His distinctive voice made his music instantly recognizable, and his incredible catalog of songs, from “Time Marches On” to “If the World Had a Front Porch,” served as the soundtrack to much of my childhood.
So when I got the chance to walk onto his bus and sit down with Tracy for an exclusive interview with Whiskey Riff to talk about his amazing career in country music, I was nervous.
Where do you even start when you’re meeting somebody whose music is a part of some of your earliest memories?
Well the nerves quickly went away, as Tracy was as nice and welcoming as he could possibly be. I could have talked to him all day – about his life, his career, and about country music. But unfortunately we didn’t have all day, so I had to try to figure out how you go about asking a legend about his career.
So that’s where I started: I asked him if he even knew what a legend he is.
And to nobody’s surprise, Tracy was humble and gracious in his response:
“That’s really a hard thing to digest.
When I came to town, Haggard and all those guys were still here, and they were legends to me.
I still get nervous around Reba and Strait and the folks from the ’80s that I idolized coming up. But as I get a little bit older it starts to settle in a little bit more, the longer I survive.”
Moving to Nashville
But every legend has to start somewhere – and when Tracy came to Nashville, he was what he described as “the baby of the pack.”
“When everybody hit in ’89…I was 22, 23 years old when my career took off. Most of those guys were 30.”
Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, country music was going through a transition from the smooth sounds of the ’70s and ’80s to more of the traditionalist edge that we heard in ’90s country.
It started with names like Reba McEntire, Randy Travis and Ricky Skaggs. Then in 1989, a group of artists that would come to be dubbed the “Class of ’89” would burst onto the scene and set the stage for the next decade in country music’s sound.
The Class of ’89 featured names like Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson, Clint Black and of course, Garth Brooks. And this group of country singers managed to bring country music to new heights as their sound appealed to a broader audience and bigger crowds than country music had in the past.
And as Tracy sees it, it was that “Class of ’89” that really paved the way for him to make his entrance into country music:
“That was just such a great year. And that was really where I think everything just completely changed.
Keith Whitley had just passed away. I was living in Louisiana playing a little circuit band around there, and I’d been talking about coming to Nashville. The guys in the band were all older and it’s like ‘Man, you ain’t ever gonna do nothing. We all got jobs and families. Nobody wants to go.’
But when all that stuff happened I’m like ‘Music is changing.’
This is not, you know, Vern Gosdin and Gene Watson. Something’s different, something different is happening here, with Garth Brooks coming out. Everything was changing.
And I got excited about it. It’s like, no matter what happens, if I want to have a shot at this I gotta be in Nashville. I have to go. As terrifying as it was, it’s a step I’ve gotta make. I’ve gotta be here.”
But Tracy wasn’t coming in without experience: He had been cutting his teeth playing what he (affectionately) refers to as “crappy honky tonks” and learning how to hold a crowd (something that a lot of artists are missing even today when they burst onto the scene without having spent that time on stage).
All that experience was about to pay off for Tracy. Within seven months of moving to Nashville, he had signed a record deal.
“I rolled into Nashville in September of 1990. And I started hitting all the songwriters nights and open mic nights and all that stuff, and ended up at, they had a supper club over in Daysville, Kentucky called Live at Libby’s…
I wound up on that show in December and some executives from Atlantic came up to see somebody else that was on the show and really liked what they saw from me and the wheels started turning.
We did a showcase in January at the Bluebird Cafe and Rick Blackburn from Atlantic Records committed to signing me, and in May of ’91 I went in the studio and cut Sticks and Stones and we cut 10 songs.
So I mean, from September to May, I didn’t know anybody when I got here, I didn’t have a job, I’d never been to Nashville before, I came up to Nashville in a beat up old car and said ‘Let’s go.’ And just figured things out as I went…
I haven’t really heard of it happening faster for anybody.”
Tracy also talked about sometimes only having money to drink one beer when he played open mic nights, but knowing that he didn’t want to get bogged down in some 9-5 job that would take his focus away from making music:
“I did some construction work first when I got there, because I had to kinda get settled in. I wound up renting a room from a drummer that I met at open mic nights and stuff that I met around town and ended up living with him until I got things rolling.
I had a job at a temporary service, and whenever I needed money they’d call…
And I would go to the open mic nights and do the contests…I’d win a hundred bucks here and a hundred bucks there, I mean my overhead wasn’t but a couple hundred bucks a month so I didn’t have to do a whole lot.
And I didn’t come to Nashville to work. I came to Nashville to chase music.
So I didn’t want to get bogged down in a 9-5 job. I had no responsibilities, I had a piece of crap car. I’d go out to mic nights and might not have the money to drink but one beer, but I would go because I was making relationships and meeting people. But that was really all I cared about.”
Sticks & Stones
When it came time for Tracy to head into the studio to record what would be his debut album, Sticks and Stones, unlike a lot of other artists, he already knew the kind of music he wanted to make:
“The whole premise of everything I did early on, really, it had to be songs that would put people on the dance floor. Because that’s really all I knew.
Everything that I’d played, they were dance halls. The objective when you’re playing honky tonks and you’re doing 4 or 5 sets a night, if you want to keep people coming in and you want to be invited back, you better keep ’em on the dance floor.
If they don’t dance, they don’t drink. And that was pretty much the way I approached that first record.”
Well it’s safe to say that his strategy worked.
Tracy’s debut single, the title track from Sticks and Stones, went to the top of the charts (and resulted in a big night out in New York City that ended up getting Tracy in some trouble with his label – but more on that later).
And of other three singles from that debut album, Tracy managed to get himself two top 5 songs with “Today’s Lonely Fool” and “Runnin’ Behind,” along with a top 10 in (one of my favorite Tracy Lawrence songs) “Somebody Paints the Wall.”
Avoiding the “Sophomore Jinx”
So when it came time to enter the studio for his second album, did Tracy feel any added pressure to follow up the success of Sticks and Stones?
“All I wanted to do is play. It was never about money for me…
As you start going through the process, you have that first record and you kind of take off and you have a hit…it’s kind of hard to explain, the walls close in a little bit.
All of a sudden you lose touch with your friends from high school and college, and all of a sudden you got this circle of people around you. And everybody’s there to “protect you” and to kind of keep you focused and moving forward, but you find yourself being really isolated.”
So as he set out to record his sophomore album, and avoid what Tracy called the “sophomore jinx,” he began looking for songs to fill in his live show:
“I had a much better perspective of what I wanted. You start looking at, as you’re building a set and you’re looking for music it’s like ‘Ok I don’t have this kind of song, I don’t have this kind of song.’
And so you kind of gauge that off what you had already from the first album and try to plug some holes in to create a better show, and that was really my whole focus on the second album.”
But despite having a number four top 10 songs from the first album, his label still wanted Tracy to go in a different direction with his second album – a direction more along the lines of John Michael Montgomery’s ballads. And it was a request that Tracy had to push back on:
“I appreciate the body of work that John Michael has. The label really wanted me to go down that sappy love song path. It just wasn’t me.
I had a couple of stand my ground moments. To me, country music is crying in your beer. It’s heartbreak and it’s drinking songs. A honky tonk mentality means something specific to me.
And any time I’ve tried to stray out of that I haven’t felt comfortable. I don’t want to perform them…
I was really hard-headed, man. I just don’t sink my teeth into that sappy stuff. I mean, my heart’s not in it and it just never has been.”
And there was one song in particular that Tracy said the label didn’t want him to cut for the second album – a song that would eventually go on to become one of his biggest hits:
“They still kicked and screamed over a few things. [President of Atlantic Records Rick] Blackburn hated “Can’t Break It to My Heart.” And it got nasty in the studio because he didn’t want me to cut it. And I cut it anyway. It was like the #2 airplay song of the freakin’ year, I mean it was a massive hit.
Sometimes labels miss the reality of, maybe the ballads do sell more records periodically but if you want an artist to have longevity and sustain, you’ve got to have a balanced catalog that you release. You can’t have all up-tempos. You’ve got to have things that you can add to your show that you can entertain a crowd with…
You’ve got to be able to stand your ground at times. And I had to fight a few times. As you get stronger, after you have several hits, you get more leverage and they finally leave you alone.”
Well all of the fighting in the studio and standing his ground paid off. That second album would turn out to be Alibis, which has since gone on to be certified double platinum and produced massive hits like the title track, along with “Can’t Break It to My Heart,” “My Second Home” and “If the Good Die Young.”
The album turns 30 this year, with many of the songs still on playlists, setlist and streaming rotation today. But at the time, Tracy said he wasn’t thinking about the impact the album would have three decades later:
“Man, I couldn’t see past the nose on the end of my face back then. I was too busy chasing girls and drinkin’ liquor.”
Touring With A Legend
Aside from the hits that it produced, Alibis also landed Tracy a spot on tour with one of the biggest names in country music history: The Possum, George Jones.
According to Tracy, many of the “legends” who were still around at the time didn’t really like the new crop of country artists who were coming into town and getting all of the airplay. But he never got that from Jones:
“What I took from him was really the way he dealt with people. I kinda looked up to guys like him, the older cats, because I consider myself a lifer.
I’m not a guy that’s just in it for a quick buck or that’s gonna be here for 10 years or so and I’m gonna retire and go on to something else. This is what I do. And that’s what I always appreciated about him.”
Tracy followed up the success of Alibis with his third album, I See It Now, which again produced three songs that reached #2 on the charts and a #1 in “Texas Tornado.”
Time Marches On
But it was his fourth album, Time Marches On, that produced what’s possibly the biggest hit of Tracy’s career with the album’s title track.
When I asked him why he thought “Time Marches On” was such a big hit and still such a classic today, Tracy was quick to answer:
“I think it’s probably the best lyric I ever cut, because being able to paint that much imagery in a three and a half minute song, you’re talking about multiple generations of a family and just the dynamic.
I mean you can close your eyes and you can see that whole thing. I was fascinated by it.”
But Tracy said there was another reason he wanted to cut the song too:
“You really wanna know why I cut it? Because of the shock factor. Because radio had never played anything that said “Smokes a lotta dope” in it.
And I knew that it would either be a massive record just because of the shock factor of it, or it would die a violent death. And it came out of the box with a BANG. I mean it was huge. It exploded.”
By the mid -1990s, Tracy was undeniably one of the biggest names in country music – but it wasn’t just country music: In 1996, he was one of the top 10 most played artists on the radio of ANY genre.
And according to Tracy, he was just enjoying the ride:
“When you’re inside that whole bubble, you kind of lose perspective. I was just enjoying the ride for as long as it would go. You hope that it’s gonna last for a long time, but I was just having a good time.
It’s kind of hard not to. You find yourself in a situation where you’re on TV and you’re on the radio and people are giving you trucks and clothes, it’s kind of hard not to have a good time.”
But not long after that, Tracy would find himself in a difficult position when his record label, Atlantic Records, announced that it was closing its doors after longtime president Rick Blackburn retired.
According to Tracy, he was given the choice to either be released from his contract, or to move over to Atlantic’s parent company, Warner Brothers.
At the time, he already had his next album all planned out and was heading into the studio the week after he found out the label was closing. And so when he was given his options, he said that next album was at the front of his mind:
“I said “If I go to Warner Brothers, will they let me stay on my production schedule? Can I go ahead and cut my record?”
He said yes.”
But what Tracy says he didn’t understand at the time was that coming into a label with an album that nobody from that label had a say in, was what he called “the kiss of death.” And not only was Atlantic Records closing, but so were two other Warner Brothers labels – which meant that there would be a massive influx of new artists coming to Warner, all competing for attention and promotion.
“I could see the writing on the wall. After I finished that record, there was a lackluster…I realized I was at the end of my deal.”
Now, “lackluster” is obviously subjective: The record that he released with Warner Brothers, his self-titled album Tracy Lawrence, peaked inside the top 15 on the country charts, but by Tracy’s standards it was far from the success he had been experiencing.
Another New Home
Luckily, Tracy already had a backup plan.
James Stroud, his longtime producer, was working for DreamWorks Records, which offered Tracy a landing spot after he left Warner Brothers.
And it’s a good thing they did. Tracy’s first (and what would turn out to be his only) record with DreamWorks was Strong – and it gave us the song that Tracy’s most known for today, “Paint Me a Birmingham.”
“It was very validating, because that was a massive record too. I’m sad to say, all the #1s that I had, “Paint Me a Birmingham” was probably the biggest impact record I ever had. That song by itself was massive.
And it was just top 5. It died at #4, it never got up there.
But it doesn’t matter. We close with that song every night, and the intensity from the crowd, it’s like what they wait for. It’s my closer and will be ’til I die.”
Becoming An Independent Artist
But unfortunately for Tracy, bad luck – and the business of the music industry – would once again leave him without a home shortly after the biggest hit of his career when DreamWorks was absorbed by Universal Music Group.
“They said “We’re gonna keep the staff, all of this is gonna be the same,” and I don’t think the ink was dried on the paperwork before they started cutting the staff and firing everybody. That was a hostile situation.
So I kinda moved on past that and started my own label.”
Through his years in the music business, though, Tracy had learned what it takes to have a hit:
“I kinda had an understanding of the game and how it was played and I knew how to get things done.”
And it turned out that he still knew how to make a song a hit: His first single as an independent artist, “Find Out Who Your Friends Are,” went to the top of the charts – an accomplishment that Tracy calls the proudest moment of his career:
“Coming out of the box with “Friends” and being able to take that to #1, as difficult as it was, being able to really validate my knowledge of how the game was played and what it took to get a record in there, that was probably the proudest moment that I had in the music business of all the things that I’d done, because we fought hard for that and never gave up.
And that was very validating for me, that not only could I sing a hit record but I knew enough about the business to make things happen on the other side too.”
Navigating the Changing Sound of Country Music
It was around this time, though, that country music was starting to go through a transition too. As the late ’90s gave way to the 2000s, country music crossovers with pop music began to become more common, and that pop sound found its way into country music as artists (and labels) saw more opportunity to reach a wider audience with crossover hits.
Tracy admitted that even he cut an album that was much more pop than anything he’d ever done with 2013’s Headlights, Taillights and Radios. (Of course, a “pop” sounding album from Tracy Lawrence is still more country than anything else that was on the radio during the dark times of the bro-country era).
But despite trying to evolve with the changing sound, and trying to find a new path forward in a changing format, Tracy wanted to stick to the sound that he knew:
“Everything ain’t drinkin’ beer on the tailgate of a truck. There’s hard things in life, and I sink my teeth into more of the hardcore stuff. The cryin’ in your beer, love gone wrong, that’s really where my heart and head’s at.
And no matter what I do…it’s not where my heart’s at. I always go back to my bread and butter.”
Still, Tracy admits that even with the success he’s had as an independent artist, it’s been a struggle to compete with the major labels – and to adapt to the changing landscape brought on by streaming without the backing of a major label.
“It’s different. I don’t really know how to gauge a lot of that stuff at this point. I haven’t really played the radio game in several years…
Even now, we’ve had some things that have done really well on streaming platforms, but I don’t know how to gauge it…
With a record going up the charts, you have time to kinda figure out how it’s gonna work and you see that thing kinda get life as it goes through the stages of it and you can adjust where it needs to be in the show.
You don’t get the luxury of all that, so you’ve got all these songs you throw out there and a bunch of people download them, and you see people singing them in the crowd, but how well did it really impact?
As far as weaving all these new things in, I just don’t know how to gauge all of it yet. It’s a different world we live in now.”
And he also admits, almost nostalgically, that things are different now that he’s trying to compete with a major label:
“As far as feeling that intensity, I haven’t felt that with anything we’ve released streaming in comparison to any kind of charted top 10, top 5, number one record that we’ve had. It just doesn’t have the same feel to it…
There’s nothing like watching a record go up the charts. It’s a special thing to be a part of.”
Finding Success In a New Landscape
Still, Tracy doesn’t regret the changing times in the country music world, or having to work so much harder to release music independently, without the backing of a label.
And he’s far from discouraged when it comes to putting out new music: In 2017, he released Good Ole Days, a collaboration album featuring duets of some of his biggest hits with some of today’s biggest stars like Luke Combs, Tim McGraw and Justin Moore.
Then in 2020, Tracy released a three-album set, Hindsight: 2020, featuring a mix of both old and new songs.
But for Tracy, like many others, ’90s country is still king:
“I think the music from our era…I think we’re the classic rock of country music. I believe this is going to be a staple of the format for a long time to come. I don’t think you’re ever going to be able to get away from it, because it was such a groundbreaking time as the music was evolving.”
As nostalgic as he may sometimes be for the past, Tracy’s still keeping busy in the present.
Aside from still releasing new music, he also has a new podcast, TL’s Road House, recorded from his bus and featuring some of the biggest new artists in country music – a way for Tracy to stay in touch and get to know the next generation of artists who are carrying on the legacy that he helped build.
Supporting His Community
And Tracy’s also staying busy in his community. Every year he hosts his annual Mission: Possible Turkey Fry here in Nashville. Now in its 17th year, the initiative started out as a small project in his house and has turned into a massive fundraiser for the Nashville Rescue Mission, raising over $250,000 in 2022 and frying over 1,200 turkeys:
“I’d get up Thanksgiving morning…and a lot of older people that I knew were scared to fry, so I started taking lists and I’d cook some extra turkeys and take ’em to different people and stuff on Thanksgiving.
So it was a group of us guys from church, and I was like “You know, I’d really like to do something for the Mission.”
I really think, being able to spin it in a better light, you know, I think they get a bad rap. We all see everybody panhandling on the street corners and all that but there’s always underlying things when the people are there.
It was just started an awareness campaign for the rescue mission.”
The fundraiser has now moved to the Nashville Fairgrounds, and doubled in size this year with 120 fryers going at one time – which enabled Tracy to move beyond just the rescue mission and also reach out to others who need help.
“I think we’re hopefully making some kind of impact out there.”
And his charity work has also expanded. Now Tracy’s also hosting a Mission: Possible Celebrity Classic Golf Tournament, with the second annual event featuring names like John Daly, Hardy, Kid Rock and Jake Owen.
With so many irons in the fire though, and with such a long and successful career under his belt, don’t expect Tracy to slow down any time soon.
Tracy’s still out on the road, and he’ll be spending part of 2023 touring with another legend of ’90s country, Clay Walker. And just today, he announced a co-headlining tour with Gary Allan, hitting seven states in two weeks.
After pouring so much time and energy into recording the three Hindsight albums, as well as spending time at home during the pandemic, Tracy’s ready to refocus his energy on touring and getting back out in front of fans.
After all, being on the road and making music is all that he knows – and all that he ever wants to do, even after all these years:
“I’m having more fun now than I ever did…
In the perfect world, I’ll die in the back of this bus.”