SAREPTA — Trace Adkins walked onto the stage of the Muddy Bottoms ATV Park amphitheater Saturday night to cheers from thousands of screaming fans.
The Sarepta native and country star appeared happy to finally be able to play his small north Webster Parish hometown.
Bikini-clad women, mud dried on their faces from earlier rides, screamed as the six-feet-six-inch tall former roughneck swaggered up to the microphone, sensuously gyrating his hips as the band cranked up his first number one hit, 1997's "(This Ain't) No Thinkin' Thing."
His face lit up in a boyish grin as his blue eyes twinkled under the bright lights, a cloud of dust hovering in the air.
Adkins was in his element.
But just a few hours before the show, he showed a hint of weariness, but much recovery from what has been a trying year.
Rehab, the loss of his father, marital problems — Adkins seemed refreshed to have spent much of the beginning of the year in Sarepta, regrouping for touring and the release of a new album later this year. Saturday's interview with the Press-Herald was the first time he sat down with the media this year.
"It was a good sanctuary here and my mother needed me anyway," Adkins said. "So I stayed here a good bit. It was good for me to come back home, just hang out and experience again that slower pace. There is still a place where life is a little slower."
He casually stretched his lanky frame along the leather couch in a dressing room backstage at the amphitheater. Wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, shorts, tennis shoes with his long hair in a messy ponytail, he could have easily blended in anywhere at the park or around the town he fondly tells people was a "protective cocoon" to him as a child.
"I say a lot of times it was a Norman Rockwell-ian childhood," Adkins said. "I think that's why I went so crazy when I got out of here. I went out into the big world and lost my mind. I went to school at Sarepta first through twelfth grade. Every time I got in trouble I had to walk by (my mom, the secretary's) desk to go to the principal's office. I knew every teacher, their families, their kids… The town really revolved around those five churches and the school."
Some of those churches still remain, as does the school though in a different capacity, but the biggest addition is Muddy Bottoms ATV Park.
Nearly 13,000 people convened there Memorial Day weekend to ride the bogs and trails of property that once was home to International Paper — land where Adkins and friends spent their adolescence hunting, fishing and mud riding.
"When I heard someone had turned this into a mud pit, I went, 'Well, yeah, it makes total sense," he said. "Something like this is just a God send. I'm really glad Madden had the vision to do this and to take these old mill ponds and turn them into this."
Adkins got a little muddy on the trails of what he called a "first class operation."
"What's shocking to me are the number of vehicles out here that are costing tens of thousands of dollars," he said. "They look like something NASA would take to the moon."
When Adkins first hit it big in 1996 with "There's a Girl in Texas," he performed at his high school alma mater and he's wanted to return ever since.
"I had thought about trying to put something together myself, but it was a venue thing," he said. "The only place I could think of was the football field, but where is everybody going to park and where do you put everybody?"
Adkins had been hearing rumors that he was to play at Muddy Bottoms, and those rumors finally came to fruition. He said with a laugh getting the gig wasn't because his mother Peggy is the mayor of the municipality.
"They keep saying back home that I'm supposed to play here," he said. "A couple of months ago they contacted my people, and here we are."
Adkins played for more than two hours to a packed floor surrounded by hundreds more fans watching from parked ATVs and pickup truck beds and roofs.
From under his signature black cowboy hat, he crooned his greatest hits and tossed out a few from his upcoming album.
"This is kinda surreal," he told the crowd. "I grew up hunting and fishing on these mill ponds, back here along this creek, all back in here. I played golf on that golf course. I married two women from Webster Parish — not at the same time. Anyway, y'all know where I'm from. I'm just a country boy but it's worked for me."
Click here for a photo gallery of the Trace Adkins and Westbound 21 concert at Muddy Bottoms.