Seven years into a career that has spawned 10 Top Ten singles, one double-platinum disc, three gold albums and now a greatest hits release, there is one thing Tracy Byrd wants everyone to know — he is a work in progress. Others with a similar pedigree might be content to sit back on their laurels and enjoy the fruits of their labors, but now, with the release of Keepers/Greatest Hits, Tracy is instead anticipating big changes ahead. While he’s grateful to acknowledge the career he’s had so far, he says it’s time for something new.
“It’s kind of a milestone in a way,” he says of the greatest hits record. “We’ve been around for seven years now, working on the road and cutting albums. I can remember back to the first record, where I was just praying I’d have one hit single off of it. That turned into two, and three, and so on, so it’s just very gratifying now to sit here and have 12 or 13 hits and be able to put out a greatest hits album.
“There are no guarantees in this business. Some careers seem to have a five-year span, and it looks like we’ve made it over the hump.”
It’s undeniable that Tracy has indeed “made it over the hump.” It’s a fact that his hit “I’m From the Country” is the fifth most played recurrent single on country radio today. “Watermelon Crawl” remains a dance favorite across the country, and “Keeper of the Stars” was the Academy of Country Music’s Song of the Year in 1995. Last year’s cover of Johnny Paycheck’s “Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got” was the fastest rising single of his career.
With such an obviously successful formula, why would Byrd want to risk future failure and change musical directions? Maturity.
“We’ve done the fun, novelty things, and that’s kind of what we’ve become known for,” he muses. “But I’m 32 now, and after starting my career at age 24 and going through everything I’ve done to get here, I want my music to mature as I do. I hope my voice continues to develop with age, much like Merle Haggard’s and George Strait’s did. I love ’Watermelon Crawl’ and ’Lifestyles of the Not So Rich and Famous,’ but I feel I’ve got more to offer. I really hope the public and radio embrace that, because that’s what we’re working towards.”
As an artist who declares that he needs country music “just like I need food and water,” Byrd has long been steeped in the traditions of the music he cherishes so much. As a child growing up in Beaumont, Texas, he spent hours digging into his parents’ extensive album collection and absorbing the music he found there — Merle Haggard, Don Williams, Bob Wills, Donna Fargo, Connie Smith, Anne Murray and southern gospel groups like The Happy Goodman Family. As Tracy entered his teens, his musical interests grew wider still as he listened to Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Ray Price and Hank Sr. But he admits that he always seemed to come back to Merle Haggard, as well as the guy who was the new kid on the block at the time — George Strait.
“In ’81 I was in ninth grade,” he remembers, “and that’s when ’Unwound’ hit for George. I was a big, big fan immediately. I would say that Strait is the reason I tried to get my own career going. When I was a senior in high school, he did a show at the Civic Center in Beaumont. I remember him coming out, and I watched him, and I thought ’That’s gotta be a heck of a life to do that every night.’ So that night the seed was planted, and I just thought, ’Maybe I can do this.'”
After picking up a guitar and getting a band together, Tracy started playing in area clubs like Cutters, where he opened for fellow Beaumont son Mark Chesnutt. When Chesnutt left for Nashville and stardom, Byrd stepped in as the headlining act and began preparing to take his own chances in Music City. In 1992, MCA Records released Tracy Byrd, which spawned the hits “Someone To Give My Love To,” another Paycheck cover, and the upbeat “Holdin’ Heaven.” Other albums followed, and so did the hits — “Love Lessons,” “Big Love,” “Heaven in My Woman’s Eyes.” All of them appear on Keepers/Greatest Hits, and all of them reflect Tracy’s devotion to the traditional-sounding country he was raised on while remaining contemporary enough to entice today’s music fans. For Byrd, it’s an uneasy balance.
“I definitely agree that right now the music is failing for the most part,” he admits. “I just don’t hear many of those classic, great country records. I’ll admit I’ve cut my share of ’radio tunes,’ because that’s where it’s at right now. They’re not songs I dislike, but they’re not classics, either. They’re not those Haggard songs, or George Jones songs. But, I think it’s a phase. It’s going to come full circle again, and even now you’re hearing more people like Lee Ann Womack, who’s a real country singer having real success.
“I guess I feel like for the kind of music I really love to cut, I was born about 30 years too late. It seems like the ’50s and ’60s had some of the best country music that’s ever been made.”
Nonetheless, Tracy has established himself as one of the consistent music makers of the ’90s, which has been recognized as one of country music’s most popular eras. However, in the latter part of the decade, an ebb is taking place, for in the effort to maximize marketing potential, the music and its artists have suffered. These days, in the attempt to recover from overly-ambitious financial goals of a few years ago, Music Row is downsizing by closing some record labels and trimming some artist rosters. In the current market, where artists are competing for fewer and fewer radio slots, it’s an uncertain existence, even for established acts like Byrd.
“I’d say the biggest challenge for me has been airplay at radio,” he concedes. “With all the acts that are in the business now, and many radio stations cutting back to about 30 active records, it can make you a little bit nervous. I think what’s happening with some of the labels shutting down is a natural thing, though, because the boom that was going on couldn’t last forever. But it makes you want to work harder to be sure that you’re one of the ones that stay around. Hard work isn’t going to be anything new for me, because we’ve been working hard for the last six or seven years.
“Actually, I’m glad to have been in country music in this competitive time and still been able to make a mark. We have left behind a few songs that I think will be around for a long time, like ’Keeper of the Stars.’ I think when any artist starts his or her career, you want to somehow make a difference with a song, to leave a song behind that is always going to be totally associated with you. I think with ’Keeper’ we did that.”
Despite the uncertainties of the music business, Byrd is ultimately looking forward to a new chapter of making music that will continue to follow his evolution as an artist, while allowing the echoes of his heroes to shine through.
“What I’ll continue to do is try to find the balance to satisfy myself as an artist with the style of music that I want to do. I would like to re-invent myself and really show more of my traditional side with songs I can sink my teeth into. At the same time, the fans love ’Watermelon Crawl’ and ’I’m From the Country,’ so I’m not going to get totally away from that because the fans enjoy it, and they’re the reason I’ve stayed around so long. I guess the toughest part is satisfying yourself and everybody else, but that’s life.”