And so he left college for the Texarkana area where he was from. He worked at a paper mill and joined a band in Louisiana, signaling the end of his mill days.
"This band became one of the top three bands in the area, and we were working a lot," he says of the group that had a southern rock sound. I was playing in bigger clubs for more people. I was learning how to work a crowd for four or five or five sets."
Perhaps the pivotal moment in Lawrence's career came in the fall of 1990 when he was in Ruston, La., working for a landscaping company and considering his future.
He was two weeks away from starting classes at Louisiana Tech. "I woke up in the middle of the night. I said if I do this, I'm stuck here."
"I cancelled all the club gigs," he says. "I finished my last weekend (band) obligation. I packed my car, and I left the next week, and I'm glad I did. Awfully glad I did."
Lawrence hit open mic nights. "I was getting up anywhere where I could sing. I was meeting all the musicians I could meet and the songwriters I could meet. That's why I had crazy jobs. I didn't want to get a 40-hour-a-week job that would tie me down."
His great success at talent shows subsidized his living expenses.
One such win enabled him to be on a radio show, "Live at Libbys," which was broadcast for several hours on a Saturday night.
`"I wound up becoming a regular on that show, and actually a record exec from Atlantic came up to watch another person. They really liked me. I did a showcase for everybody in January at the Bluebird (Café in Nashville) and by May of '91, I was recording 'Sticks and Stones.'"
"I was so focused. Everything was about the music to me. I really felt it was my destiny. I really felt it was what I was supposed to be doing. From the time I was 12, I knew what I wanted. I didn't know how I was going to get there. I was just searching for the path."
"Whether it was taking seven months or seven years, I was destined to do this," he says.
"James Stroud came that night too. James decided he was going to produce my album before I signed."
But disaster struck before the album came out. He was returning a female friend to a hotel in Nashville following a concert and on May 31, 1991, Lawrence was shot four times in a Shoney's parking lot.
The album was put on hold, and he required a lot of rehabilitation. In fact, he underwent his third knee surgery in December resulting from the shooting, which still affects him.
"I can't do any impact (events)," he says. "I'll never be able to run again. I have serious arthritis in my left knee."
At the time, Lawrence says he tried forging ahead. "I was just ready to get back on track and get past it. I was lucky to be alive. I was glad to be alive. I was concerned about it being a lack of interest from the record label. Here if I was laid up for six months, someone else would take my slot. I just put blinders on and worked as hard as I could."
The hard work paid off in bushels.
His very first single, "Sticks and Stones," hit number 1 in November 1991. Three more singles from the album - "Today's Lonely Fool," "Runnin' Behind" and "Somebody Paints the Wall" - went top 10.
"The reality of it is it is a very humbling experience," he says. "From having nothing to hearing yourself on the radio is overwhelming to me. The reality of it hit home. I never experienced anything like this in my life. Years and years of dreams were coming true."
The dreams continued in the spring of 1993 when his second album, "Alibi," was released. The title track went number one. So did "Can't Break It to My Heart," My Second Home" and "The Good Die Young."
But during this period, he had a brush with the law on April 4, 1994. While driving with his brother in a pick-up truck, Lawrence claimed youths shot at the vehicle, and he, in turn, shot into the air. Lawrence was charged with two counts of aggravated assault" for firing the gun into the area and carrying a prohibited weapon because he had no permit. He was put on probation, and charges were later dropped.
The charges didn't seem to slow down his career as he continued wracking up hits like "Texas Tornado," "Time Marches On" and "Better Man, Better Off."
But the legal problems didn't abate. The most serious was that Lawrence was accused of domestic abuse against his first wife, which he denied. But he was convicted in 1998.
With his career in jeopardy, Atlantic put Lawrence on probation until he got his life together. "Lessons Learned" came out in 2000, ending his pariah status. The title track did well, but between this album and a self-titled effort on Warner in 2001, Lawrence's career was in a downward spin. Only one of seven singles was a hit.
Lawrence does not fault Atlantic for the suspension.
"I know there was a little bit of frustration from my part. I probably needed to be put on hold for a little while. I was getting too big for my britches. It was time for me to reassess and make some changes in my life. There was a lot of things in my life that I was doing to myself and other people. I was very spoiled. Very arrogant. I was doing a lot of things to excess."
"It was time for me to change," he says. "I think it's helped me get to a better place now."
Lawrence thinks many of his problems resulted form the shooting incident. "I really believe, and I can't stress it enough, and I think I never addressed that issue. I think suppressed a whole lot, and I had carried a weapon. I think I never coped with that incident. I was never able to get all that aggression out. It made me get my hostilities out. I made some bad decisions."
"It then just kind of snowballed and one stupid act led to another. Next thing you know, I damaged my career and my livelihood."
"I started drinking heavy (before and after his divorce)," he says.
"When I met the woman who's my wife now, she loved all of me. She believed in me. She took all that anger and got it out of me and made me whole again. I don't know (how). I'm glad she did."
Career-wise, Lawrence says he thinks "there have been quite a few lingering effects from it. That's part of the struggle that we're having. It's part of the stuff that we have to overcome. It takes me staying on the path from now on. There are no more second chances for me realistically."
Lawrence appears at peace with his life and career at the moment.
As for concerns about how "Strong" will do, Lawrence says, "I really don't because I've gotten to a point where I'm so content with myself in my life."
"Any success I have it's going to be appreciated. I'm not a little kid, that little kid who had a hit in '91. I believe this ride is going to happen again."