Throughout the 1990s, Tracy Lawrence emerged as a reliable voice at country radio, scoring seven No. 1 hits and selling millions of albums. Unfortunately, his career stalled at the end of the decade due to label mergers and personal setbacks.
"It's a tough climb to dig yourself out of a hole," Lawrence tells CMT Insider. "Some of it was self-inflicted. I made a lot of bad choices when I was young, but at the place I'm at right now, I feel really good about it and everything that's going on. I can't live looking back ... wishing I could change things."
However, it's easy for fans to look back with the release of The Very Best of Tracy Lawrence, which collects his biggest hits from 1991's "Sticks and Stones" to 2004's "Paint Me a Birmingham." Last month, the Texas native notched his first No. 1 hit in 11 years with "Find Out Who Your Friends Are," released on his own label, Rocky Comfort. It was the first single from For the Love, his latest CD of all-new material, that remains in the Top 20 of Billboard's country albums chart.
CMT: When did you decide to give your own label a shot?
Lawrence: It was about March of last year. Since 2000 ... Atlantic closed, they moved into Warner Bros., and I cut a couple of records there. They went through a regime change, a couple promotion staffs, the whole deal. I went to DreamWorks, and I really thought that I had found my home again because it felt so much like Atlantic did in the early days. There was a great vibe in the building. Departments interacted with each other. There was great communication. There was a common goal. It was like us against the world. It was a little bitty label that was showing everybody they could make this happen. We had a big hit, one of the biggest songs of my career with "Paint Me a Birmingham," and then the doors closed and that merger happened.
They say it was a buyout, but it almost felt like a hostile takeover in a lot of ways because they separated the [DreamWorks] roster and put half of us on Mercury and half on MCA. Right now, the way it sits, every artist and every employee that was brought over from DreamWorks has either been let go or fired. So it was just not an environment that was conducive for my creativity, let me say. I left there in January of last year. I started shopping around. We were out on the George Strait tour, and things were going really well, and I had some interest. Some of the staff from one of the labels was coming to see me that weekend, and I got a call on Thursday before the show that weekend and they said, "We're merging in with RCA. They've dropped the hammer on everybody." It was like, "Ahhh!" I can't keep going through these mergers and label closings and consolidations.
I started looking for another avenue. My brother and I talked about doing a record label for a long time. But there's a lot of clout attached to being on a major label, and in the 15 to 16 years I've been in town -- even though I had been on, like, five labels -- I had never been without a label deal. There was no downtime in my transition through anything. It was always pretty seamless. And it was a little scary stepping outside that, but through all the ups and downs through the last several years of my life, I think my brother and I and all the people that are around us -- the publicity company and everybody that I'm tight with -- we learned a lot and figured out how the nuts and bolts of this business really work. We stood back and said, "You know what? I think we can do this." It's not like we're really building something from the ground up. We're just going to do a little extension of our management company and we'll just try to find a better business model. Just because it hasn't been done, doesn't mean it can't work.
Why do you think artists start up their own labels?
I think it's a special kind of artist. I don't think every artist wants to do this because there's a lot of headache involved. You're almost making double the sacrifice because you have to come to the office more. I'm doing A&R work for two other outside projects right now. It's very, very time consuming. I think you have to be an artist that's just as passionate about the business side as you are about the artistic side. I've learned, for me, the first thing that suffers for me is my songwriting. I haven't written a song in months because, as the other side of the brain starts working, you're doing set-up and you're looking at ad buys and all these other things. You're trying to figure out strategically where you need to go to get the record moving up a little more in the charts. Plus throwing a 120-day tour schedule in on top of all of it, it does detract from the creative side of the brain.
How did Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw wind up on "Find Out Who Your Friends Are"?
We've all been friends for years. We've talked about it off and on -- for a long time -- of us doing something together. I sang on a track on one of Chesney's albums a couple of years ago with George Jones, and we bounce around and do those things periodically. I thought it would be real cool for the three of us to get together. I thought the lyrics of the song applied so much because they've had their whole deal with the horse. [Chesney gained national media attention in 2000 when he rode away on a deputy's horse at the New York State Fair. McGraw was charged with attacking the deputies as they tried to corral Chesney and the horse.] Kenny's had his bumps in the media, and everybody has, but we all met at the same time early on in our careers. And to see everyone succeed to the level that we all have is really pretty amazing -- for three kids to have met all those years ago and still actually have a good relationship with each other. When my vocal was done on the record, I burned copies of it and sent it to both of them. We talked on the phone a couple days later. They loved it and said it was a good idea. We booked a studio and everybody got together to finish up a record.
What's special about this stage in your career?
There's a calmness to it for me, a feeling of security and stability, both in my personal life and my professional life. I'm not searching for anything. I think as a young man in my 20s, I was so high on life and enjoying the ride. You overindulge. There are so many temptations coming towards you. You get caught up in the moment in a lot of ways. But to tell you the truth, a lot of it I don't remember. So at this stage in my life, as I'm really prioritizing my family more and just at a different place as a human being, I think it's a little bit sweeter. Even though it might not be as intense, the flavor's still real good.
Tim Hardiman is a producer for CMT Insider.