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A decade ago a fresh-faced kid from Vidor, Texas, was one of 10 acts on the New Faces Show, an annual Nashville showcase to introduce the nation's top radio programmers to country's most promising newcomers. There was Boy Howdy, Ronna Reeves, The Remingtons, Dennis Robbins, Michael White, Confederate Railroad, Radney Foster, Martina McBride, Tracy Byrd and the trio Matthews, Wright & King.
"Martina and I are the only survivors from that year," acknowledges Tracy as he kicks back at his beach house in Galveston, Texas. True -- only he and Martina still have major record deals and are regularly heard on Top 40 country radio.
Tracy's latest success is his current hit single "The Truth About Men" and the release of his new CD of the same name -- and the album's No. 5 debut on Billboard's sale-based Top Country Albums chart. That No. 5 feat matches the first-week outing of his 1999 Keepers: Greatest Hits album.
A recent sunny Texas day found Tracy cuddling with all three of his kids in a beach-house hammock. In from a 20-day stretch on the road, he's grabbing two days with the family before climbing back on the bus for another string of gigs.
As a gentle Gulf of Mexico breeze rolls in, he ponders why he's still at the top of his game after 10 years when so many other artists have disappeared from the charts.
"The No. 1 reason," he says with a chuckle, "is that I've worked my butt off! The first five years I did 180 shows a year. And the minimum we've ever worked is 115 a year. We've stayed on the road and built a fan base the old-fashion way -- gettin' out in front of folks and playin' for them.
"Also, I've worked hard to find great songs -- traditional songs for contemporary times -- and put out the best record possible.
"And," he continues, "I have a belief in myself that drives me on, even during those three bad years when I didn't have a major hit on the radio. Oh, we had a couple of Top 10s, but nothing that did anything careerwise. But I never gave up on the belief that we could have another run of No. 1s and Top 5s."
But he thinks the main reason he's still going strong is because he's following the example of his heroes. "Early on I had a vision that longevity is the key," he says. "I'd see new artists explode on the scene with No. 1 smashes and platinum albums, and then be gone in a couple of years. I knew I wanted to slowly build a lasting career, like Merle Haggard did and George Jones and George Strait. I want to be a significant part of country music history and not just a footnote."
He's hoping his Truth About Men CD will add another mile or two to his career longevity.
"The album has a great balance between up-tempo songs and ballads, and between humor and more serious subjects," he notes. " 'The Truth About Men' and 'Drinkin' Bone' are downright funny, and 'How'd I Wind Up in Jamaica' has a cool tongue-in-cheek thing goin' on.
"And 'Baby Put Your Clothes On' is a great dance song with some fun lines, like We need to do some belt-buckle rubbin' where the lights are low and the music's high."
And the opening line of the sexy "You Feel Good" will definitely get folks' attention. "The first time I heard I like sleeping in the nude when it's hot and the moon is full," declares Tracy, "it got my attention!"
Among the album's other standouts are "Tiny Town," about looking back at growing up in a small town, the love songs "Somewhere I Wanna Go" and "Making Memories of Us," and the poignant break-up tune "When You Go."
And there's a way cool bonus track -- a live version of "Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo," last year's rowdy No. 1. "Fans kept asking where they could get a live version of 'Jose Cuervo,' " explains Tracy, "so we gave it to 'em."
The mid-afternoon sun is blazing against the deep blue Texas sky, and Tracy's biggest fans -- wife Michelle, daughter Evee, 8, and sons Logan, 5, and Jared, 11 months -- are so ready to head to the nearby water slide.
In other words, this interview is over!
"Jared will use his 'floatie' and splash around in the pool while Evee and Logan slide," beams Tracy.
"We're gonna have a blast!"