Tracy Byrd, one of the biggest country stars of the ‘90s, took a break from touring at the end of 2009, unsure he’d ever return. Finally, after a while, he realized he missed it, so he booked a few shows in Texas and Oklahoma, and then a little farther out — and ultimately all across the country again.
As part of the ’90s Country Forever series, CMT Hot 20 Countdown caught up with Byrd in Tennessee to chat about his most popular ‘90s hits, including “Holding Heaven,” “The Keeper of the Stars” and (of course) “The Watermelon Crawl.”
CMT: You were watching kids grow up on your time off. Did you think you were going to come back?
TB: When I got off the road in the end of ’09, I didn’t know if I’d ever play music again. I was just burnt out mentally, spiritually, emotionally, physically. I was just tired. I had been it had been like 17 years straight of non-stop touring — and I loved all of it and wouldn’t trade anything. But yeah, I didn’t know. I just needed to rest and spend some time with my family and work on our family and work on myself.
I just kinda chilled and I’d never been home before ever, really, in my adult life. I’ve never experienced what it was like to be gone [from the road] for a specific period of time. And it was a little odd the first year. It took me about a year to get used to it, and then I got real used to it. I was like, “Oh, I don’t know if I ever wanna leave again.”
Then I started writing a few songs, started thinking about doing a new record, started doing a few shows here and there, and started realizing how much I love it, and that life is about balance. Back then it was all tipped to working and touring, so now it’s a whole lot more balanced between the touring and home life and other things I like to do.
Did you have to reach a certain age to understand that you need that balance?
I think so. I think balance comes with maturity and with learning going through the ups and downs of life. At the same time, I don’t think there’s any way to have a successful career without just working your tail off the first decade of your career. To me that’s what built what I’m able to go out and enjoy today.
I mean, without all those years of hard work and sacrifices, I probably wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today — which is working 60 to 75 shows a year and do well, and enjoy it and be able to pretty much work when I want to.
You had your first No. 1 record with “Holding Heaven.”
Yeah, in 1992 we released a couple of singles. “That’s the Thing About a Memory” was the first one and then “Someone to Give My Love To.” In ’93 we released “Holding Heaven” and that was my first No. 1 record. That’s what got everything rolling and we had a ball after that.
What was that like for you?
It was very gratifying and satisfying. I had watched Mark Chesnutt leave [the club scene] and watched “Too Cold at Home” go to No. 1. I had watched a couple of the acts that were on MCA Records at that time with their first singles go to No. 1 and then mine went to No. 41, and the second one got a little better — got up in the 20s.
I thought, “Well, at least it’s moving in the right direction.” But I was wondering, “Man, am I gonna have one?” And then we released “Holding Heaven” and it was a pretty quick rise to No. 1. It took a big load off my shoulders, to put it that way, to have that first No. 1.
If you could be known only for one song, which song would it be?
Well, we won song of the year in ’95 at the ACMs for “Keeper of the Stars” and that was a really big song. But if you ask all the fans, they’re gonna say “Watermelon Crawl” and I can’t say I’m not happy about that. It’s a great song. I’m known as “The ‘Watermelon Crawl’ Guy” and that’s fine with me.
“Keeper of the Stars” was a big wedding song and meant a tremendous amount to a lot of people. It went to No. 1 and “Watermelon Crawl” actually wasn’t even a No. 1. It was a top 5 record, but wasn’t a No. 1. But it is with the fans. It’s a No. 1, no doubt, every night.
Isn’t that funny how that happens?
It’s true, you never know. Then there’s some songs that are never released as singles that become big hits with the fans. I’ve had a couple of those that the fans scream out every night. So it shows how hard it is to pick the singles off of a record, because some of them may not sound like hits but the fans resonate with them.
“Keeper of the Stars” was one of those. The label really didn’t know if they wanted to release it as a single. It was a very long song. It was almost a four-and-a-half to five-minute song. It was a ballad. I was still a relatively new artist but I was on tour with Reba at that time and I’m singing the song to people who are hearing it for the first time and ladies are tearing up, crying, hug their husbands … and I went back and kept stressing, “We gotta release this song, it’s a hit!” And thank god we did. It was a big one, but you never know.
Does it bother you to not be on the radio anymore?
No no, I look at it like… I had from 92’ to 2007, I was on the radio. So that was my time. I had my time. So now let these kids have their time. … I’m still on the radio on the oldies and legends channel and that fine with me. I’m glad we have that. Sirius XM plays a lot of older music. So I’m still out there, but to not have singles and hits doesn’t bother me. I do it just because I love music now and not because where it’s gonna get played or why it’s gonna get played, or what they’re gonna play.
Are you enjoying shows that you play now maybe even more than before?
Hands down, I enjoy what I’m doing now more than I did at the beginning. I’m a different guy than I was then. I don’t feel the pressure that I felt then. I’m not working every single day, 16 to 18 hours a day, like I did back then. I’m more rested. I’ve taken pretty good care of myself so I can stand up to the rigors of the road.
And I love putting on a show, man. I love singing. I love playing. I love the interaction with the crowd. I’m seeing faces that I’ve seen for the last 25 years.
And then I’m seeing faces that I’ve never seen before that are in their teens and their 20s. … I go out after the show and sit and sign autographs till everybody is done, so I get to really converse with these people. These younger kids were raised listening to my music by their parents, so now they come out to hear it. And that’s great! I love that. I mean, I didn’t expect it but I sure will take it.
How long will you do this?
I’ll do it ‘til I can’t do it anymore. I really love doing it. It may get down to where I’m doing only 30 shows year but I will always do it as long as I’m physically able to do it.