ST. PAUL—John McCain is about to do his 2 p.m. walk-through in the Xcel center arena. But for now, the center of attention is Trace Adkins, the 6-foot-6 inch, goateed country singer slated to sing the National Anthem tonight.
"Oh my God," says convention attendee Deb Suchla into her phone when she spots him. "I can’t breathe."
Adkins is hard not to spot. He’s part cowboy, part Norse god, with a bass to match Sam Elliott . He hangs back in a corner next to the stage, but fans keep drawing him out to the rope line, asking to take pictures with him. Each time he tries to vanish, another fan grabs one of his enormous hands and pulls him back. Adkins’ hang-dog expression never changes, except when a camera is about to flash, at which point half his face cranks up into a crooked grin.
"Will you take a picture with my daughter’s elephant?" asks a man, shoving a stuffed doll into Adkins’ arms. Adkins looks confused. "OK," he says, holding the elephant up next to his head. "But that’s kinda silly."
His fans are diverse, at least for the RNC. Young girls, security guards, elected officials, older women— especially older women. Suchla says Adkins is "the only man I’d leave my husband for." (Don’t worry, her husband knows.) One of his songs, "Hot Mama," talks about how his wife is still sexy even if she can’t squeeze into "them old jeans." When the ladies hear that, Suchla says, "they just melt."
Adkins is an avowed Republican. Fans cite his song "Arlington," sung from the perspective of a dead soldier, as evidence of his support the troops in Iraq. But it can also come off a little creepy. Here’s the chorus from "Arlington":
And I’m proud to be on this peaceful piece of property, I’m on sacred ground and I’m in the best of company,
And I’m thankful for those thankful for the things I’ve done,
I can rest in peace, I'm one of the chosen ones,
I made it to Arlington.
His most famous turn, though, was as a runner-up on The Celebrity Apprentice , where he faced off in the finals against British tabloid editor Piers Morgan. Suchla described it as a "battle between good and evil"—she must have watched Mitt Romney’s speech—in which Adkins was "decent and honorable" from start to finish.
Real life has been more complicated. Adkins was charged for drunk driving in 2001 and has battled alcoholism. He was once a barroom brawler. His second wife shot him in the heart and lungs.
But of course that’s not a disqualification for the RNC. I ask Adkins if he’s nervous. "Not really," he says. "I did the World Series." Indeed, his sound test sounds marvelous. His high note—"land of the freeeeee"—must be somewhere around middle C.
When I ask Suchla for her last name, she jokingly suggests I include her number. You know, in case Adkins is reading.