After tumbling from one record company to another, Tracy Lawrence is back in the spotlight again, this time on his own label. For the Love, his first new studio album in three years -- cracked Billboard's country albums chart at No. 6, and "Find Out Who Your Friends Are," his debut single from the album, has scaled into the Top 30 and continues to move upward.
These encouraging numbers confirm that Lawrence retains some of the velocity he built up throughout the 1990s when his singles routinely topped the charts and his albums sold by the millions. Of course, he reached those milestones during a relatively stable 10-year stay on Atlantic Records. That label, however, closed its country division in 2001. Since then, it's been a roller coaster ride -- and not a pleasant one for the man who had served up such memorable fare as "Sticks and Stones," "Can't Break It to My Heart" and "Time Marches On."
"I did my tenure at Atlantic, and then they rolled me into Warner Bros.," Lawrence explains. "Nothing really got rolling there. Then DreamWorks bought me out, and I thought I was going to have a good home for several years." He did begin auspiciously at DreamWorks, scoring a Top 5 single his first time out with "Paint Me a Birmingham." But a few months later, DreamWorks also folded.
"They moved me from DreamWorks over to Mercury," Lawrence continues. "I didn't like it there. It wasn't a happy home. After I got released, I took several meetings with different labels. It looked like I was going to be signed at Sony -- and then that whole [label merger] came down and [Sony] was drawn into RCA. ... I couldn't go through anymore. I just felt like -- with the ball being dropped and bouncing around and me having to build a relationship with a new staff every year -- it was exhausting."
Thus was born Rocky Comfort Records. "Rocky Comfort was the name of my hometown," Lawrence says. "I grew up in Foreman, Ark., but back in the early 1900s, it was called Rocky Comfort Township. It was built on a limestone slate, and the first industry that was there was a cement plant. I've always loved the name. I thought, 'What a great name for a music business.' We get a lot of perks and a lot of comfortable things, but it sure is a rough business. It can be a pretty rocky road."
Lawrence says he hopes to expand Rocky Comfort's roster over the next 12 to 18 months and has already signed Chad Brock to the label. "We're kind of a micro-label right now. I've got a small, barebones staff here in my office. My brother handles day-to-day operations. ... My road manager and I take care of quite a bit of stuff from the road. As we acquire other acts, I'm basically going to have to staff up. Right now, my sales team's outsourced, my promotion staff's outsourced and our art department's outsourced."
Besides founding the label that issued it, Lawrence has fingerprints all over the new album. He co-produced it with Julian King, the sound engineer he first worked with when James Stroud was producing his albums, and Lawrence wrote or co-wrote two of the 10 songs.
For the Love is by turns contemplative ("For the Love," "As Easy as Our Blessings," "Til I Was a Daddy Too"'), comic ("You Can't Hide Redneck"), mournful ("Speed of Flight") and exultant ("You're Why God Made Me"). But Lawrence offers a simpler description. "It's country," he says.
While he feels comfortable in the role, Lawrence says he won't lock himself in as his own producer.
"I think it's very important that an artist continue to grow and evolve and not get stuck doing the same record time after time," he explains. "A producer with a different concept and a different approach to laying tracks can bring a whole new sound and a whole new attitude into your music. It's a refreshing thing to work with different people every other year or so. I'm going to try to keep that in the back of my mind as we make this journey again."
"Find Out Who Your Friends Are" is a Casey Beathard-Ed Hill creation Lawrence discovered among the torrent of demos that publishers sent him when he put out the word that he was recording again.
"I loved the lyric," he says. "I thought it had such a great message to it -- a universal message about how when you're down on your luck, you really find out who your true friends are. I've learned to appreciate that message a lot more as I've gotten older."
On the version of the single released to radio, Lawrence does all the singing. But on the album's bonus track of the same song, he's joined by old friends Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. The three have known each other for so long, he says, he can't recall how he first met them.
"We just kind of all became acquainted with each other," he relates. "We were running around the club circuit and singing at jams and all the things around town back then. I remember hanging out over at McGraw's apartment, playing guitar, writing songs, piddling around and going to the lake. It seems like another life ago. We were all kids. I do remember the first time I ever rode on a tour bus [was when] McGraw invited me to ride with him to a show in Shreveport at a club called Cowboys. I'll never forget it."
Lawrence drafted another friend, Brad Arnold, the lead singer of Three Doors Down, to team with him on the album's assertive but thoughtful title cut.
In the early part of his career, Lawrence made more than a few headlines with his rough and rowdy ways. But he vows those days are over.
"I'm going to leave that to the young crop of kids coming through," he says with a chuckle. "I've got a family now. I don't hang out and indulge in the nightlife like I used to. I pretty much do my road gigs, go to work at the office and try to be home every night for supper with my children."
In spite of his recording setbacks, Lawrence says he's managed to maintain plenty of concert bookings. Last year, he toured with George Strait and Miranda Lambert. This year, he figures he'll be working on his own, mostly at fairs and festivals.
"It doesn't look like I'm going to find a big tour this year," he says. "Most of that stuff is already booked. But with the success that we're having, I don't think it's unreasonable to look at doing a big tour next year."
Lawrence notes that setting up his own label wasn't a big stretch for him.
"We're really not doing much more than we were doing as a management company," he says. "We've always been fighting for our space every step of the way anyway. ... I think for a little small setup, we're doing all right."