When Trace Adkins, honky tonk legend and Celebrity Apprentice star, spent a day laboring on the offshore oil rig where he spent six years of his youth, he proved his point: "I'm not a singer who used to be a roughneck. I'm a roughneck who sings."
Adkins former gig is one of the grittiest on GAC's new series "Day Jobs," premiering Sunday, October 2 at 8 PM/ET, which has country music stars live a day in their pre-celebrity lives. But Adkins didn't struggle too much. "It all came back," he told AOL Jobs. "It must have been muscle memory."
But he admits they took it a little easy on him. Now pushing 50, Adkins imagines that a full shift on a Gulf of Mexico rig would leave him "worthless the next day."But Adkins did some real work: tripping and strapping pipe, greasing up bits in 100 degree heat, and swinging in a cage high above the 5,000-foot deep gulf.
At the start of the day, Adkins and his crew all had to pass a safety test, strapped into a unit and plunged under water, to simulate a helicopter crash. Not only is oil drilling dangerous work, offshore "if a catastrophic event happens," Adkins explains, "you have nowhere to go but the water."
The day after training, Adkins and his "Day Jobs" crew flew to the rig, 150 miles south of New Orleans. "It's kind of like coming home," Adkins says wistfully, staring out of the helicopter window at the epic expanse of blue. After all, Adkins lived on a rig for six years, sleeping in a bunk bed. In total, he spent 14 years as a roughneck, the same amount of time he's spent with his wife.
The striking 6' 6" Louisiana boy first started working on the oil fields back in the 1980s. Adkins dropped out of college after a summer at the wells gave him a taste of that black gold. "At that time, to be that young, making that kind of money... I was completely in love with it."
He moved offshore to chase the big dollars, but found himself at one with the culture. "It was my favorite job I ever had," he says. "It was exciting, it was dangerous, it was competitive. It was like playing team sports almost and getting paid for it."
In the show, he compares it to the military. Special kinds of bonds tend to form when you're risking your life a few times a day.
Adkins' left pinkie finger was one casualty of the rig, severed and reattached soon after. "We weren't sure whether the poor pinkie was going to make it or not," he says. "It turned black." To this day, there are some chords Adkins' hand just can't stretch to play.
That was one of many serious injuries Adkins has suffered in his life. As a kid, his pickup truck smashed head-on with a bus, breaking both his arms, a leg, a handful of ribs, and ripping off his nose. A vicious knee injury forced him to abandon college football, and one time on a rig a cable broke, cutting his head open. If he hadn't ducked, it would have slit his throat. In 2006, a bullet went through his heart and both lungs. His second wife pulled the trigger.
"That's how I've lived my life," Adkins shrugs. "I've put myself in those situations. Ball players get hurt. People who do risky things get hurt. People who ride motorcycles get hurt."
Adkins would always volunteer for the dangerous tasks on the rig. "It's a drug," he says. "The adrenaline rush you get from that, it turned me on."
Things are safer these days on rigs, Adkins claims. "I don't know if I have the temperament to work out there now," he says. "Safety has just gotten to be an impediment. It's harder for them to do their jobs."
Back in his drilling days, Adkins and the other hands would sometimes strip naked and tan on the heliport. Those kinds of hijinks don't happen any more.
Does he think the safety precautions are excessive? "Probably not," he admits. "I'm just coming from the perspective of the old school. The guys who did it twenty years before me, it was even milder then."
After the BP oil spill, safety measures on offshore Gulf rigs got a lot of attention. Obama declared a moratorium on new deepwater wells for six months after the crisis.
"I think we should expand drilling everywhere. Anywhere there's a reservoir," is Adkins' response. "Anything that lessens our dependence on foreign oil, we should be doing, whether solar, wind, hydroelectric dams, wave energy, natural gas. We need to be doing all of it. It creates jobs, and it creates independence for us as a nation."
Adkins' breezy tough guy take on life is no showbiz persona. Anyone who spent a decade moving gallons of gushing crude through the right pipes callouses their skin, both literally and figuratively.
It's no surprise that Adkins was cast as the head of a biker gang in the Matthew McConaughey movie, "The Lincoln Lawyer." Sharing screentime with Matthew McConaughey didn't even do any damage to Adkins' street cred.
The Oil Rig Ethic
Adkins grew up in the testosterone-drunk, trash-talking world of oil drilling. It was there that he first learned to really cuss. "I was pretty good before, but I was exceptionally good after," he says.
"Has that served you well as a country musician?" AOL Jobs asks.
"It served me well as a human being," Adkins replies.
Some of Adkins' music enters risque territory, or in his words: "it's nasty." 70 percent of country radio stations even refused to play his ditty "Brown Chicken Brown Cow" about a couple barnyard animals spying on Bobby Joel and Betty rolling in the hay, a rural remix of the 1970s porno twang "bow chica wow wow."
"I'm not making songs for the Disney Channel," he says.
No, he didn't play his records around the house while his five girls were growing up. In fact, he doesn't listen to his old records period.
"Making records is still something I get off on," he explains. "But when I'm done it's done. After you've mowed the lawn, you don't spend all day looking at it."
Adkins has no complaints about his current life. But despite the filth, there was a kind of purity to rig life: do good and you get noticed.
"Politics enters every field, every job, but to less of a degree in rigging," he says. "Your promoted by your skills and talents, your work ethic."
Are there politics in country music?
"Oh, ha, sure."
In the show Adkins tells a roomful of roughnecks that the proudest moment of his life was overhearing someone on a rig call him "a good hand."
It takes a lot to be a good hand. As Adkins puts it: "You've got to be able to work." And that ethic might be why there are such "responsible, quality people out here" doing a job "that most people in this country don't understand or don't appreciate.
Adkins proved himself a good hand once again. His trainer through the show was surprised that Adkins picked things up faster than anyone he's ever worked with. "I'd hire Trace," he says. After another moment, he reverses his answer. After all, Adkins could very well end up taking his job.
And that's the drive that pushed Adkins to ultimately abandon the oil industry, move out to Nashville, and spend eight years surviving on the club circuit. He was only noticed by a record executive at the age of 32.
That Old Man In The Mirror
A friend called him from the country music capital. "One day you'll look in a mirror, Trace," Adkins remembers him saying. "And you'll wonder what happened if..."
"If what?" Adkins asked.
"If you'd really gotten serious about it," he said.
Adkins packed his bags. "I don't want to have to face that old man in the mirror one day."
So he worked hard. "That old field work ethic. You have to really get up and prove yourself. If you start getting complacent, you get fired."
And despite finding success - six gold and platinum albums success - he remains in touch with his old rig buddies. His boss even called him up after his "Day Jobs" preview aired. "You did good man," he told Adkins. "We're proud of you."
Adkins is proud too. Proud, he says, to "at one time in my life have been a part of this industry." And if he hadn't made it as a singer, that's where he would still be today. "That's the only other thing I know how to do," he says. "Poke holes in the ground."
If any of his relationships have become distant since, he claims that the other guy is the one who's changed. "The way you look at me, the way you perceive me. That's all that's changed," he says. "I'm pretty much the same guy."
By the end of the day, his trainer agreed. Adkins, he says, is "just another good ole boy from the South."
But Adkins does feel himself changing. "I'm an old jock and an old roughneck and there comes a day when you physically can't compete where you need to be at," he says. "The game passes you by, and that'll happen to me."
That day isn't there yet, and there are always the "Tony Bennetts of the world," he says (Tony Bennett just won his first number one debut on the charts). But just like how Adkins knows when he can't keep up on the rig, he'll know when he's lost his steam as a star. When that happens, he says, "I'm going to gracefully exit stage left."
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