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Tracy Lawrence: Lights On!

Originally published in the Sept. 9, 2013 issue of Country Weekly magazine, featuring Reba McEntire on the cover.

Back in 2006, Tracy Lawrence accomplished a pretty remarkable feat. The distinctive stylist and ’90s hitmaker’s single “Find Out Who Your Friends Are,” released independently on his own record label, made a slow trip to the top of the chart to become his first No. 1 since 1996’s “Time Marches On.” Two albums followed in that song’s wake with varying degrees of success, but Tracy has been mostly quiet on the recording front since 2009. Until now, anyway.

“We had such a huge record with ‘Friends,’ and there was a lot of frustration attached to it because we had an impact record and I just didn’t feel like my company was structured to maintain the momentum and continue moving forward,” sighs Tracy, seated in his Music Row office and sporting a golf shirt, shorts and an Arkansas Razorbacks hat. “We had an impact and we didn’t have anything else in place.”

His solution was to take time off to restructure his company with new staff and figure out how to capitalize on the many opportunities afforded him by the widespread growth of technology. Sure, he might not be scoring the radio hits the way he once did, but he could now communicate directly with the people who bought his records in those days. “I really felt like—and still do—that I have a large fan base and that I have the ability to continue to have success,” he suggests. “Maybe not at the level that I had in the ’90s when I was having No. 1 after No. 1 and selling platinum and double-platinum records. But I feel like as an independent label I’ve got a market [and] we needed to identify what that was.”

Once Tracy was able to do that, it was game on. He says operating his own independent label, Lawrence Music Group, affords him some pretty important advantages over going back with a major, even if it’s more difficult for him to get radio airplay. “We’ve really tried to systematically nurture and grow that fan base out there and it’s something we want to continue to do over the next several years,” he remarks. “At this point, if we come out there and sell 150 to 200,000 records, it’s a huge home run for us. I think we have the ability to do it now.”

The title of Tracy’s new album, Headlights, Taillights and Radios (which hit stores Aug. 20), nods to his actual experience of assembling the project in separate sections. The phrase—which appears in the track “Black Top”—jumped out as Tracy was considering titles and track sequencing. “We started throwing it around here in the office, just like, there’s more meaning to that than just the front and back of a car and having the radio on inside,” he says. “Because of the way the album was put together it was like this actually has depth to it as a title because it talks about the taillights, being where the album started with being reflective, looking behind us and being nostalgic. Then there’s part of it that’s being forward-thinking, that’s looking down the road, that’s looking toward tomorrow. It just seemed to bring the whole focus of the album together.”

When Tracy originally began recording Headlights, he was doing a lot of writing and looking for material that reminded him of the type of country he was performing when he first came to Nashville. This “taillights” portion of the process yielded more traditional-sounding offerings like “The Other Side of 35.” “I still am very passionate about the older-style music, and that song in particular reminded me of early Hank Jr.,” recalls Tracy. “It’s kind of where I’m at in life. My core fans have always been used to hearing things they know are personal for me. As I tried to grow and challenge in some areas I felt like it was important I didn’t completely lose touch with giving them at least some music like that.”

The “headlights” came about when Tracy had a chance to visit with Kenny Rogers after a show and chat about how many times the Gambler has reinvented himself during his career. “I realized that if I was going to be relevant I had to push myself as an artist to expand and get outside of my comfort zone a little bit,” explains Tracy. “I needed to broaden myself, I needed to try rangier things. I needed to cut some edgier records and stop trying to hang on to the past.” “Black Top” was among those finds and the amped-up track sounds like something Tracy acolyte Jason Aldean might have missed when he was recording his last album.

The album’s leadoff track and single is “Footprints on the Moon,” which is a stylistic departure. Musically, it’s contemporary and undeniably optimistic about love, but you can’t mistake Tracy’s unique vocals for anyone else’s. He reveals that he found the song when he was considering recording a country cover of one of his favorite songs, Train’s “Drops of Jupiter.” “I thought, before I go down that road let me see if I can find something that gives me the feel of that,” he explains. “Not the same record, but something that is generally like that that’s got that outer space feel to it. Something I’ve never done. I went to several publishing companies and told them just that: ‘This is what I’m looking for. Do you have anything like that?’ And that’s what I found. It turned out to be something really fresh.”

While Tracy does try on some more contemporary looks for a few of the tracks, he says it was important that his choices be tasteful and not feel contrived or too eager to chase trends. “When you’re trying to figure out where to go next, sometimes you can step out of a comfort zone where it doesn’t feel natural,” he explains. “It almost feels forced and I think people pick up on that. I really wanted this album to be a reflection of where I’m at in my life musically, but it’s got to feel good. You have the ability to make everything so freakin’ perfect, and sometimes you can try to make it so perfect that you suck the magic out. I desperately didn’t want to do that.”

Nonetheless, Tracy feels like there’s plenty to enjoy among the current crop of country stars, as well as some passing fads. “There’s a style that’s going to be very short-lived,” he notes. “It seems like everybody’s cutting these party songs. The lyrics have gotten a little watered down. But there’s still some really good stuff out there. What I’ve noticed, there’s some people—guys like Randy Houser—that are cutting real good country records that lyrically and chord progression-wise are not much different than some of the stuff we were doing in the ’90s. But they’re more guitar-based, the drums and the bass are shoved up hotter, so the production element has really changed, and I dig that,” he says with emphasis. “That’s just like the next step.”

As for Tracy’s next step, some of it remains to be seen. He’ll be out playing shows and making the most of the opportunities that come his way. Then he and his team will learn what they can do differently next time around. “It’s been fun to figure out what works for us,” he says. “What we’re doing here is pretty much off my personality. The people I have around me, we utilize each other, and what works for us might not work for anybody else. This is our own business model, doing things our own way with no outside influence. It’s been fun to piece it together and massage it and watch it grow.”

No doubt he’ll keep those headlights on for the whole ride. 

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