Interview: Tracy Lawrence Is ‘Really Hitting It Hard’ to Celebrate 30 Years in Country Music
Tracy Lawrence is 30 years into a country music career that's chock full of timeless hits, and he shows no sign of slowing down — not quite yet, at any rate.
Lawrence spent most of 2020 at home instead of on the road due to the COVID-19 pandemic, like virtually every other touring musician in the world. Asked what he learned from so much downtime, the singer jokes, "I don't like it."
He's making up for it with an intensely busy schedule in 2021 that includes three new releases, some shows with Clay Walker, tour dates of his own, a 30th-anniversary livestream and more.
Lawrence signed his first record deal in 1991 and released his debut album, Sticks and Stones, in November of that year. The album rocketed him to instant success, scoring four back-to-back hits with its title song, "Today's Lonely Fool," "Runnin' Behind" and "Somebody Paints the Wall," launching Lawrence as part of a group of new traditionalists who rose to prominence around that time and dominated country radio in the '90s.
Lawrence has gone on to a long string of hits that includes "Alibis," "If the Good Die Young," "Texas Tornado," "Time Marches On," "Paint Me a Birmingham," "Find Out Who Your Friends Are" and more. He's set to release new music and revisit some of those classics with the impending release of three new albums, collectively titled Hindsight 2020. The first installment, Stairway to Heaven, Highway to Hell, arrives on Friday (April 23), and Lawrence will mark the occasion with a special 30th-anniversary livestream show on April 27, featuring his biggest hits from across his three decades in country music.
We found Lawrence in a talkative mood when we recently caught up with him about his big year. He's clearly excited to, as he put it, "get control of my own destiny again" — but he's also looking forward to slowing the pace a little bit after three straight decades of hard road work.
You've gone from 0 to 60 here recently.
That's exactly the way it feels, man, But I like it that way. We had four shows last week, three this week, a golf tournament coming up ... we've been really hittin' it hard, and I like it when it gets busy like that. I think I function better.
Congratulations on 30 years and all that you've got going on. Did you have this retrospective planned before the pandemic, or was it a product of going into lockdown?
I can't say that all of the pieces were in place, but we had been talking about what we were going to do for the 30th anniversary for a couple of years.
I was able to write a lot in the downtime when we were off the road, so I had some things in the can. A lot of songs. So right now, the new album Stairway to Heaven Highway to Hell comes out the 23rd, and the second album is mixed, mastered and sequenced. It's got five new songs on it that I wrote. The title track is called "Price of Fame," a duet with Eddie Montgomery. The song I wrote with Rick Huckaby and Brad Arnold from 3 Doors Down. There's a duet with Tracy Byrd called "Holes in the Wall," and three other new songs. There's five remakes on there; "If the World Had a Front Porch," "Stars Over Texas," "I See It Now," "Somebody Paints the Wall" and "Find Out Who Your Friends Are."
The third package will be the same format: Five new songs, five old hits, which will be — I'm still trying to decide, but I know it's going to be "Time Marches On," "Paint Me a Birmingham," "Sticks and Stones," "Alibis," "Texas Tornado." Somewhere in there, there may be some changes. And five new songs are coming; two of them are written, and I have one outside song that I found, kind of a whiskey-drinking, hardcore country thing. So I have two more songs to write, and as soon as those are done, we'll get in the studio to finish the third package up.
That's a whole lot of stuff to put out in one year, let me tell you! [Laughs].
Did you get in the studio and record in person, or have you been recording remotely during the pandemic?
Yeah, we got in the studio. A couple of them I had in the can from old sessions from 2014 that we've been holding on to for a while. But we did go into the studio. The studio's been a little difficult because they had mask requirements and they'd check your temperature. And the vocals, I did at my co-producer's house, so it was really a much more controlled environment once we got the tracking out of the way. But we've just tried to adhere to all of the guidelines we were supposed to.
What was the writing process for "Stairway to Heaven, Highway to Hell"?
That's the only Zoom write that I did last year. I had the idea, and I wanted to find the right person to write it with. Craig Wiseman and I had talked about writing for a while, and Craig was really uncomfortable with getting together, so it was the one Zoom write that I did. It was a long one. I found it a little bit challenging. I think there's an energy when people are in the room together, and I like the collaborative energy of a co-write.
It took a while; I think it was a 5 or 6-hour write, but we hammered it out in one session, and the song turned out exactly the way it was supposed to. It turned out to be a little autobiographical, which I think is really cool.
This pandemic break has been the longest period you've had at home since you launched your career. What have you learned about yourself in all that downtime?
I don't like it! [Laughs]. I think the balance of me getting on the bus and going on the road is really good for my marriage.
You're celebrating 30 years this year. Take us through what happened for you 30 years ago.
I had my first showcase at the Bluebird Cafe in January of '91, and I signed my contract with Atlantic the day I walked into the recording studio to cut Sticks and Stones, I think it was May 21.
We had a real tight budget; we cut 10 songs, I did vocals on them and it was done. We didn't cut anything extra; we didn't have the money to do it. We cut what we cut, and that was what was on the record. I had four hits off it, so it was a pretty good way to start.
You'd obviously already chosen the tracks pretty carefully, or you wouldn't have been able to do that.
I'd been writing a lot when I first got to town, so I had some songs, and [producer] James Stroud helped me find some things. James really was instrumental in structuring that stuff and helping me navigate through it. I always had a pretty good song sense, but James really taught me so much about how to put a record together.
If you could go back to the day you signed your deal and give your younger self a piece of advice, what would you say?
Just, try not to get carried away with all of it. It's really hard not to lose yourself in this business. It's such an unnatural thing to all of a sudden just have ... we'd pull up in the bus and people would start circling the cars like we were a spaceship landing or something. All the things that went along with it are just so unnatural, it's just so hard not to get caught up in all of it.
To be recognized everywhere you go, it's not normal, and you find yourself isolating. I'd go to the store at midnight if I needed to buy groceries, when nobody was there. You find ways of navigating around it, and you really do end up isolating, because it's more headache than it's worth to go out.
I'm glad that I was able to come back out of it and remember where I came from, but I got lost for a while. I wish I could tell myself not to do that.
Has all this downtime altered the way you see your career and life balance?
After we get past this year and try to recover a little bit from last year — one of the things that I did realize is that I don't want to get back on the treadmill and run at the pace that I've run for the last 30 years. I do want to take more time with my wife. Our second daughter's just about out of school, and I think we're going to travel a little bit more. I want to do some international traveling, and I want to spend more time with my wife. It's time for us to reconnect.
My career's kinda gotten in the way sometimes. We've been married 20 years, and I've been gone most of that 20 years, and she's been here raising kids. Now that the kids are about gone, it's time for us to reevaluate, and I don't think working the road 100 days a year fits into that program for me anymore.
At this stage of your career, is there anything left to prove to yourself or anyone else?
I don't think so. I'm just enjoying the creative process more than anything else. I know I enjoy it more when I'm writing songs. I know the importance of the rest of it — media, working radio and all of the other things you do when you're working a project — and this is a really big year, so I've got to take advantage of all of the opportunities that are coming our way. But I do want to slow the pace. I think once we get past this year, I want to back up, take a breath and reevaluate. I will never stop, but I'd rather do 60 days instead of 100 [Laughs].
You've got some tour dates coming up with Clay Walker. How did that come about?
Clay and I have been friends a long time, and I don't know how many of these things we're gonna do. The ticket sales have been great, but the hard part is that we're merging bands. I'm bringing three players and he's bringing three players, and we're mixing production crews. But all of my guys have been out of work for a year, too, so we just have to evaluate what we do after this. I hate to leave guys sitting at home, 'cause they struggled through this whole thing, too. We've been able to spread some love around with our PPP, but it's still not like going out and working every weekend. The guys have sacrificed, and I take that into consideration. So I'm prioritizing my people as much as I can.
These shows are gonna be great. It'll be both of us on the stage the entire time, kinda bantering back and forth, playing each other's songs. So it's gonna be interesting.
Have you seen a different kind of energy from fans at the shows you've done since getting back on stage?
Absolutely. People are very hungry for some normalcy. The crowds, you can tell they just want to hear live music. They miss it as much as I do. You can literally feel the energy in the air. And a lot of the big arena acts aren't going out this year, so we have an opportunity to step our game up to the next level and try to take advantage this year, because people are coming. The venues that we've played, it's been packed to the gills. In the states that allow you to get somewhat up to full capacity, we've filled them up.
In a perfect world, if this year goes exactly like you hope, where will you be at the end of the year?
At the end of the year? Back to, not headlining arenas, but I'd be on a couple of big tours that get me propped back up to go out and get control of my own destiny again. And then get back into some bigger venues where I can still pull good crowds, slow my career schedule down, not work as much and prioritize bigger venues, so I can have more control of my life.