April , 1992
By Lisa L. Rollins
Bulleting to the Top
Tracy Lawrence, country's newest honky-tonk heartthrob come lately, strolls in the door donning sweats, tennis shoes and a baseball cap, his blue eyes blinking quickly in an effort to make the switch from the Texas sunlight to that of the bar room's perpetual dusk.
But Lawrence isn't alone - even though he thinks he is - as he seats himself beside this reporter, making amiable first-encounter conversation about this and that. Meanwhile, a broad of jean wearing, hair-sprayed, neck-craning sweet young thangs is standing on the tippy-tip-tip of their respective Ropers, whispering and pointing his way, yet too shy to approach the mustached singer who, at 24, has his feet firmly embedded in the country music establishment - and bachelorhood.
All in all, it's a safe bet that the 6-foot songster, with his better-in-person-than-in-photos physical appeal, isn't stuck with his single-by-choice lifestyle. But Lawrence has more pressing things at hands these days - namely, two hit singles, "Sticks and Stones" and "Today's Lonely Fool," and a career that's approaching high gear.
Nonetheless, to call the lanky crooner an "overnight success" isn't accurate by his standards - never mind that he landed his record deal with Atlantic/Nashville within his first year as a resident of Music City.
"A lot of people say that it's an overnight success," he said of his new found fame, "but the bands and the people I've played with over the years, they know. I've been totally obsessed with this business as long as I can remember. My mom can tell you about it. I've been crazy about it since I was a kid."
The music biz, at least as far as Lawrence is concerned, was "never a glitz and glamour kind of thing.... It's never been a fantasy of mine to think it's so wonderful and you just play music, because there's a whole lot of hard work involved. I've spent a lot of years struggling, doing without and working odd jobs construction and everything - wanting to get where I'm at."
Unfortunately, he almost didn't make it to where he now rests - at the top of the charts - and it wasn't for a lack of drive or talent. On May 31, 1991, the Atlanta, Texas, native - along with childhood friend Sonja Wilderson - was approached at gunpoint by three men whose intentions were less than admirable.
By the time all was said and done that day in the parking lot of Shoney's Inn on Music Row, the pair were minus some credit cards, $500 cash and Wilkerson's Corvette car keys. But before the armed trio departed, they deposited four bullets into Lawrence's body, leaving him for dead, as Wilkerson fled admidst the gunfire and confusion.
Lawrence's gun-grabbing action saved his friend from what both expect to have been sexual assault, then death for both. But it left the brunet singer with bullet wounds in the arm, finger, knee and hip, the latter of which missed a main artery "by a 10th millimeter," according to paramedics, who say Lawrence could have bled to death in fewer that three minutes if the bullet had hit the artery.
"I sat down 'cause I got real weak," Lawrence said of the moments immediately following. " A guy came out of one of the hotel rooms and held me up. He kept me conscious until the ambulance got there."
With the impending release of his first album and single for Atlantic - both titled Sticks and Stones - at hand, Lawrence saw his career take an unwanted turn due to his near-fatal injuries. And it was a motivating thought for the then-bedridden artist.
"That was probably the most motivating thing about all of it," he said of his career-driven recovery. "I was frustrated because all of this was going on and I was laying in the bed. I had to get back. I was ready to go to work. I was ready to play.
"You know, (my) leg is swollen up real big around and I'm laying there and can't move," he said, regarding the dark days after the shooting. "I'm wondering, "Lord, am I ever going to be able to walk again? Am I ever going to be able to do anything again?" I mean, I lost 20 pounds in days. ...I just almost dried up.
"And when you're layin' there hurtin' and on pain medicine, you wonder, "Am I ever going to be able to come back? Will I ever be able to do the same things again? Will I be able to perform and move around on the stage?' You worry about those things, and I was very determined."
Because of Lawrence's steadfast determination to recover quickly, the singer-songwriter found himself out of the bed and on crutches, with a No. 1 single waiting to happen.
"The single ('Sticks and Stones') was scheduled to ship (to record stores) in July, and it was put off 'til September, so (the recovery process) delayed it a lot," remarked Lawrence, who doesn't even seem to walk with a limp these days. "And they (Atlantic) were planning on waiting until this year, but I worked so hard at my recovery and was able to start touring again."
Although Lawrence's physical wounds have healed, for the most part, the tragic experience left unseen scars. "It (the shooting) did make me more aware of my mortality," he remembered, somberly. "It made my life pass before my eyes. I thought, "This is it. I'm done. I'll see you.'"
And he did. Except this time around, Lawrence was bulleting up the country charts with "Sticks and Stones," instead of recovering from bullet wounds. Still, the song's quick-fire success never caught the softspoken musician off guard. Not even for a moment.
"I knew the first time I heard that song that it was a hit. I believed that it was from the very beginning," he said, a smile creeping out beyond his neatly kept mustache. "I actually found that song months before I got my record deal.
"A co-writer that I write with a lot, Elbert West who wrote a song from the album, "Froze Over," with me - I met Elbert about a month after I got to Nashville. We became good friends and started writing a lot together, and I heard that song and begged him to not pitch it. He held on to it for months for me, before I even got signed."
As for the "Froze Over" number, said Lawrence, it's "the song that got me my record deal. That is the song they signed me on." But it was Lawrence, along with producer James Stroud, who chose the album's material - a rare feat for any debut artist.
"I had 90 percent of the input on songs and I had the final say-so on everything that was cut," said Lawrence of the seemingly hit-laden disc. "I knew exactly what I wanted. There wasn't any mistaking. I knew exactly how much of each (type of song) I wanted."
"Originally, I had planned to put six of my own songs on the album, but I kept finding better material, and I tried to balance it out with uptempo and ballads and everything so it would be a well-rounded album all the way around," he added. "I listened to just about everything. It all came through me...."
But was it difficult to separate himself from his own material?
"No. I'm probably more critical of my stuff than I am of anybody else's stuff. And I'm very young. I'm a very young writer. There's an art to songwriting, and I'm gettin' better and I'm progressing," he said with candor. "I can tell a lot of difference in my writing now from when I first moved to Nashville, and I think I've still got a long way to go. But every now and then you luck up and write something that's pretty good."
"I don't think everything I write at this point is a hit. And I think the fans work too hard for their money with the economy the way it is, and people expect a good product for what they pay for," he said.
"I remember going in and paying $15 bucks for an album. You hear one or two songs on the radio that are just killer and you think, 'Man, this album has got to be great!: and then there's nothing else on it. (But) I think the people deserve better, and whether I write it or someone else writes it, the quality of the material is the most important things. The fans expect it, and I hope rm always able to give it to 'em, whether I write the material or someone else does, it doesn't matter."
Frequently compared to Keith Whitley, the Arkansas-reared Lawrence becomes almost reverent when the late singer's name is mentioned. "Some of those things are really hard to live up to," he says, quietly. "I was probably one of Keith Whitley's biggest fans. I think he was a fantastic singer and I think it was such a waste the way everything happened. And I'll tell you what, if I can just be half as good as that man was, I'll feel honored."
It was Lone Star State native George Strait, however, who was "probably one of my main influences," continued the young vocalist. "As far as his vocal style, he is one of the best singers I have ever heard. I mean, he is so smooth and his music - the older albums that really influenced me, with 'Unwound' and 'Amarillo By Morning' and all the older stuff that he did - that's my heart and soul. That's what I wanted to play. The swing music and the shuffle stuff and good ole Texas honky-tonk, that's what I love."
As for Sticks and Stones, the album, "There's not a song on there I wouldn't want to ' release as a single," he said, proudly," including the Lawrence-penned "Dancing To Sweet 17," which appears to be a favorite with critics thus far."
"I wrote the song when I was about 19," explained Lawrence of the latter tune. "I wrote it about my best friend. It was really a strange situation. He was living here in Dallas at the time and I was going to school in Magnolia at the time. Me and him had been friends since Kindergarten. We'd gone through school for years together and always been very close. As a matter of fact, he's working for me now.
"But we'd just graduated high school. I was in college and he was here in Dallas, and it'd been several months since I'd seen him and I was real depressed. I don't remember exactly what was going on - I was playing music with a little band at the time - and I got to thinking how much our lives might change in 10 years, when we were in our 30s, when we were married and had children and all the things that might be going on. And that's what I wrote that song about."
Now touring with Little Elvis, his six-man band, in support of his current hit single, "Today's Lonely Fool," Lawrence is anything but bitter after his four-bullet encounter and soaking in success.
"I guess the most important thing I try to live by with my people and everybody is, treat everybody like you want to be treated. And nine times out of 10, what you give them, they'll give back to you," he said thoughtfully. "If you're rude to people or if you're ugly or obnoxious to people, you're gonna get it back. But if your genuinely nice and treat people with respect, then most of the time it's gonna come back to you twice as much."