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In 1991, during the early days of a dramatic boom in country music, an unbridled and talented 23-year-old named Tracy Lawrence released his first record. Ten years and nearly ten million albums later, Lawrence has created an impressive and lasting legacy, one that has earned him both critical accolades and secure veteran's status. He has proven through the years that it is possible to achieve those goals playing substantive country music that acknowledges both real life and small-town values. As such, he remains a vital force in the genre on the strength of a catalog of solid country hits.

Lawrence's success stems from the fact that he is a formidable stylist with a unique and instantly recognizable voice, combined with a knack for finding songs that weave drama, emotion, and philosophy out of the homespun and the universal alike. Perhaps most importantly, his tenth anniversary finds him doing some of his most impressive work, building on the legacy of hits like "Sticks And Stones," "Alibis," "If The World Had A Front Porch," "Time Marches On," and "Lessons Learned" with an impressive new collection. Titled TRACY LAWRENCE, his ninth album for Atlantic Records finds him anchored ever more firmly in his abiding respect for the genre's hallowed traditions.

"I really feel like I've made that complete circle back to the point where musically I'm hungry for simpler things," he says of his new project. Even the album's production hearkens to a cleaner, more direct approach.

"The tracks are simpler," he says. "We didn't layer the guitars or stack background vocals or add rock 'n roll guitars or keyboards. I wanted to strip everything down, because for me, this album is a symbol of the fact that if we're going to thrive as an industry, we're going to have to go back to our roots. This album is as traditional as anything I've done since STICKS AND STONES."

The early heroes whose work helped bring him to Nashville have again inspired him creatively. "I wanted to cut some things that reminded me of Keith Whitley," he says, "so we went for an earthy sound with some dobro, particularly on the first single, 'Life Don't Have To Be So Hard.' 'She Loved The Devil Out Of Me' has got a straight four/four backbeat reminiscent of early Waylon Jennings. Then, of course," he adds with a smile, "there is quite a bit that is more typical of the style I'm known for--that mid-tempo, two-step sort of thing."

The result, true to his aim, is as fresh and as country as anything on current country radio. "Meant To Be" and "That Was Us" are vintage Lawrence, the former displaying his knack for making life's small moments universal in a song about love, the latter bringing a sly twist to a coming-of-age tale steeped in rural Americana. "Getting Back Up" is his favorite, a look at heartache he calls "one of the more powerful things on the CD." Then there is "What A Memory," a dramatic look at a mother/son relationship he says "reminds me of something George Jones would have done years ago, and that's exactly why I cut it. Anybody who's ever gone through any kind of loss will tear up the first time they hear it."

Thematically, the album is another step forward, something that will not disappoint fans who have come to trust Lawrence to deal honestly with turning the good and bad of his life into art.

"Every record I make is an outlet for me," he says, "a chance to take what I'm going through, what's running through my head, and put it on CD. It's the way I communicate both with my long-time fans and with the people who are just coming to know me musically."

If there is one song that does it better than others, it may well be "Life Don't Have To Be So Hard," the project's first single. "It's very reflective of where I am in my life," he says. "It's a very happy song that was especially easy to sing because during the recording process I was home at the time. It reflects my belief about the importance of prioritizing family, and not neglecting the people who stand behind you and love you. It's a very big priority in my life."

Family has indeed taken center stage for Lawrence, particularly since the birth of his daughter Skylar JoAnn late in June. "There is a great deal of peace and happiness in my personal life," he says, "and my wife and child contribute so much to who I am as a person right now."

The road has not always been as easy. Lawrence's was a rough-and-tumble childhood in Foreman, Arkansas. A self-described "hellion" as a youngster, he found release in performing. He was playing at music jamborees at 15 and in honkytonks at 17, learning, he says, "what it takes to keep them on the dance floor through four or five sets."

He moved to Nashville in 1990 in a ten-year-old Toyota Corolla that had, he says, "about 250,000 miles on it, expired tags, no insurance, running on three cylinders and a fan with a piece of wire around it to cool the car." He was a fan of Whitley, Jennings, and Merle Haggard, and he idolized George Strait, complementing that with an appreciation for Southern rock, which he knew had a special place in the heart of his honky-tonk audiences. He was also very taken with a country tradition that was then finding its chief manifestation in Randy Travis.

"I was always drawn to the baritones," he says, "the singers who could reach down there and get a note and just roll with it. That's what got me--that deep, pure texture of a real baritone singer. To me,that is the epitome of a country stylist."

Lawrence took elements from all those places, and his own voice, distinctively country with a cutting edge, earned him attention from the beginning. While working a series of side jobs, he entered singing contests around town, regularly winning over other up-and-coming talent. A live appearance on a Kentucky radio station and a showcase at Nashville's famed Bluebird Cafe led to his 1991 signing to Atlantic.

His debut album, STICKS AND STONES, boasted four top ten hits and launched him into the forefront of the decade's young talent. Journalists praised his style and fans gave him platinum sales. He proved he had the goods on the road as well, being named SRO's Best New Touring Artist in 1993. His second album, ALIBIS, spawned four straight #1 smashes--the title cut, "Can't Break It To My Heart," "My Second Home," and "If The Good Die Young"--and earned raves everywhere from GQ to Newsweek.

"That got us through the sophomore jinx," he says with a grin. There were four more major hits from the platinum I SEE IT NOW, including "Front Porch," and "Texas Tornado." He hit a creative and sales peak with "Time Marches On," a Bobby Braddock-penned monster smash that led the album of the same name to double platinum status and earned Lawrence across-the-board nominations at all the major awards. He followed that with "Is That A Tear," yielding back-to-back songs that have remained radio staples.

Lawrence's sixth album THE COAST IS CLEAR, which produced the trademark hit "Better Man, Better Off" and earned substantial critical praise, preceded LESSONS LEARNED, which re-embraced his country roots, earned still more critical praise and reinvigorated his entire catalog on radio and in stores.

Along the way, Lawrence's broad range of talents has been widely recognized. Lawrence was presented Billboard's Top New Male Vocalist award in 1992 and the Academy of Country Music's Top New Male Vocalist trophy a year later. He received the Country Weekly Golden Pick Awards' Video Artist of the Year award in 1995 and its Editor's Choice Platinum Pick crown in 1996. He has produced his own and others' work and co-wrote a number of the songs he's recorded, including "Front Porch" and "Can't Break It To My Heart." Lawrence contributed the song "Renegades, Rebels, and Rogues" to the soundtrack for the movie Maverick. Later, he starred in two of his own CMT specials, one of which included footage from a USO tour that saw him entertain troops involved in the Kosovo effort.

He has always been active in charitable events, and he is annually part of two that are especially meaningful to him--a golf tournament in Houston benefiting the fight against cystic fibrosis, and a homecoming concert in his hometown. The latter has endowed scholarships and, most recently, provided the funds to equip a computer science lab in the local high school--a room that will be named after Lawrence.

The work that makes such contributions possible is also Lawrence's enduring passion. "I'm very proud to be a part of the music industry," he says. "I love what I do."

That sentiment is evident in TRACY LAWRENCE, and in his approach to the concerts that will take its songs, along with his formidable cache of earlier hits, before live audiences.

"Here again," he says, "it's a much simpler approach. I rely more on the catalog of music, on performing it well. I'm not carrying a lot of bells and whistles when it comes to staging. My attitude is, 'Just light up the stage and let's let the songs do the talking.'"

Tracy Lawrence