"I think my priorities have adjusted," says Tracy Lawrence as he ponders the question of whether The Rock, his new album of religious and inspirational songs, marks a change in his view of life.
"I guess in a lot of way it does," he continues. "A change has been evolving over the last several years since the children [were born]." (Lawrence and his current wife have two young daughters.)
"My wife and I have started going back to church, doing Bible study and different things. . . . It's more a full circle than anything else. I grew up in a very religious family."
This serene and repentant Lawrence is a far cry from the disaster-prone hell-raiser of the 1990s. During that tumultuous period, while he was racking up one platinum or multiplatinum album after another, he was also shot and nearly killed by a robber, arrested for reckless endangerment and possession of a firearm and, in a later brush with the law, convicted on a misdemeanor battery charge following an argument with the woman he was married to at the time.
While acknowledging that his rowdy ways "definitely got me some individuality," the Texas-born, Arkansas-raised singer adds that his was a life that "I wouldn't recommend to anybody."
Despite its Biblical-tinged title, The Rock isn't an album of conventional hymns or a tribute to old-time religion. It is more like an examination of how faith figures into day-to-day existence.
All the songs are of fairly recent vintage and come from such laurelled tunesmiths as Allen Shamblin, Steve Seskin, Dave Berg, Sam and Annie Tate, Phil O'Donnell and Craig Morgan. Lawrence co-wrote the album's opener, "Dear Lord."
The first single, "Up to Him," is still on the charts and will probably be followed by "Somebody Who Would Die for You."
"I didn't go toward the hardcore gospel direction," Lawrence says, explaining how he solicited and chose the songs. "I really wanted it to be stuff that kind of straddled the fence a little bit but that I could still make country. I was really overwhelmed by how good the material was."
Lawrence picked the acclaimed sound engineer Julian King to co-produce the album with him and, for the first time, used his own road band rather than session musicians to record it.
"My mom and dad really wanted me to do this record," Lawrence says. "We had six kids in our family, and we were at church every time the doors were open. It was just part of my childhood."
There was another consideration that convinced Lawrence this was the right time for The Rock. "I didn't want to wait until it was at the end of my career where it [would appear] like I was just searching for some place else to get my music played. I wanted it to be a relevant album, where it actually meant something while my career is still vibrant."
Now 41, Lawrence says he's never felt better about himself.
"Physically, I hurt all the time," he explains. "It takes me a little bit longer to get out of bed. Other than that, I feel like I'm probably at the best artistic place in my life. ... I'm happy at home, I'm happy with my job, my kids are doing well, my marriage is strong. So I feel like I'm in a good place."
The way things look now, Lawrence says, he will probably end up doing 80 concerts this year. He says the first part of 2009 was "soft" for touring but that in having fewer dates, he was able to write more songs. "I'm well prepared for the next record," he declares.
The Rock was released on Lawrence's own Rocky Comfort Records. Being a label owner is not an unalloyed joy, the singer confesses. "It's been frustrating at times. We haven't been able to get any of our other artists through the cracks. We still struggle with [getting] airplay."
Given these ordeals, he says he's open to entering into a joint venture with a major label or even signing to one as an artist. "If an opportunity comes my way, I may move back into the mainstream a little bit," he says.