The Kingfisher

Not long ago, Beaumont-based country singer Tracy Byrd was questioning whether he wanted to continue his career. It was an odd thought coming from a man with so much success. Since signing his first deal with MCA in the mid-'90s, Byrd had scored two No. 1 singles, "Holdin' Heaven" and "The Keeper of the Stars," a slew of Top Five hits, and had sold five million albums. Still, something was wrong.

"It seemed like with all the hard work I was putting into it, and the sacrifice of playing 130 dates a year to stay in front of the people and keep things going and being away from my home and my family, it just seemed like I was the only one working that hard," he explains. "It was just to a point where I just wanted to make a change of labels, or basically get out of it. I was just not enjoying myself anymore. And I love music too much to not be enjoying it."

Byrd had grown up in Vidor, the son of fanatical country music fans. Such was their devotion that they took Tracy to the Grand Ole Opry when he was a mere six months old. By his teens, he had started performing, eventually becoming a popular club attraction in southeast Texas. Later Byrd assumed the house band gig at Cutters in Beaumont, then the locus of the Golden Triangle country scene, when Mark Chesnutt graduated to a Nashville record deal.

When Byrd released his eponymous debut album in 1993, he was hailed for mixing Texas country with the commercial sounds that Music City all but demands. So with such success straight out of the chute, did MCA perhaps take Byrd for granted by the time the company released his sixth disc, the greatest hits collection Keepers? "I think so," surmises Byrd. "I think they just figured, 'Oh, well, we really didn't do a whole lot with Tracy marketing-wise, and he sold five million records. So let's just keep not doing anything. It seems to work.' "

But Byrd could see that his charmed career wasn't going to last forever. "The whole time I was screaming, 'This is going to go away. We've been lucky to get what we've gotten. We've got to take this momentum and move with it.' There was a couple times that we really had great momentum built up, and things were going our way, and we just didn't capitalize on them from the promotion and marketing side of things. I always felt like that was kind of a limp we had in the progress of things."

It's not that Byrd isn't grateful for the success. "I try to put it into perspective by looking at a bunch of friends of mine and guys that I know that don't even have deals now, and never had one hit record, much less a string of them," he says. "They'd give their right leg for what I've had. But when you know you can do a little more, you want it to happen."

The model for Byrd's career has always been George Strait, who never let Nashville wash the Texas out of his music and who continues to enjoy superstar status. Like Strait, Byrd has become a business in his own right, with a payroll to meet and more lives to support than just those of his wife and family. "We have 12 guys on the road and four people in the office. It's a lot of people who depend on me. So you want it to keep going so everybody keeps a job and stays around for a long time."

Even though It's About Time, Byrd's RCA debut, didn't sell as well as he hoped, he says he has "all the faith in the world" in his next record. "We just tried to look for songs that were a little different and a little different sound in the studio. Not meaning that they sound pop or anything like that. They're still country, but we tried to cool them up a bit more, and maybe do a little something different that people hadn't heard me do before. There's a few that step out just a little bit for me, but not to the point that we're selling out."

To start off this next release with a bang, Byrd cut the first single, "Good Way to Get on My Bad Side," with his old Beaumont runnin' buddy Chesnutt. "We've wanted to do this for a long time," Byrd explains. "Then the day after we finally decided to do the duet back in November, we found this great song that was perfect for it. So we just went in and cut it right then."

Though the logistics are daunting, Chesnutt will be on hand Friday night to sing the song with his friend as part of the Tracy Byrd Homecoming Weekend in Beaumont. Chesnutt has "a show in Corpus Christi that night that was booked last fall," Byrd says. "So we've got a plane that will be waiting on him, and we'll get police officers to rush him to the airport and get him on the plane and get him down to Corpus. So we'll at least get to do the duet to kick everything off."

Fans will be treated to other guests that evening, including West Virginia wunderkind Brad Paisley, Galveston's famous country comic Bill Engvall and Cajun honky-tonker Sammy Kershaw. The weekend also features Byrd's sixth annual Big Bass Tournament on Saturday at Sam Rayburn Lake in Jasper and a golf tournament on Sunday at the Bayou Din Golf Course in Beaumont. The whole shebang benefits the Children's Miracle Network.

If Byrd ever does decide to retire, he could probably host his own fishing show. He's already the spokesman for the popular TNN Outdoors program. Yet even though he recently considered leaving country behind, he says he's once again happy to make a good living doing the only thing he loves more than reeling in a big bass. Of course, he has another motivation to continue playing: Call it unfulfilled ambition.

"We can play on the road and work and have our fun," he concludes. "But I'd just love to have some more hit records and sell some more albums and ensure that I'll be around for many more years to come, because I don't want to quit."

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Rob Patterson