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Lawrence leaves demons behind

By Tom Netherland, December 2001

Tracy Lawrence's life reads like some sad country song. Nasty divorce. Wild days, wilder nights and a few bullets in the gut.

Yet, he persevered. Demons be gone, he may as well have said, because in the years since his stormy divorce, this straight country guy cleaned up whatever mess his life became.

Music fans are the beneficiaries. As shown on his two most recent albums, 1999's revelatory "Lessons Learned" and his brand new self-titled disc, Lawrence's life comes through not as burdensome, but as real life troubles that he's endured.

Today, he says he's a new man. He's changed.

"I have. Anybody that comes into this business and says, 'oh, I'm not gonna change,' they have no idea what they're walkin' into," Lawrence says from his Mt. Juliet, Tenn. home. "I can't see how I'm at all like the kid I was 10 years ago when I first rolled into town."

In those days Lawrence handled fame and fortune as many kids would: badly.

"I'd never had anything, so how could I know how to deal with anything," he says. "All of a sudden, I had more money than I'd had in my whole life. I had people adoring me and girls and indulgences that I'd never known before. I had star status. You get trapped in a little bubble, and you go through this emotional roller coaster. It's awfully hard not to get arrogant."

No question, he made some enemies along the way. But unlike some who've ridden along the same tracks as he, Lawrence came out on the other side a better man, as reflected in his new album and on songs like "That Was Us."

"I've fallen on my face more times than not," Lawrence says. "Most of it has been self-inflicted, things you do because you're being cocky or you're tryin' to flex your muscle thinkin' you can get away with this or that, and none of that's healthy. I'm not gonna mention any names, but there's a lot of artists that I'm friends with that are on that ride right now that I used to be real close to, who very seldom call me anymore. But I know somethins' gonna happen to 'em and whomp 'em on the head and knock 'em back down, and they'll wake up three years down the road. We are human."

As with one of his heroes, George Jones, and his past slippages (firing a gun at teenagers, a domestic abuse charge. Not to mention being shot four times in a holdup at a Quality Inn next to Nashville's Music Row. Fortunately, the wounds were not critical.), Lawrence lives much of his life in the public eye. Make little mistake here. Actor Robert Downey Jr. and any number of rap artists do not have the market cornered on bad behavior. Yet Lawrence learned.

"The bad thing about what we do as people in the public eye, especially when you get on this ride so young, you're gonna make the same mistakes that other people do in life, but you're just gonna have to do it in front of a lot of people. The pressures are gonna be greater and the consequences are gonna be greater for your actions, but it's part of it. You have to realize that for the highs you get, that the lows are gonna be just as extreme. Character will lead you through."

As reflected in Lawrence's music. With 1999's "Lessons Learned," he cleared the air on his turbulent past. With his new one, he's moved on.

"That's 100 percent accurate. 'Lessons Learned' was closure for me," Lawrence says in a Southern drawl. "I had to do it because I made a lot of strong statements on that record, and I needed to air all that out. I had very few people who really got the depth of that album. That album from start to finish had a message in it. It wasn't just about one song. It had purpose."

So does the new one. Lawrence says that he went into the recording of this one with some objectives in mind. Perhaps above all, he says that he wanted no part of Nashville's polished sound.

Instead, steel guitars mix with fiddles and dobros and drums that aren't above the mix and pounding the fire out of the music.

In other words, Lawrence has made a solid country record. When you hear him sing "God's Green Earth" or "Life Don't Have to Be So Hard," this 33-year-old Texan wants you to know that you are hearing him. Put shortly: his words are not contrived. He means them.

"I don't know any other way to me," Lawrence says. "I was the kid who grew up and when I was hearing Merle Haggard sing a song, to me in my mind that's who Merle Haggard was. I've always been very realistic when I sing a song, whether I write it or not, I become that person. If you don't realize that and you are just cuttin' what the record label tells you to cut, then you're missin' the whole point, to me, of what country music is about."

Lawrence grew up, as many in his generation did, listening to his idols such as Jones and Haggard and Waylon Jennings and George Strait. Consequently, flip through Lawrence's 10-year career which began with a number 1 song right out of the box with "Sticks and Stones," and you hear the sum of his influences.

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