Tracy Lawrence Comes Back Strong

New Album and Label Deal Reunite Him With Producer James Stroud

Tracy Lawrence’s new album, Strong, just arrived in stores Tuesday (March 30), but he’s already looking ahead to the follow-up.

“I think the next one will be easier,” Lawrence said during a recent interview at CMT’s offices. “I’ve got a new lease on life and a new focus. This record was probably more difficult than any I’ve done in a long time because it’s so diverse. I had a hard time finding a focus for this album. It was a challenge.”

2001 proved to be a year of major transition in Lawrence’s career after Atlantic Records — his label home for eight albums — closed its country division. Lawrence quickly moved to Warner Bros. Nashville, which had released his self-titled album by the end of that year. While thankful to have a record deal, Lawrence said, “I never felt like I clicked over there. It just wasn’t the right place for me.”

The experience led to some soul searching. “I realized some things were missing as far as the spokes of the wheel around my career,” Lawrence said. “I knew I needed to back up and re-evaluate. I needed to try to get a producer who was in a strong position to make things start moving for me again.”

That producer turned out to be James Stroud, who produced Lawrence’s earliest hits before becoming a record label executive.

“I met with just about everybody in town,” Lawrence said. “When Stroud and I sat down, we both realized we still had things left to do. Our professional career together had been extraordinary. We had a lot of success, and I think we both felt that there was still great music we needed to make together.”

Stroud worked as an independent producer on Strong, an album recorded as Lawrence’s second project for Warner Bros. Aside from his production projects, Stroud has also headed DreamWorks Nashville since the label launched in 1997. “When things got a little shaky at Warner Bros., we were able to make a change,” Lawrence said. “James stepped in and bought the album. He put a lot of faith in me.” In doing so, Lawrence followed Toby Keith, Darryl Worley and others to the DreamWorks roster.

“James brings out the best in me,” Lawrence said, referring to Stroud’s strengths as a producer. “He motivates me to try to push beyond what I thought was the level of my capabilities. I respect him so much, I always want to please him. I think that respect goes both ways. We have such a history with each other — in and out of the studio — as friends. He cuts great records, and he has confidence in my song sense. He knows I’m gonna find the best songs that are out there. I’m relentless about it. I’m gonna find the songs that work for me.”

One of the songs already working is “Paint Me a Birmingham.” Written by Buck Moore and Gary Duffy, it has become Lawrence’s biggest hit in years. Attracted to the song’s visual imagery, Lawrence noted, “I look for those kind of things. I’ve never been an artist that really got into fluff songs. I like songs that have substance to them. I think sometimes that may hurt me commercially a little bit. But I like to cut things that have the power to speak to people on an emotional level. That’s the power of country music, to me.”

With Strong, Lawrence finally got around to releasing the hard country tune, “Sawdust on Her Halo.” He explained, “Even with Stroud pushing me to do stuff that’s a little bit on the fringe, I think it’s very important for me to do things that are very traditional in nature — things I would have played when I was in the honky-tonks with a cover band. I’ve known this song a long time, and I’ve tried to get it on an album for several years. I love to sing swing and shuffle stuff. Radio may not play it coast to coast, but I love playing them. Man, they fill the dance floor up. People who live the night life at these honky-tonks eat this stuff up.”

Clearly pleased with the new album, Lawrence said, “If you listen to it, there’s no two things that are alike. This album has a lot of variety to it — from raunchy stuff like ‘What the Flames Feel Like’ to sweet ballads like ‘Stones’ and some good mid-tempo songs.”

Already performing concerts nearly every weekend, Lawrence’s tour schedule will become even busier this summer during the fair and festival season. He and John Michael Montgomery are talking about a fall tour together. In May, Lawrence will be in Las Vegas to host the annual Sizzlin’ Country concert for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Aside from the changes in his career, 2001 was also a time of transition in Lawrence’s personal life. After a turbulent few years that included more than one well-publicized brush with the law, Lawrence appears to have settled down after marrying his third wife, Becca. They now have two young daughters.

“Having children has been one of the biggest things that has happened to me in my life,” he said. “Finding that peace and stability at home has been the most important thing that has happened to me in the past 15 years.

“Toward the end of the ’90s, it got pretty rough for me — a lot of emotional unrest and problems with my relationships. That affected my career. Through all that, being able to find stability at home is the only thing that has given me the strength to do this again. This is a tough business.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.