattaching it in a bent position so he could still play guitar). And, oh yes, there was that time his second wife shot him through the heart.
As Adkins tells it, one February night in 1994 he and Julie Curtis, an insurance salesperson and his wife of three years, got into a shoving match when she accused him of breaking his promise to quit drinking beer. She tried to call her mother, he slapped the phone off the wall, and she grabbed the family's .38 from the top of the fridge. "Being a macho guy like I am, I tried to scare it out of her hand," he says. "I said, 'Give me the gun, or I'm gonna take it away from you and beat your damn brains out with it.' I would never have done that, but I told her in hopes that it would scare her." Instead the gun went off. "[The bullet] went through both my lungs and both ventricles of my heart," says Adkins, whose torso is laced with scars.
Several surgeries, a divorce (he declined to press charges, and police ruled the shooting an accident) and three years later, Adkins's luck has finally turned. His first album, Dreamin' Out Loud, has gone nearly platinum, with one single, "(This Ain't) No Thinkin' Thing," hitting No. 1 on the country charts. Three other hit singles and the Academy of Country Music's new male vocalist award in April have certified Adkins as one of country's hottest rookies. Comparing him with Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, country great Buck Owens describes Adkins as "a cool breeze on the music horizon...with all the makings of a star." Adkins can hardly believe his newfound good fortune. "I'm finally realizin' a dream that I've had all of my adult life: to do what I love to do for a livin'," drawls the 6'6", 250-lb. baritone. "I'm goin' around the country singin', so I'm livin' out my dream just as loud as I can do it."
The miracle worker who helped make his dream come true is Adkins's brand-new bride, Rhonda Forlaw. Forlaw, 33, a former publicity manager at Arista Records, spotted Adkins playing a club three years ago and helped him land a deal with Capitol Nashville. "The first time I saw him, I knew he was going to be a star," she says, sinking into a cushy chair in their three-bedroom pink brick home in lush Brentwood, Tenn. Friendship slowly blossomed into romance. Then, last November, during his debut at the Grand Ole Opry, Adkins summoned Forlaw onstage, got down on his knees, doffed his hat and proposed.
The couple's May 11 wedding was the most lavish in recent Nashville memory—complete with antique carriages, dinner for 540 (with 58 pounds of spiced shrimp, 250 pounds of prime rib and 500 smoked chicken breasts) and a new love song, "The Rest of Mine," from the groom: "I can't swear that I'll be here for the rest of your life," Adkins crooned, "but I swear I'll love you for the rest of mine."
Forlaw is holding her man to his word. He has quit drinking—"The stakes in my life have gotten too high," he says, "and I can't afford any slipups"—and she has resigned from her job. The couple operate on two levels, says Forlaw: "a business relationship where we work as a team and a personal relationship where he's a man's man; he's the boss." Adkins's daughters from his first marriage, Tarah, 12, and Sarah, 8, live with his parents in Louisiana but will join the newlyweds next year.
Raised in rural Sarepta, La., one of three boys of Aaron and Peggy Adkins, a worker in a corrugated-box plant and a high school teacher, Adkins had his first brush with death at age 17. His windshield fogged by frost, he drove his '55 Chevy pickup into an empty parked school bus, suffering punctured lungs, broken ribs and a severed nose. After knee injuries ended his hopes of a football career at Louisiana Tech University, Adkins dropped out to wed his high school sweetheart. The marriage fell apart four years later.
Between runs at a music career, Adkins liked to live—and work—dangerously. An on-the-job bulldozer accident in 1982 caused deep cuts in his rear end. "I thought I was fixin' to lose both my legs," he says. The next year a 400-barrel oil tank exploded while he was trying to repair a leak, crushing his left leg. In 1988 he landed in a neck brace after flipping his truck on an icy Texas overpass. He cut off his finger in another work-related accident in 1989. And later that year he and nine coworkers rode out Hurricane Chantal on a wildly pitching oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. "I got to the highest part of the living quarters on the rig, so if it turned over, I was pretty well centered and could go in either direction," he says matter-of-factly.
With the growing success of his music and having found the love of his life, Adkins feels his troubles may finally be behind him. And thank goodness, he says, "because I don't believe I could live through much more of them."
JANE SANDERSON in Nashville
- Jane Sanderson.
Adkins uses his music to conquer misfortune