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A gutsy Tracy Byrd rebounds and scores a knockout punch with Ten Rounds

Tracy Byrd's back was against the wall. He felt like his career was on the ropes. So he shook off the fear knotted in his stomach, reached deep down inside himself for a healthy dose of fortitude - and came out swinging!

"I had only one Top 10 hit on the last album," confesses Tracy. "I'd never done that poorly before. It was a shock and a wake-up call for me."

Tracy's only hit off It's About Time was the poignant "Put Your Hand In Mine." Used to his albums containing at least two hits, the personable Texan admits he was concerned when he faced his eighth album.

"I first approached my new album with a desperate feeling," he admits. "My adrenaline was pumping. I knew I needed a big record with some commercial songs that radio would warm up to."

Then - bingo! - Tracy had a revelation.

"I realized I'd been bored with the music I'd been doing. It's About Time was the most straight-ahead country album I'd ever cut, and I'm proud of it. But with the changes going on in country music today, it didn't hit the mark I wanted it to.

"That's when my whole focus shifted to getting back on top. There was a time in the mid-to-late '90s that my career was rollin'. And

I had the courage to change record labels in '99 so I'd have an indepen-dent hand in producing my music.

It was time for me to be courageous again."

So Tracy took the desperation-sparked adrenaline pumping through his veins and redirected it.

"I channeled it into a new excitement about my music," he reveals. "I decided not to put any restraints on myself. I went for great songs, no matter whether they sounded pop or bluesy or whatever. I was fed up worrying 'bout all that.

"I wanted to get back to having consecutive hits on the radio, but I also wanted to do songs I could stretch out on. I decided to take some major risks."

The result is Ten Rounds, an album Tracy thinks might be his strongest ever.

"I took more chances on this CD than on any other," he declares. "There's no doubt the album is country. Listen to me talk with this Texas twang and you figure out right off I'm not pop. But some of the songs do have pop touches and some aren't even politically correct. And that's exactly what I wanted.

"One song I experimented the most with is my new Latin-feeling single, 'Just Let Me Be In Love.' It could be considered a bit pop, especially if Ricky Martin sang it instead of me. Of course, if Ricky sang it, he'd dance on stage more than I do! Now I can cut a pretty mean rug, but that boy can shake his bon-bon better than I can."

On "Just Let Me Be In Love" Tracy even experimented with a new language. "Being from Southeast Texas, a good percentage of my fan base is Hispanic. Through the years those fans kept asking if I'd cut something in Spanish. I always explained I don't speak Spanish.

"But this song was perfect for a bilingual version. So I learned the correct inflections and did a version with the choruses in Spanish. Some radio stations are already playing both versions."

Tracy's credo of not worrying about a song's political correctness came to the forefront on two songs.

"We knew we'd get flak for the in-your-face attitude of the album's first single, 'A Good Way To Get On My Bad Side,' the duet with my bud Mark Chesnutt. We did get flak, but I felt folks were ready to hear something with a little testosterone in it. And it was a hit.

"And the title cut, 'Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo,' is a smash song. But we may get flak from it, too, since it's a drinkin' song. But Trick Pony just had a hit with 'Pour Me,' so who knows?

" 'Needed' is another chance-taking tune with its sort of gospel, blues kind of feel. And 'Tryin' Not To Love You' is a left-of-center song that's a bit pop sounding."

Two surprises on the CD harken back to Tracy's country roots.

"I've been doing [Michael Martin Murphey's] 'Wildfire' in clubs for years, long before I had a record deal," he explains. "It adds a nice touch to the album."

And he cut a new version of his signature song, "The Keeper Of The Stars."

"We decided to do what they did in the old days - when stars like Paycheck, Jones and Haggard had a big hit, they'd put the song on the next three albums. This new version has a fiddle intro, which makes it a bit countrier sounding. And we kind of got away from most of the electric instruments."

Between the time Tracy decided to tackle Ten Rounds with a no-holds-barred approach and the time he cut the CD's first song, he dropped 25 pounds and toned up like a pro boxer. Even if he wasn't necessarily trying to get down to fighting weight, he entered the studio as a lean, music-making machine.

"I've been recording for 10 years and I want to still have hits 10 years from now," he sums up. "I picked songs that took me where I'd never gone before, I kicked back in the studio and had fun. All I wanted to do was make a great album - and that's what I did."

Tracy's obviously going for the knockout this time.