Tracy Byrd has always been something of a maverick. In an industry where careers are often decided in committee, Byrd has always held fast to his own creative vision and has never been afraid to take the road less traveled. That unbridled spirit again prevails on his newest release, “Different Things.” Not only does Tracy continue to deliver no-holds-barred country music, he does so while embarking on a new business model that is setting the standard for artists in today’s competitive music industry.
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Byrd is the first country artist to partner with Artist 2 Market Distribution (A2M), the Handleman Company’s independent distribution arm. A2M will sell and distribute “Different Things” to retail outlets nationwide.
“We had more control doing it this way and even though it’s a little more work, there’s also a little more payback if things go well,” says the talented Texan, who has 13 top ten singles in his arsenal of hits. “There are people saying that this is the future and this is the way it’s going to be. I believe that it can be, especially for established artists. People already know who you are. You already have a track record. They already know your hits.”
Tracy Byrd’s hits are well known among legions of country music fans and routinely spun by radio programmers from coast to coast. Since signing his first record deal in 1992, Byrd has become one of country music’s core artists, a Texas born traditionalist equally skilled at serving up playful hits like “Watermelon Crawl” and “The Truth About Men” as well as poignant ballads such as his signature song “Keeper of the Stars,” which netted the Academy of Country Music’s Song of the Year accolade in 1996.
Byrd readily admits he’s a man whose reality has surpassed his dreams. Growing up near Beaumont, Texas, he never considered becoming a country singer until someone coaxed him into singing Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” at a little recording studio in a local mall. The owner heard him and was impressed enough to enter him in a talent contest. As soon as he heard the applause, he was hooked.
“All of a sudden, they couldn’t get me off,” he recalls with a laugh. “That’s all I wanted to do.”
So he did it. He became a popular entertainer on Beaumont’s competitive club scene and soon attracted attention from Nashville. He signed with MCA Records in 1992 and scored a No. 1 hit with the single “Holdin’ Heaven.” His self-titled debut album was certified gold, signifying sales of more than half a million albums. His next four albums achieved gold status, with “No Ordinary Man” being certified double-platinum and remaining in the top ten on the chart for over 30 weeks.
One listen to Byrd’s smooth, rich baritone and it’s easy to see why he’s become one of country music’s best-loved artists. With Tracy, what you see is what you get. He’s a family man, an avid outdoorsman, and country music lover. Those things constantly infuse his life and are reflected in his art. “I think really the one thing that’s kept us solid through all of this is just being myself,” he says of his 15 years in the music business. “We never did go into any album saying ‘You know what? We need to change.’ We just kept cutting songs that turned us on, the kind of songs that were Tracy Byrd songs. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned and would tell anybody if I was managing or producing an artist, I wouldn’t try to make them anymore than they are or any less than they are.”
Byrd also feels versatility has been one of the keys to his success. “I’ve been versatile and I’ve not been trying to conform to any one thing,” he says. “We’ve heard all different styles of music enter into country music and become a part of country music and I think that somehow we were just versatile enough to kind of ride the waves and continue the hits.”
He does that again on “Different Things.” The album covers a vast landscape of musical and emotional terrain. There’s the breezy western swing of “The Biggest Thing in Texas” to the rollicking edge of “She Was Smart,” a clever tune about a woman who wouldn’t be seduced by money or charm, which was co-written by Byrd. He also demonstrates his songwriting talents on “Hot Night in the Country,” a steamy little number with a highly visual lyric destined to raise temperatures regardless of what the thermometer is reading outside.
“Saltwater Cowboy” is an engaging snapshot of a guy in flip flops and a Stetson who hasn’t caught anything all day, but maintains the hope that there’s a fish down there dumber than he is drunk. It’s an opportunity for Byrd to indulge his playful side. Yet on the other end of the spectrum, the album boasts such poignant ballads as the wistful “Before I Die” and the title track, which paints a portrait of a man who knows what he wants and needs are two very different things. Byrd’s performance captures the emotional angst of a man who knows where he should be, but can’t quite live up to his own expectations.
On “Before I Die,” Byrd sings “Before I die, I want to hit the Mississippi in a boat I’ve yet to buy.” What follows is a compelling lyric about longing, regret and redemption and Byrd’s hauntingly beautiful performance is unforgettable. That ability to wring every drop of emotion from a lyric is already earning Byrd rave reviews for the first single, “Cheapest Motel,” about a man whose low rent rendezvous costs him everything that he values.
“The first time I heard it the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I got chill bumps down my spine,” says Byrd. “I thought it was a great song. I’m rolling the dice and thinking if we can get this thing played, people are going to feel and react to it like I did when I first heard it.”
Those who have heard Tracy Byrd’s new record are proclaiming this to be the best songs he’s ever recorded, and T-Byrd modestly agrees. After all, he really wouldn’t give his fans less than his very best with every album. “When I was growing up buying George Strait records, I always knew I was going to get a full, solid album,” he says. “There wasn’t going to be any filler. Every song was going to be well written. I always loved his album cuts more than I did the releases. I always thought that same way when I was doing a record.”
Byrd co-produced the album with his frequent songwriting partner Mike Geiger. “He’s always had a desire to produce and he did such a great job on demos,” says Byrd. “He’d do demos and spent $600 on them and they’d sound like they ought to be on the radio. I was always impressed with his skills.”
Following his heart has always worked for Byrd in music and other areas of his life. In addition to his recording career, Byrd has become a popular television personality, hosting two shows on the Outdoor Channel that give him a chance to indulge his passion for hunting and fishing. He’s loved to fish ever since his grandmother, Mavis Vaughn, began taking him when he was only three or four. By the time he was six, she bought him his first shotgun. The outdoors have been his second home ever since.
Byrd is also a noted philanthropist who hosts the “Tracy Byrd Homecoming Weekend,” an annual Texas event to raise money for local charities. Proceeds from the golf/fishing/music weekend resulted in the Tracy Byrd Hyperbaric Medicine and Wound Care Center at a children’s hospital in his hometown.
Whether taping a TV show, recording an album or raising money for charity, Tracy Byrd approaches everything in life with a fiery intensity and commitment to excellence. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than on stage. “The pay off always was and always will be that couple hours on stage every night,” says Byrd. “I still love making live music and working with my band. I still love working up a show and rehearsing. I enjoy that whole aspect of life because that’s where I came from. Some acts that are hit acts today lived in Nashville and were demo singers. I’d never been in a studio until I cut a record and got a record deal. I was a live performer. That’s what I am and where I came from and what I still love to do.”
Standing in front of people and making music is what launched Tracy Byrd’s career, and it’s what has sustained it. “We toured from day one and never stopped,” he says with a hint of pride. “You never heard of us taking a year off. You never heard of us taking a month off. We worked. Building a fan base like that in an old fashioned grassroots kind of way has really been a big reason for us staying around.”
Like his heroes, Haggard and Jones, Tracy Byrd is in it for the long haul. “I feel I still have a lot to offer in music,” he states. “When I first started, I thought I’d have maybe a five-year career because that’s what was happening to most people. But we kept plugging along and kept working, building a great fan base, and we’ve been able to stay around. I’m just tickled to death. I want to see it through to 20 years and beyond.”
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