Twenty years after Tracy Lawrence exploded on the country scene with the No. 1 Billboard single “Sticks And Stones,” he’s back with a powerhouse new album and a fresh business model that recognizes and embraces the sweeping market and technological changes which have made the music and radio businesses so different from the days that very first single made its chart debut in November, 1991.
“I think there’s a lot to be said about learning through adversities, and highs and lows,” Lawrence says in a conversation at his Music Row office in late March.
“I don’t have a lot of regrets, man,” he continues. “I’ve seen the top of the mountain and I’ve bounced down a few rungs and I’ve climbed back up, you know, and in spite of it all I’ve gotta say I still love this business. I still love the performing part, I love making music, and I’ve made a lot of great friends here.”
And Lord knows, the business and country radio – and millions of Tracy fans across the globe – have loved him and his music for decades.
It’s a career that in many ways is as or more impressive than those of many members of the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, and hopefully one of these days, Tracy will take his well-deserved place in both.
Look, for instance, at Lawrence’s radio success. “Sticks And Stones” gave him a No. 1 Billboard single with his very first single on country radio, a very rare distinction that neither Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney, Reba, Tim McGraw, Dolly Parton, George Strait, nor Taylor Swift can claim. And that was just the beginning.
Tracy’s voice and his songs immediately connected with radio listeners, so much so that his first NINETEEN singles were in the Top Ten, including a whopping four consecutive No. 1s in 1993 and 1994 (Randy Boudreaux’s “Alibis,” the Lawrence co-writes “Can’t Break It To My Heart” and “My Second Home,” and the Paul Nelson/Craig Wiseman composition “If The Good Die Young”).
And in those days, when Lawrence didn’t top the Billboard charts, he came awfully close. Six of those first 19 singles peaked at No. 2.
“Texas Tornado” returned Tracy to No. 1 in the summer of 1995, and his performance of Bobby Braddock’s “Time Marches On,” one of the greatest country records of that decade, rocketed Tracy right back to No. 1 in the summer of ’96.
Along the way, Tracy Lawrence has also sold more than 12.5 Million albums, an amazing figure in this day and age of rampant downloading and plummeting CD sales.
Like many veteran superstars, though, he has had to deal with the frustration of major-label comings and goings. From 1991 until 1999 , Tracy was on Atlantic Nashville, a division of what is now WMG (the Warner Music Group), and was then WEA (Warner-Elektra-Atlantic).
By any name, Atlantic Nashville simply went out of business early this decade (it’s recently returned, in a slightly different form, as part of a joint venture with the Zac Brown Band). Lawrence then moved to DreamWorks Nashville, run by his friend and former producer, James Stroud.
“Paint Me A Birmingham,” their first DreamWorks single, reached the Top 5 but then that label, like Atlantic, disappeared. From DreamWorks he landed at Universal when Universal bought DreamWorks.
So he went out on his own, with Rocky Comfort Records. The very first single was a masterpiece, “Find Out Who Your Friends Are,” which took Tracy right back to No. 1 in early 2007 and stayed on the Billboard charts for 44 weeks.
And as summer 2011 approaches, Lawrence is back with a bang, putting the finishing touches on a new album and strengthening his own label, Lawrence Music Group, which Tracy runs with longtime friends and biz associates, Alex Torrez and Flip Anderson.
“We’ve just kind of re-established the Lawrence Music Group,” Torrez says. “It’s always been TLE or Tracy Lawrence Enterprises, and now we’ve refocused all the divisions in terms of music publishing and the record label. We’re gonna outsource some things, naturally, like radio promotion and publicity.”
Tracy and Alex continue: “For the most part, everything’s gonna stay here. We’re gonna write, produce, and make records ourselves.”
Lawrence sits back and reflects on how things have been completely revamped in music over the years, with tech innovations and countless other rewrites.
“The way the industry’s changed, I don’t think there’s any set business model of what’s goin’ on. I’m playin’ the part of the Guinea pig,” he says, smiling. “We launched Rocky Comfort 5 or 6 years ago and had good success with it, but I noticed the trend change. After we had that No. 1 record, the doors closed. I think we slid under the radar and we were very underestimated, and we had a great strategy, and we were able to take that thing all the way to the house.”
However, Lawrence notes, neither he nor any other indie artist seemed able to reproduce Tracy’s success after “Find Out Who Your Friends Are,” as the major labels did all they could and pulled out all the stops at radio to overpower them.
Still, anyone who knows and admires Tracy Lawrence knows that no matter what the adversity, the man always bounces back stronger than ever. Hard Times, which by the way is the working title of Tracy’s upcoming album, have never slowed him down for long.
Take, for instance, the way he got to Nashville.
“You know, I’ve dreamed about living in this town since I was 12 years old, and I’d never been here until moved here in 1990,” he recollects. “I didn’t know anybody here. I came in my beat-up old car, cried all the way from Texarkana to Memphis. I was scared to death, ‘cause I didn’t have a place to say, I didn’t have a job, I had $700 in my pocket.”
He left somewhere he knew very well and where he was making made good money, and came to a place where none of those things were guaranteed.
“I was living in Louisiana at that time, and I had a circuit of clubs that I played,” he says. “I still had a day job, and I was doing all the bookings for the band. I decided I was gonna move to Nashville, and couldn’t get anybody else in the band to go with me.
“I told myself, `If I don’t leave now, I’m never gonna go.’”
Once he made his decision, Tracy played one last show with the band he loved at a Louisiana club called Bill’s New Country. Folks passed the hat at the gig, raising several hundred dollars which were vital to Lawrence’s ability to make it to Nashville and stick it out once he got here.
“After I got my deal, I came back and played Bill’s club one more time,” he says.
Tracy got to the Row and began songwriting in earnest. He also started playing Judy’s Jams, a set of writer’s nights around town run by Judy Martin. Tracy worked rooms like the Broken Spoke, and he also entered talent shows.
Naturally he won a lot of those, and the cash rewards he got helped pay the bills.
Lawrence got vital radio exposure through the “Live At Libby’s” series, which was broadcast into Nashville on Saturday nights.
“Some executives from Atlantic Nashville had come to Libby’s to see somebody else that was on the show and just fell in love with me,” he says. “That’s when the wheels started turning. I was in the right place at the right time.
“I got to town in September of 1990, and I met these people in December at Live At Libby’s,” Tracy goes on. “We did a showcase at the Bluebird Café in January of ’91, and in May of ’91, I was cutting `Sticks And Stones.’ That’s crazy. Nobody does that.”
James Stroud, a former studio drummer, produced the early Tracy records. They quickly became one of country radio’s dream teams.
“That whole sound was very progressive and very edgy. It was on the forefront of that whole Young Country Movement,” he says. “And we were right in the middle of it.”
By 1993, Tracy was right in the middle of an historic run, with four straight No. 1s.
“Man, I was a rock star. It was crazy,” he says. “I was young, I was single, I was makin’ money. I couldn’t go to the grocery store. It was the most awesome time of my life. The world was my oyster, and I pried open every oyster I could find.
“Well, I overindulged,” he says with a grin. “That’s what 20-year-olds are supposed to do. I don’t have any regrets as I look back. I have been blessed to see and do things most people my age never get a chance to do.”
Now, more than 20 years, dozens of hits and radio tours, and hundreds of sold-out shows later, Tracy’s at a very contented place in his life. He’s married and the proud father of two daughters, and making some of the greatest music in his career, while his own Lawrence Group takes care of the new-look business.
He holds up his PDA, and says, “This is the new television. Country radio is expensive, and they’re only playing 10 current songs. You’re dropping $15,000 a month on an outsourced promotion staff and you’re getting two adds a month. You can’t justify that.”
So 20 years after the debut of “Sticks And Stones,” Tracy and his support team are headed home to a place they’ve known very well from the very beginning – right back to No. 1.
By Phil Sweetland