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Tracy Lawrence Interview: Singer Looks to the Future on New Album

Tracy Lawrence
Electric House Agency

Tracy Lawrence has just released his first full studio album in five years. ‘Headlights, Taillights and Radios’ dropped on Tuesday (Aug. 20), marking a significant change for the iconic singer.

He has sold more than 13 million albums over a 20-year career in country music, scoring a string of hits including ‘Time Marches On,’ ‘Find Out Who Your Friends Are,’ ‘Alibis’ and ‘Paint Me a Birmingham.’ He has placed 22 songs in the Top 10 in Billboard’s country charts, with 18 of them reaching No. 1. But Lawrence took a different approach for the new project, working with different musicians and employing edgier production techniques to create a more modern-sounding album, while still remaining true to his artistic identity.

The Boot caught up with Lawrence on release day to discuss the new album, changes in the marketplace, why he thought it was time for a fresh approach, and much more.

It’s been a while since you’ve had a new studio album. Why the long layoff between projects?

I’ve been re-structuring my company. I had a couple of things over the past five years. After ‘Find Out Who Your Friends Are’ was so big, I was right there — I had a record deal with a new independent label out of Alabama, and actually had an album cut for Cracker Barrel, a full production album in the can and ready to go. And the backer of all of that was the guy that got indicted down in Alabama in the gambling thing, for fraud and all that stuff. So every bit of that got lost. I’d been working with those folks for three years, and it just kinda jerked the rug out from under me.

I thought everything was going in the right direction, and then the whole world just kinda slid to a freakin’ halt. So I just decided to back up and re-group, and decided there were things wrong in the way I was approaching the business. And instead of just going and cutting something and throwing it out there, I needed to start from the foundation, and build up.

I put a whole new team together, went out and looked at what some of the new opportunities were in the marketplace, with social media and everything. Hired a great company, got a new publicist, a new person to run the label, and just slowly, meticulously, over the last two-and-a-half, three years, have just focused on re-building the foundation of my career, and getting re-connected with my fan base, and getting all of these things put back in place to get ready for a drop.

That’s very smart, because a lot of the time artists who have been around for a long time don’t pay attention to the changes that are going on, and then they just start to slide.

Well, it’s a shame, in the day and age that we live in, that you can’t make a great record and put it out, and everybody just gravitate to it. But the reality of it is, if Elvis came back from the dead and cut a record right now, he wouldn’t automatically sell any records. You’ve got to build a foundation, and you’ve got to open the pathways up to reach that fan base out there, and be able to have the opportunities to hear it through some of the new digital media.

If radio’s not the direction that you’re going, there’s Pandora and Spotify, and XM satellite radio, and all that kind of stuff. Plus all the social media outlets; Facebook and Twitter and everything else. It’s constantly changing. We really put a lot of effort into putting that in place, so people would be able to find me, and developing a relationship with them over the last couple of years.

How long have you worked on this album, specifically? I know it’s been in the pipeline for quite some time.

Two-and-a-half years, at least. Something like that. I think I started on this album in February or March of 2011. That’s when we cut the first tracks.

Did you know, before you went in to cut the first tracks, that you were going to try to do a little bit of a sonic re-invention as far as taking it a little bit edgier? Or did that not reveal itself until you got in there and started working?

It didn’t reveal itself, actually — the first five or six songs that I cut on the album, I had envisioned that I was going to cut a more traditional-based record. And then, halfway through the project, that changed, and we wound up looking outside for some more aggressive, edgy songs. And that in turn led me to go back in and change some of the players on the original sessions. So this has kind of been an evolving thing that took shape over many, many months.

What was the impetus for that change? Were you not happy with what you’d cut, or you just recognized that things were going in a different direction?

You know, it was like an epiphany that I had. My wife and I had gone to see Kenny Rogers at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center [in Nashville] in January of 2012, and after the show we went back and visited with Kenny and his wife for a little bit. And we were just talking about music, and evolution, and where it’s been, and he was talking about the many different stages of his career, and how he felt that so many times, when things were at a certain point, that he had re-invented himself, because he went through so many different personalities in his career.

I left there really chewing on, ‘What is it that I need to do to become relevant in the marketplace again?’ And I realized that if you’re going to be relevant, you’ve got to grow. You’ve got to evolve. If you’re just gonna stay the same, and do the same old stuff that I’ve been doing, then that’s fine, too — but if you want to be relevant and current, then you’ve got to evolve and change. And it really opened my eyes up to what the reality of the marketplace was. It made me re-group, and I’ve never been one to chase what everyone else was doing. But I felt like I needed to find what was comfortable for me to grow, and to challenge myself and evolve.

You succeeded with this record. It’s a great-sounding recording — it’s modern, but it’s not like you went and cut a pop record. It’s still a Tracy Lawrence record; it’s just a modern Tracy Lawrence record.

I think so. And you know, I really listened to a lot of songs, just trying to find the flow. I think that was the hardest thing for me, after all of it was done, was finding a flow for the record, and figuring out what to call it. You know, I had all this diverse music; there’s no two things alike on this album. And I really worked on the sequencing of it, to really make it speak something.

Every album that I’ve done in the past, pretty much, the title of it has always come from a song. And I lived with this album, and I went through it, and nothing rose up to me and said, “I’m the title of this album. I’m what this record is about.” So the title actually came from one of the internal lyrics, from a song called ‘Blacktop’ on the record. And that really kinda brought the whole thing into focus, when I decided on that as the title.

The press release says that title represent the past, the future, and your success at radio. Was that something that suggested itself right at that moment, or did you mull that over for a while and think, ‘That could tie in thematically to this whole thing’?

Yeah, it did; when I pulled that line out, it speaks about the old and the new; looking down the road, being reverent to the past, and also just acknowledging the years at radio. So it all just seemed to make perfect sense, in an artistic and abstract way. [Laughs.] It’s one of these things that in your mind, you think, ‘Oh, everybody will get this, it’s artistic!’

Have you had the opportunity to play any of these songs live yet?

Yeah, I’ve been playing them for several months. We’ve got just about everything on the album worked up, and I try to do about four a night. I don’t do them all together; I kinda scatter them through the night, because I think it’s real important to keep the flow and the pace of the show up, and I think if you put in too many songs that people aren’t familiar with, I think it can drag the show down. So I just space them out, spread them out through the night, and they seem to be connecting with people.

It can be really difficult to perform new songs live, when people haven’t heard them.

I enjoy it, as long as you keep stuff flowing through the rest of the show. Like I said, I don’t think you can — I don’t want to go out there and do half the album all at once. That’s when everybody tends to get up and get a beer, and go to the bathroom.

You’ve had ‘Stop, Drop and Roll’ out as a single, and now you’ve got ‘Footprints on the Moon.’ What are some of the other focus tracks on the album?

A song called ‘Lie,’ a big power ballad on the album that I think is going to be the next single. As far as really young, hip stuff goes, there’s a song called ‘Blacktop.’ Obviously, that’s where the title of the album came from.

And one of my favorites is a song that I wrote called ‘Butterfly.’ It was written from a story I heard about the Joplin tornadoes a few years ago, about how these butterfly people came down and protected the kids that were buried in all the rubble and stuff, and there were several of them that talked about these apparitions that were very real to them. We wrote it from the perspective that the butterfly people were angels, and they protected you if it wasn’t your time to go, and they also came to carry you to the other side when it was your time to leave this world. Pretty powerful song. A lot of family members that I’ve played it for, it really moved them, because it’s one of the more traditional-based songs, and it kinda touches a nerve.

That’s a very cool way to wrap up the album, because it’s so extremely different than everything else.

Yeah, and that goes back to really struggling with the sequence. I played with the sequence for a long time, really trying to figure out how it should flow. Where do you start it? How do you end it? It’s a really tricky thing. And in this day and age, where you don’t have to burn stuff down, I could just re-arrange the sequence and plug it into my iPod and listen down. I really played with a lot of different scenarios before I settled on this.

That’s actually taking the leap of faith that people are going to listen to a whole record. Some people think sequencing doesn’t matter anymore, because people are just going to pick out individual tracks anyway.

Well, Bob Lefsetz, he says all the time, we live in a single-dominated society, and I believe that in the pop world that probably is more true than country. But I believe country fans are still loyal to the album. I think for the most part, they still want to buy that record, they still want to be engaged in the vision that the artist had. How much longer that’s going to be the case, I don’t know. I know it’s changing. But I don’t know if I’m ready to let go of the approach of making a complete project. I’m not ready to do that yet. I haven’t resolved that in my own mind just yet.

The death of that is almost the death of artistry, to a certain degree. Not that there’s anything wrong with singles, but great albums have always been the backbone of great music.

You know, if you just focus on making singles, you lose the personality of the record. Because everything is not meant to go to radio. It’s not meant for that mass consumption. And that’s where you find the true personality of the artist, the true life experiences. Those things that shine through the cracks, man, that’s where the true stuff comes out, for me.

There’s a lot of different types of material here, which require a lot of different types of singing on your part on this record. Do you do each song in a separate session and just focus on that, or how do you handle all of that?

This one was really different. I took about three or four days, and some of these were so rangy and so extreme from verse to chorus, that I would literally work on the verses and get the verses out of the way, and then come back and attack some of the choruses, because they were so dynamic. The engineers were telling me, when we did ‘Good Girl,’ that there’s one time when I’m bottoming out on a note and then going up for the chorus, that it jumps almost three full octaves. It was just like, wham! [Laughs.]

It’s really difficult to make the timbre and the warmth of your voice change that much, and hold the consistency when you’re going through that extreme of a dynamic, and keep your tone solid throughout the whole process. Because I tend — when I hit those high notes, I have to put a lot of air into it when I get up in those highs, and sometimes I can blow the coil of a freakin’ microphone slap up. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] You’ve got to back it off a little bit!

I do! And sometimes we had to take it in sections, because I sing the different sections of songs with quite a different approach, so it just didn’t freak the gear out.

When I get focused on a record, I want to get in and get it done. We usually knock the tracks out, and I typically get my head into it when I do scratch vocals on a record. So by the time I get done with the tracks and overdubs, I’m ready to go straight into the studio and start knocking everything out, and I try to get through it pretty quickly.

There’s a song on here called ‘Other Side of 35,’ which is actually a play on words. But it kinda begs the question, is there an inherent ageism in the music business, and a fear on the part of artists like yourself about getting older as younger people are coming into the marketplace?

I think if you’re putting all of your eggs into the basket of radio, absolutely there is. It would have to be somewhat similar to the physical toll that your body takes being a professional athlete. There is an expiration date on the box. How you deal with that is up to each individual.

I think if you’re smart, you don’t have to adhere to that in this day and age. There are too many tools out there; if you build a company and are able to nurture the relationship that you have with fans, and grow that whole digital market, I don’t think there has to be an end to it. I think the only reason that there is, is because you allow it to happen.

It’s so easy for people to get discouraged and just kinda give up, in a way.

But man, there’s so many tools that we’ve never had at our disposal. And you know, if you sit back and believe what record labels tell you, yeah, there is an expiration date on the box. But I don’t think fans have that same mindset. I think as long as you’re relevant and you’re making good music, there is no expiration date to those fans. George Jones was living proof of that, and you know, Charlie Daniels is still out there banging it out after how many decades? I think country fans are loyal. I think as long as you can find ways to continue to reach your audience, and you’re passionate about what you do, and you continue to put on good shows, you can do this for a long, long time.

You mentioned Kenny Rogers — that guy’s still out there, and it’s been what, about 125 years? [Laughs.]

[Laughing] Yeah, he’s still out there doing it, man. And you know, when I saw him in 2012, he put on a great show. And he’s not up there in spandex doing cartwheels across the stage, but he’s entertaining, and he’s able to do things like show clips of all the things that he’s been through, and talk about the life span. And that’s just as cool as going out there and watching people blow stuff up on the stage, sometimes.

Well, it seems like the business has morphed into a much more spectacular live presentation that gets a little less involved with just presenting good music.

I don’t believe that the industry can sustain that. Everyone wants to be an arena act, and it’s making country music evolve. People are cutting things more for that arena environment. But who’s to say that that is a sign of any more of a successful career than what James Taylor has been able to do, when he still comes and plays the Ryman every two years? Are they any more successful than a guy like James Taylor?

As a matter of fact, I much prefer a smaller, more contained, better-sounding show to some gigantic spectacle with a bunch of lights and explosions.

That’s for the young people, and I get that. I remember how I felt going to those shows. And you know what, the young artists out there are bringing more and more fans to country music, and country music has exploded. It’s reaching a worldwide audience like it never has before. And that’s great. I understand the reality is, I’m never gonna be that big arena act. I had my time there, and it was not as long as I would have liked. But I can still make a really good living, and make some really great music for my fans that are out there, and keep growing my fan base by doing what I’m doing.

Is there anything else you want to say about your record?

Thank you guys for your support. It’s really been fun kind of weaving through the new stuff, developing this business model. I just got the emails this morning, I think we’ve gotten as high as 7 or 8 on the iTunes country chart in sales this morning, and Amazon is strong. So we’re selling records, and right there in the mix with Luke Bryan and a lot of the major label guys.

That’s pretty gratifying, to be right there in the mix with the major labels. That tells me we’re doing something right. We don’t have it all figured out yet, but we’re doing something right.

Next: Hear an Exclusive Stream of 'Headlights, Taillights and Radios'

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