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.”
When Byrd does traditional songs—whether swing or straight country—there is a spooky, uncommon richness to his voice that’s not present on his hits (with the exception of “Don’t Take Her”). “We find songs that just fit me like a glove, and it’s easy for me,” he says. In fact, while a singer normally does a song several times for a CD, leaving the producer to digitally master a final cut from the best versions, some of Byrd’s songs (including “Heaven in My Woman’s Eyes”) are his track vocals, which means he sang them only once. “When Tracy does a song like ‘Big Love,’ which is pretty much right down the middle of what radio likes and will play, it’s hard to distinguish him from Clay Walker or the next guy,” says Tony Brown, the president of Byrd’s label, MCA Records Nashville. “But when he does something like ‘Heaven in My Woman’s Eyes’ or ‘Don’t Take Her,’ that’s Tracy. It sounds so believable.”
And there’s the rub. As country radio continues its love affair with pop, songs like Joe Diffie’s “Bigger Than the Beatles” and a Lonestar hit that actually mentions Pearl Jam and the Grateful Dead dominate playlists. Program directors aren’t interested, for the most part, in the songs Byrd does best, as he learned when he released “Heaven in My Woman’s Eyes” as a single in 1995. It became the fastest-rising song of his career to that point, shooting to number twenty on the charts. It stalled there for two weeks before edging to sixteen, but it ultimately died because a majority of the radio stations refused to play it. “It’s frustrating to hear that something is too country for a country radio station,” Byrd says. “But, yet, the other stuff isn’t too rock and roll for a country station. It makes you mad.”
Another problem for Byrd is that his fans aren’t necessarily thrilled with his soulful warbling. It’s painful to watch him finish the most wilting, sublime version of “Faded Love” to polite applause, and worse yet to hear a fan holler, “‘Watermelon Crawl’!” in the middle of his oldies parade. “I’ve actually had people come up to me and say, ‘You know that song “Heaven in My Woman’s Eyes”—why’d you cut that? Why didn’t you cut more “Watermelon Crawls”?’” says Byrd. “I just look at ’em and think to myself, ‘You know, they really don’t get it. They just don’t get it.’”
Byrd, as it happens, has always been the odd man out. When other six-year-olds in Vidor were listening to Paul Revere and the Raiders, he was stealing off by himself to listen to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys on the 78’s his father had bought out of an old jukebox. Jerry and Brenda Byrd were country music fanatics who took Tracy to the Grand Ole Opry when he was six months old.
When he graduated from Vidor High School in 1985, Byrd was too young to get into Texas clubs, so he and his friends made the nineteen-mile drive to Louisiana. They were duded up in a rigid uniform: starched Wranglers, starched shirts, ropers, and Stetson or Resistol hats. Once inside, they milled around, too scared to ask girls to dance. “Girls would come up and ask him,” says Byrd’s best friend, Trey Robertson. “And sometimes he would and sometimes he wouldn’t, ’cause he couldn’t dance very good.”
At eighteen, while he was studying business at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Byrd got a Mel Bay book of guitar instruction and taught himself to play chords. A couple of years later he recorded “Your Cheatin’ Heart” at a shopping mall studio for $7.95 and then, at the saleswoman’s behest, tried his hand on a monthly amateur show, The Charlie Pruitt Show, where he got a standing ovation. He was hooked. He got together a band and for two and a half years did steady gigs in bars from Houston to Lake Charles, Louisiana. Eventually he was recruited to take over Mark Chesnutt’s regular slot at the Beaumont honky-tonk Cutters, where he stayed for three and a half years.
By then Byrd had transferred to Lamar University in Beaumont. Although he was three semesters short of graduating, he decided to drop out, sending his parents into a tizzy. “They said, ‘That’s a pipe dream,’” he recalls. “They said that one in a million people who wanna be singin’ make it.” Undaunted, he signed a management contract with two Beaumont music veterans—one of them a nephew of Tex Ritter—and traveled with his band to Nashville to get a record deal. His first showcase, at 328 Performance Hall in April 1991, drew top executives from Warner Bros., Liberty (now Capitol), and Sony. MCA sent only a lower-level employee because, Byrd says, they thought they had all the traditional male singers they needed. But the MCA representative was so bowled over that he got Tony Brown to give Byrd a private audition in his office the next morning. After Byrd nailed a sweet low note on a Haggard tune, Brown agreed to come to Beaumont to see a show at Cutters a few weeks later. When he got in line at the club, he was standing behind a delegation from Warner Bros. Both labels made an offer, and Byrd’s attorney played them off one another for six months until each offered a multi-album deal; MCA ultimately won the bidding war.
Byrd’s first CD, a self-titled effort released in 1993, went gold, meaning it sold at least 500,000 copies. His second record, 1994’s No Ordinary Man, sold more than 2 million copies and went double platinum, fueled by the wedding favorite “The Keeper of the Stars” and four novelty tunes, including “Watermelon Crawl.” Love Lessons, released in 1995, didn’t sell quite as well but still went gold. So did Big Love, which has put two singles, “Big Love” and “Don’t Take Her,” as high as number three on the country charts—a hopeful sign for Byrd.
Right now Byrd is considering songs for his next CD, which he begins recording in October. He’s co-writing at least half the material himself, including “Try Tellin’ That to My Heart,” a new swing number. “It has real slow brushes on the snare—you know, real smoky,” he says. “Instead of the up-tempo swing, we’re gonna cut the jazzy, bluesy swing.” He’s also considering a four-four shuffle by Ray Price.
All that’s left to settle on are the hits, the songs that radio will love and that he can also live with. “I hear songs all the time,” he says, “and I’ll go, ‘That’s a hit. Sooner or later someone’s gonna have a hit with it.’ But I just say, ‘Do I really wanna sing this thing for the rest of my life?’ These days, I’m lookin’ a little further. I’m lookin’ a little deeper.”
Freelance writer Jamie Schilling Fields was born in Canyon and grew up in Amarillo.