THEY ACTUALLY HAVE A TEEN COUNTRY MAGAZINE NOW,” Tracy Byrd says. The thirty-year-old country singer, who grew up in Vidor and lives in Beaumont, is sitting in his tour bus at a table scattered with dozens of cassettes, all of them filled with songs he’s considering for his new CD. Without his trademark cowboy hat, Byrd looks like a young Gregory Peck. Like Peck in some old movie, he squints his eyes imposingly and leans across the table. “I really mark that as an all-time low in country music, when they come out with a Teen Beat country music magazine,” he grouses. “And I’m in it.”
Few people would find Byrd’s appearance in a bubble gum mag troubling. After all, he meets what music historian Billy Altman terms the “triple-h” standard for success in country music today: hunks (he is one), hats (he wears one), and hard bodies (he has one). He even earns a fourth h for his homogeneous name: Tracy Lawrence and Trace Adkins are also hunky, hard-bodied hat acts. And like many of his Stetsoned peers, Byrd made his name cutting gimmicky tunes like “Lifestyles of the Not So Rich and Famous” (“Leave them long johns on the line / If the kids look dirty, that’ll be just fine”) and “Watermelon Crawl,” a song that tells line dancers what moves to make.
But what might surprise people is Byrd’s appearance on Back to the Future Now: Live at Arizona Charlie’s Las Vegas, the new CD from the respected Austin swing band Asleep at the Wheel. On it, Byrd sings an unusually hot “Ida Red” and “Roly Poly,” inspiring the Wheel’s front man, Ray Benson, to proclaim, “He’s a great vocalist in the Western swing tradition.” Red Steagall agrees; in fact, Fort Worth’s revered cowboy poet doesn’t think any of Byrd’s peers could handle those old Bob Wills tunes. “Right now, I think Tracy’s in a class by himself,” he says. “It’s feeling, it’s attitude, and it’s presence.” Even Johnny Paycheck, who originally cut Byrd’s recent smash single, “Don’t Take Her, She’s All I Got,” pays him court: “He has a real good country heart in him. There’s so many of these people who don’t know what they’re singing nowadays.”
Being credible in both the bubble gum and the chaw camps speaks to how carefully Byrd has plotted his path in country’s rocky terrain. He has sold nearly four million records since 1992, partly because early on he figured out that he should cut novelty tunes to win over the young demographic that determines radio playlists. “I just had to—I needed hits,” he says matter-of-factly. High sales, along with heavy touring, have allowed Byrd to indulge himself with luxuries like a spacious beach house near Galveston, where he unwinds with his wife, Michelle, and their three-year-old daughter, Evee, and also to pay comfortable salaries to and provide health insurance for his 23 employees, including the members of his band. He has also been able to put on fundraisers like Tracy Byrd’s Homecoming Weekend, which kicks off in Beaumont October 10. The three-day event, which includes a celebrity golf tournament, a bass-fishing tournament (Byrd has his own line of fishing lures), and a concert, is expected to bring in $100,000 for Buckner Children’s Village in Beaumont, bringing the amount he has raised for charity since 1995 to $295,000.
But the biggest luxury Byrd now has is being able to play the traditional, patently adult music he prefers. On his latest CD, 1996’s Big Love ( MCA Records Nashville), he rejects novelty tunes altogether in favor of songs that evoke a meatier era in country music. There’s a swing tune called “Cowgirl,” the Johnny Paycheck cover, and two rich nods to Marty Robbins—one with trumpets, the other with the distinctly un-nineties line “Lately the ties that bind / feel like a noose around my neck.” And while there are the requisite radio-friendly singles—the love ballad, the quasi-rocking vanilla title track, and a pert ditty about diamonds— Big Love is his most mature CD to date, the first to win uniform critical acclaim. “He’s grown into his big-boy baritone,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Alanna Nash.
In concert, too, Byrd is in sort of a dad’s position, slipping peas into his kids’ pudding, spoon-feeding them what they don’t know is good for them. That tack was plain at a recent dance hall show in Lafayette, Indiana: Byrd got the crowd going with ten or so foot-stomping hits, then laid into a string of vintage songs, including Hank Williams, Sr.’s, “Cajun Baby,” Merle Haggard’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and “Working Man’s Blues,” Bob Wills’s “Roly Poly” and “Faded Love,” Ernest Tubb’s “Miles and Miles of Texas,” the old George Strait classic “The Chair,” and Paycheck’s “Someone to Give My Love To.” Satisfied, he backed into the present with a couple of current hits and ended with a rip-roaring version of “Lifestyles of the Not So Rich and Famous” and “Watermelon Crawl.”
Byrd is carrying country’s torch perhaps because so many of his hitmaking peers disregard its roots—citing as influences the schlock-rock bands Kiss and Queen, as Garth Brooks does. Byrd pays special homage to Western swing, a genre that informed his Vidor childhood. “It’s gonna die if people like myself, the next generation that loves it, don’t talk about it and get involved,” he says. Even if he’s opening for Reba McEntire in front of 20,000 people at an arena show, he always slips in at least three swing tunes. He’s so determined to make young fans think about country’s heritage that he’s willing to stop performing. One time in Minneapolis he was playing a slow waltz and couldn’t bear to watch the crowd line-dancing, so he quit singing and delivered a lecture. “I said, ‘Listen, the waltz was created for people to hold each other close, and it’s a romantic dance. You should not be dancing alone,’” he recalls. “I made ’em all waltz, like they were supposed to.”