Tracy Lawrence

Fans of Tracy Lawrence who get his new release "Headlights, Taillights and Radios," which hits stores this week -- might find a few different sounds than they are accustomed to. If so, the singer tells Billboard that was intentional.

"It was real important for me on this album to stretch the boundaries," said the singer in an exclusive interview. "Some of the things on this record were really challenging for me. They were very rangy. We decided that we were really going to push the envelope this time. My head was in a different place than it had been before." 

The decision to expand his musical boundaries came in part as a result of a conversation with a country legend. "I went to see Kenny Rogers at the Schermerhorn a couple of years back with the Nashville Symphony. We sat down and visited after the show, and he was talking about the different pieces of evolution that he went through in his career. He was always innovative about moving in a fresh direction. It really made me do some thinking about where I needed to go as an artist to remain fresh and viable."

The music on the album is as fresh and as relevant as anything else on country radio today – and Lawrence says that was a goal. "I've never been one to stay in a complacent place where I just let the grass grow around me. I felt like like I need to rejuvenate things for myself. Sometimes, I think it's healthy to push the envelope." 

He also remembers a time when he was part of the new breed. "The group of guys I came up with in the 1990s were very innovative. I remember some of the older guys were complaining about how the music had changed, and they were being left behind. I didn't want to be one of those guys who sat around and complained because they weren't growing and evolving. I think you have to challenge yourself to do that." 

He's quick to point out that he's not totally re-inventing the Tracy Lawrence wheel. "At the same time, I think there's a fine line between doing something where you are pushing yourself and stepping totally outside of your comfort zone. That can be a complete disaster if you're not conscious of yourself as an artist. I felt like a lot of these songs still fit in my wheelhouse. I don't think they are too far removed from where we're at in the format these days."

One track that features one of his most musically adventurous arrangements is the haunting "Where I Used To Live." Of the song, Lawrence says "It's a song that talks about where I'm going isn't where I've been before. I just felt it was a great traveling song. There's some things on this album that are about being something of a free spirit or a gypsy. Growing up, when I dreamed about doing this for a living, it wasn't about being rich or playing sold-out arenas. I had this mental picture about wanting to be on the bus and live a lifestyle. It was more about the lifestyle. I just wanted to ride the bus. That kind of coincides with a lot of these songs."

Tracy Lawrence, 'Butterfly'

He hasn't forgotten how to weave magic with a tearjerker, either. "Butterfly," the closing track is one such song.

"I think this is one of the most special things I've ever written," he says. "I was watching a news broadcast, and the documentary was about the Joplin tornadoes. They were talking about how all these children who were buried in the rubble were saying that these butterfly people came down and watched over them, and kept them calm while the rescue workers were digging them out. They all had similar descriptions about this physical thing they saw that kept them comforted. I was very fascinated by it. I started looking the topic up on the Internet, and found that people had saw the same thing at Chernobyl when the reactor melted down."

That got the singer's mind to working. "I thought it was a great idea for a song, because to me, butterfly people would obviously been angels. If angels are protecting people when it's not their time to go, they also come down and help transport people to the other side.  This song just fell out of the sky after we talked about a lot of different perspectives. It basically wrote itself after about an hour and a half. I feel like it was a big gift."