Editor’s note: Trace Adkins’ new album, American Man, Greatest Hits Volume II, will be released Dec. 4, but he’s also getting national media attention for his first book, A Personal Stand: Observations and Opinions From a Freethinking Roughneck. In this excerpt, the third chapter of the book, Adkins shares memories of his early days in Louisiana.
I Came Here to Live: Growing Up in Sarepta
I grew up in a town where tough was a cigarette and a souped-up car on a county road. — “I Came Here to Live” (from Dangerous Man)
I grew up in Sarepta, Louisiana. Population 924. Three years ago, they finally replaced the flashing red and yellow light with a brand-new traffic signal at the intersection of Highway 371 and Highway 2. Sarepta is located about forty miles northeast of Shreveport and ten miles south of the Arkansas line. The next-closest town is Springhill, population 5,000, seven miles north up Highway 371 (as a matter of fact, I was born in the hospital there). Sarepta is a “dry” town, so to this day, you still have to drive to Springhill to buy any alcohol.
Geographically and culturally, Louisiana can be cut up into three different slices. The northwest corner of the state is a North Texas-type environment where the economy is based on oil, timber and cattle. Northeast Louisiana is river bottom, a lot like Mississippi and southeastern Arkansas, with lots of farming and agriculture. Southern Louisiana is Cajun-influenced, with cities like New Orleans, New Iberia, Lafayette, Lake Charles and Baton Rouge. (Other Louisiana natives may disagree, but don’t pay any attention to them.)
I grew up solid working-class stock. There were about five churches in our one little-bitty town. A Church of Christ, three Southern Baptist churches and a Methodist church. My mama, Peggy, and all her sisters sang in the Baptist choir. My daddy, Aaron Adkins, retired in 2007 from International Paper Company after forty-something years working at the corrugating plant making cardboard. He mostly worked the swing shift. I don’t know how he survived switching back and forth between those graveyard, evening and daytime hours.
“Never wake Daddy up,” my mama used to warn us kids. “Especially when he’s working graveyards.” You didn’t want to hear that bedroom door open at noon because if you did, that meant somebody was fixin’ to get their ass tanned.
I was born on January 13, 1962, the oldest of three brothers. My younger brother, Clay, joined me in 1965 and is still my best friend. Then the family mascot (the baby is almost always the family mascot), Scott, completed our family unit in 1972.
I had a Norman Rockwell-style Southern childhood in small-town America. My paternal grandparents lived about a mile and a half from my home, while the maternal pair lived about three miles away. We were always there for each other in our peaceful little God-fearing town. It felt secure to be a kid with both sets of grandparents and lots of kinfolk close by whenever I needed them.
My Aunt Ruth owned and operated a general store in town. She sold a little of everything. You could buy boots, bullets and baloney. The place had gas pumps out front where I’d pull up on my minibike, fill the gas tank for a quarter and then go ride all over creation for a whole week. Back then we didn’t ride around Sarepta wearing fancy helmets or knee pads or elbow pads. We rode commando, and those of us who lived have the scars to prove it.
I was a fairly well-behaved kid who didn’t get into a whole lot of trouble. I was a pretty decent student and brought home good grades. I was a frugal, responsible young boy and saved most of the money I made hauling hay and mowing yards. I also sold Grit newspapers in our little rural community, which meant that in order to have a paper route with over thirty subscribers, I had to ride my bicycle for about four hours to deliver them once a week. But I did it for the pocket money. Grit was a paper laid out a bit like the National Enquirer, with colored newsprint pictures, except they wrote about rural farm life, as opposed to salacious celebrity gossip.
After my first job hauling hay, I thought I’d try my hand at sacking groceries at the local Piggly Wiggly. I hated that job because I had to wear a tie, and because the checkout ladies constantly chewed me out if I didn’t sack the groceries fast enough and just right. This was before the days of “paper or plastic.” Back then you got a big ol’ thick paper sack whether you liked it or not. I was expected to stack the groceries inside so that the bag would stand straight up. God forbid you break an egg or smash the bread, and I got so tired of dealing with those checkout ladies. They were brutal, so I used to hide in the back behind the stacks of returned Coke bottles. Eventually I got fired for taking too many long breaks, and my dream of becoming assistant, midnight to 6 a.m., every-other-weekend, part-time manager was shattered at age fifteen.
When I wasn’t hauling hay, mowing yards, or going to school I was hunting and fishing — because that was really all there was to do. I spent a lot of time deer, duck or squirrel hunting, and we generally ate what we killed. However, I don’t particularly enjoy eating squirrel. Never did, really. I find it stringier and tougher than chicken. I don’t like duck very much, either, but I have some friends who claim to have a great recipe that relies on wrapping said fowl in bacon. It seems like a lot of recipes for inedible foods depend entirely on a pork cocoon. Why not discard the shit filler and just enjoy some hog? Having said all that, however, I really enjoy deer meat (or venison if you’re a city slicker). Back then we didn’t have any wild turkeys, although I have seen a few out in the woods recently when I’ve gone back home to visit my parents. (Maybe they chose to relocate from Tennessee due to the terrible turkey overcrowding situation there.)
I grew up in a small home with a pasture full of cows out behind the house. Over the back fence of our property was the Bodcau Wildlife Management Area. So some of the best hunting and fishing in the whole state of Louisiana was within walking distance of our house.
I grew up with lots of guns around the house. I started with pellet and BB guns, until my daddy bought a twenty-gauge shotgun for me when I was twelve. Soon after, I bought myself a .22 rifle with money I made selling Grit newspapers. It was a little Winchester .22 automatic that I purchased from Aunt Ruth’s store. I still own that rifle, and occasionally I shoot it when I’m out on my farm south of Nashville.
I went to school right there in Sarepta, attending first through twelfth grade on the same campus. We had about 350 kids in the entire school, and when I graduated from Sarepta High School in 1980, we had thirty-two students in our graduating class. It’s grown some since then. I think there are about 450 students total in the whole school, which now includes a kindergarten. These days there is talk of consolidating with a couple of other schools from nearby towns where there aren’t as many people because the economy and growth in those areas has become a little stagnant. I hope the consolidation doesn’t happen, personally.
As a high school freshman I was skinny as a rail but pretty athletic for a six-foot-tall, 150-pound string bean kid. I played every sport we had although I liked some a lot more than I did others. I lived for football. Football was my life from the time I was in the seventh grade until the end of my freshman year of college at Louisiana Tech University. I think I enjoyed it so much because I absolutely loved to hit people. I also appreciated the fact that, to me, football encompassed it all: teamwork, camaraderie, brothers in arms, mano a mano, strategy, sacrifice, glory, heartache and so on. Football is life, encapsulated.
For the Sarepta Hornets, I played outside linebacker and offensive right tackle. I had to play both sides of the ball with two different mind-sets, and I loved it. I was on the field for almost every minute of the game. They let me rest on kickoffs, which was a shame, because I enjoyed running wide open down the field and picking up a good head of steam before planting somebody into the turf.
We had twenty or so kids on the Sarepta High School varsity football team, but actually only about thirteen of us had any business being on the field. The other kids were freshmen and sophomores, and were there mostly to make it look like we had more of a team than we actually did. I was extremely proud of the fact that we were the smallest school in the state of Louisiana to field a football team yet went to the state playoffs during my sophomore and senior years.
During my senior year, my brother Clay joined the team as a freshman and played quarterback for us. Unlike me, Clay played only on offense since he was too small to play defense at the time. Our whole family was so proud of the fact that Clay made all-district that year as a freshman quarterback on the varsity. He was voted all-district every year of his high school career (both offense and defense most seasons) and went on to play ball at Louisiana Tech, too. Another Bulldog!
There was really something special about being on the gridiron with my younger brother. My favorite play on offense was what is commonly called a sprint-out. I would pull off the line from my tackle position and the guard would cover for me while I rolled out to the right with Clay, who would be sprinting behind me with the ball. My attitude was: “God has yet to create a pass rusher that can sack my quarterback when that quarterback is my little brother.” If Clay didn’t have a receiver open and it looked like I could create a lane to get him ten or fifteen yards down the field, I’d yell out to him, “Come on!” Then we’d take off together down the sideline for a first down.
I didn’t feel any small-town pressure under the Friday night lights. The town was stunned that we even made it to the playoffs. Still, I was heartbroken after we lost the opening round my senior year. Our opponents beat us by only a couple of touchdowns. We gave ‘em hell.
The other team had forty kids on their roster, and it got a little demoralizing near the end of the first half after we had turned the ball over on offense. I remember having to switch over to play defense, and watching as the big defensive end I had just been blocking ran off the field. Then, he was replaced by a tight end who was exactly the same size, fresh and ready for battle.
I figure we could have hung in there against any team in the state for at least the first half, but we seldom won after the game became a war of attrition. That’s what happens when you play for a small rural school. You can’t walk off the field just because you’re exhausted and feeling sorry for yourself. You stay in the game and find out what you’re made of. All too often, in America today, we as parents become so concerned about pumping up our kids’ self esteem, we forget to teach them the value of staying in a tough game and building self-respect, even when you’re outnumbered and outgunned as we were that night.
As much as I loved football, I disliked basketball. But they practically forced me to play on the high school team because I was the tallest kid in school. I was the center, and by the end of the first half, I’d almost always have four fouls. I think I might have finished two full games throughout my entire senior year. Sarepta went 0 and 21 in basketball that season. That’s right. We didn’t win a single game all year. We went from being one of the best football squads to the worst basketball team in the history of our school.
Sarepta High also had a track team, but no track. We tried to get in shape by running through town and around the pastures. I ran the 330 intermediate hurdles and 110 high hurdles, even though I wasn’t any good. We’d go off to a track meet and act like a bunch of yokels just because the other schools actually had a track with lines painted on it. Once again, we sucked, but that was OK. We’d made it to the football playoffs that year, and frankly, that was all that mattered.
I had my first close call with death in March 1979 during my junior year of high school. As I was getting ready to drive to school, there was a thick frost on the windshield of my 1955 Chevy truck. Since the defroster didn’t work (I don’t think it ever did), I melted a porthole-sized spot in the middle of the windshield with the palm of my hand. I started driving east just as the sun was coming up. As I was steering around a bend, suddenly the bright sunlight hit the windshield and caused a really bad glare. I never even saw the school bus that was stopped in front of me. I went right under the back of that school bus going about fifty miles per hour. I didn’t even touch the brakes.
If I hadn’t been riding in a sturdy ’55 Chevrolet truck, I wouldn’t be alive today. That old ’55 pickup was built like a Sherman tank, and it looked like the impact of the collision just scraped the body of the truck clear off the frame. I went far enough underneath the back of the bus that there were black marks on the bumper of the truck where I hit the back wheels. Thank God, none of the kids on the bus were injured. They even got to stay home from school that day! You’re welcome, kiddos.
I, however, was mangled up pretty bad. My knees were cut up and I broke a couple of ribs that punctured my right lung. The hood came through the windshield, cut up my eye, folded back the skin on my fingers and severed my nose. My great uncle, Aunt Ruth’s husband, lived just down the road from where it happened. He and a friend actually heard the accident all the way from their house. They hurried down and saw that it was me. Since they thought there was not enough time to wait for an ambulance, Uncle Cecil and his buddy propped me up in the middle of the bench seat of his pickup truck and sped off north toward Springhill. I remember looking in the rearview mirror and seeing my face. It looked like a slab of bloody meat hanging down off my skull. My nose was dangling by a single piece of skin. I guess I was in shock and out of my head.
“Hey! Uncle Cecil! Look!” I said, pulling my nose up and down off my face.
“Stop doing that, son!” he said, with a nauseated look on his face.
We got to the Springhill Hospital emergency room and I don’t remember too much else. They had two doctors on duty in the emergency room that morning. Both were fine country doctors that I had known all my life, friends to myself and my family. That has to be a strange situation for a physician to find himself in.
When I finally came to, I was laid up in my hospital room. A state trooper came in and presented me with a ticket for failure to maintain control. Now … if I had tried to stop and couldn’t, that would have been a failure to maintain control. However, since I at no time … Oh, forget it. Thanks, gooberhead!
I’d been awake most of the day when the nurse told me I needed some rest. Mama was about to leave, but I asked her to stay.
“Don’t go, Mama. I’m not going to sleep.”
There was no doubt in my mind. I was shaken up pretty badly and I felt death looming over me, but I figured that as long as I stayed awake I could fight off the Grim Reaper. If I dozed off to sleep it would be like I was giving up, and I wasn’t going to do that. Eventually they gave me something to calm me down because I was too freaked out to close my eyes. It’s a scary thing to deal with when you’re seventeen and you wake up strapped to all these machines and tubes. My whole head was wrapped up in layers and layers of gauze and bandages. I looked like a mummy. The only thing visible on my face was one eye and an opening for my mouth. I had tubes stuck in and out of me, with blood running out of one tube coming out of my lung. After several weeks, I finally healed up, and for years after, whenever Dr. Sessions, one of the physicians on duty, would run into me on the street, he’d always say, “Come over here boy and let’s have a look at that nose.” And then he’d show anyone else who might be around, “See? No plastic surgery! I put that nose back on myself!” Today there’s only a tiny scar on the left side of my nose that’s barely noticeable. Atta boy, Doc!
That was the first time I had cheated death, and there would be plenty more close calls. In 2006, I cut a song called “I Came Here to Live,” which captured the spirit of my childhood in Sarepta.
“I came here to live,” the song says. “I didn’t come here to die.”
The morning I killed my precious truck, I had chosen life. Later on, making that choice to survive would get a whole lot tougher.
Copyright Villard Books, 2007