Tracy Lawrence is a 100 percent, all-American country music singer, and he has the background to prove it. During the past decade, while Nashville musicians like Garth Brooks, Faith Hill and Shania Twain seem to be on a quest to blur the line between country and pop as much as possible, Lawrence has steadfastly held the line by writing, producing and performing a series of CDs with a straightforward, traditional mindset.
While up-and-comers put out soft-pop ballads based on marketing research, Lawrence is calling all his own career shots, writing songs about the rugged lifestyle he's led.
Yet when asked about it, he's pretty polite about other singers' career paths, and actually sounds concerned about the welfare of some of the younger performers.
"I don't like to knock anyone. From a business side, if the kid is making money then the label is happy and he's happy, but I have a moral problem with that," Lawrence says during a recent phone interview. "I have friends like Tanya (Tucker), who missed a good portion of their lives. Right now the kids are flying high, but where will they be when their 35 and there is a piece of their lives missing? They never went to prom, or went on that first date to the movies. I feel sorry for them."
Lawrence is a bit more pragmatic about the business end of things. He usually co-produces his CDs, and 10 years of working with men in suits and ties has given him a pretty good grasp on what is right and wrong in the Nashville music industry. He's also more outspoken about how to strike a balance between traditional and pop-flavored country music performers.
"I'm a fan of great music, but (pop music) is not for me. If you look back several years at the nature of the beast of the industry, there has always been a core of traditionalists, like Merle Haggard, while there have also been guys like Kenny Rogers," he says. "I think what we're missing now is that core, the backbone of country music, and we need to re-establish that. I mean, you can't do the soundtrack for 'Coyote Ugly' and expect it to play on country radio."
Lawrence own life will make a great book someday. He started playing roughneck honky tonks as an underage 16-year-old. Lawrence hit Nashville with stars in his eyes, determined, like all the other newcomers, to get his own album deal. Like his peer, Alan Jackson, who drove a forklift while shopping around his demo tapes, Lawrence worked as an ironworker while entering and winning talent contests around the city. That's how he eventually hooked up with his manager, Wayne Edwards, who helped land him a deal with Atlantic Records.
Lawrence is often grouped in with new traditionalists like Strait, Clint Black, Ricky Van Shelton and Mark Chesnutt, but his career was almost a footnote in country music lore.
In 1991, his first CD, "Sticks and Stones," was released. Out one night to celebrate with a girlfriend, they were accosted by three gun-toting gang members. While trying to protect his date, Lawrence was shot four times, with two bullets nicking him, one lodging in the knee, and a fourth hitting his pelvis, embedding itself a fraction from a major artery. Lawrence's business sense took over during that stretch.
"When I was lying there I thought I needed to get up and get back quick before somebody else got my spot. Labels don't wait. I did what I could do in physical rehabilitation to push it to the edge," he says.
After working his way out of a hospital room, and going through physical therapy, Lawrence was hit with overwhelming medical bills. Faced with losing his career and going into bankruptcy, he threw himself into touring to re-establish his momentum and to pay off creditors. The results were pretty impressive. His first single also named "Sticks and Stones" went No. 1. His second album, "Alibis" rocketed to gold status in 17 days, eventually going platinum, and in 1993 the Nashville music industry rewarded his efforts by naming him Best New Male Vocalist at the American Country Music Awards.
"I was shot in May and performing in September. We went on and did 289 shows in 1992. It was sort of ridiculous," he says.
Lawrence's life has been a roller coaster ride ever since. He's released eight CDs and had 16 chart-topping singles, including "Texas Tornado," "Time Marches On" and "If the World Had a Front Porch." But he's also wrestled with personal demons, often in a very public manner.
A few years ago Lawrence went through a highly-publicized divorce, complete with criminal charges and lawsuits. When the dust settled, he found himself taking time of to recollect himself and work on channeling the experiences into his music. The result was the critically-acclaimed CD "Lessons Learned" that he released last year. He believes it's healthy to write about his experiences, but not just as therapy. More than anything, moving on in life seems to have helped him. He remarried last year, and the couple just had a new baby.
Lawrence is now with Warner Brothers, and he has a new single, "Life Don't Have to be So Hard," coming out in September, with a yet-unnamed CD to follow in October. Ever the businessman, he talks extensively about shelf space, video shoots and an extensive Spring tour in 2002. But it's making music that still fires him up the most.
"Whenever I start producing I examine where I am in life. I have to identify with a song. That's caused complications with labels when they pushed songs at me just to because a songwriter was hot, or it would get a CMA nomination," Lawrence says. "I came to Nashville with some hard-headed ideas about what country music is and what I would sing. I have to sing these songs a long time. The guys in suits don't have to do it. I do. Music is supposed to give you an emotional experience. I hope I can communicate that to people out there."