COMING ON STRONG

With "Paint Me a Birmingham," Tracy Lawrence roars back with a smash hit single and a renewed dedication to his family and career.

Tracy Lawrence hustles into his record label's office, slides into a chair and rubs his tired eyes. It's been a long afternoon of interviews and glad-handing at the annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, where thousands of industry and radio executives gather - but he's hardly complaining.

"It's all part of what we do," notes a smiling Tracy. And he's glad to do it. After nearly three years off the charts, Tracy has come roaring back to the big time. His "Paint Me a Birmingham" is already a Top 20 hit and the first single from his new CD, Strong. And although that title comes from one of the album's other tracks, it can also define Tracy's character over the past couple of years.

He's had to be strong in the face of losing a record label deal - a potentially devastating blow to any artist, but particularly harsh to a star who had been making hits for ten years. "It's crazy," he admits with a sigh. "One minute they're showing you the love, and the next they don't know who you are."

Tracy pauses and adds, "But that's the nature of the business. You have to be strong if you want to make it."

Tracy made his mark early, as his 1991 debut "Sticks and Stones" rocketed to No. 1. But his last time at the top came in 1996 with "Time Marches On."

Rough-hewn Tracy had survived bullet wounds from an assault in a Nashville parking lot, and years of rambunctious living in his younger days. But career concerns were sapping his strength. He worried for himself and his family - wife Becca and daughters Skylar JoAnn, 2, and 1-year-old Keagan.

"I wasn't sleeping at night," he admits. "I had always been able to make a good living with my music, but all of a sudden I'm trying to figure out if anybody's going to want me. You know, I still have bills to pay and children that I want to send to college."

But Tracy never lost faith in himself, thanks to his family. "I have the love of a great woman," Tracy says of Becca, his wife of nearly four years. "That has been my saving grace."

Late last year, just in the nick of time, Tracy signed with DreamWorks Nashville. In his mid-30s, and with a decade of experience under his belt, Tracy came aboard with a refreshing outlook. He was willing to basically start over and look at life as a hungry newcomer once again.

"I think we all have to do that at some time or another," he declares earnestly. "There's a whole pack of us from that early-'90s era - like Travis Tritt, John Michael Montgomery, a few others - who had a lot of success, but had to reinvent themselves. They sustained their careers through hard work."

Tracy's taking the same attitude. "I realized that I had to step back and ask how I was going to fit into this picture," he reveals with a slight laugh.

He's fitting in with edgier material, like the title tune, which he calls "an anthem for single moms," and "Bobby Darwin's Daughter," with its crystal-clear biblical references. "I was motivated to expand my boundaries musically," he explains.

But Tracy's main motivation is his family. When he's off the road, he spends as much quality time as possible with Becca and the girls.

"They are really growing," says the proud dad of his daughters. "Skylar is really into music and Keagan is right on the verge of walking on her own. Now, I know this is Daddy talking," he adds with a goodnatured laugh, "but I really perceive them as being quite intelligent. I think they are exposed to a lot more than I was as a kid, and they're used to being around people and traveling. I believe that helps a child grow."

Tracy freely admits that he's done some maturing of his own. "In your twenties, you sow your wild oats and you have a great time," he notes, barely hiding a sly grin. "Then you realize that you're not immortal. You have to make some changes in your life, and if all goes right, you're able to have a loving family around you."

Tracy shifts around in his chair and turns his attention skyward. He's grateful to still have the opportunity to do the one thing that truly satisfies him.

"I love every aspect of the music - even all the politics and the business side of it," he says. "Believe it or not, I have wanted to live in Nashville ever since I was a 12-year-old kid in Arkansas. I'd never been there, but it's where I wanted to be. There's still no place else I would care to live."

Though he's currently riding high with "Paint Me a Birmingham," Tracy feels that his life these days is best summed up in another tune from Strong, "It's All How You Look at It." It's a song that deals with gaining perspective in both the big and small areas of life.

"I've always liked records that had messages," says Tracy. "But that one hit home for me. I've realized that nothing is more important than my wife and my two girls."

Tracy smiles and adds, with all sincerity, "I'm in a much happier place in life now. I wouldn't want to trade places with anyone."

-- Bob Paxman

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