By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
One night last May, Tracy Lawrence was out doing up Nashville town. Earlier that day, he'd finished the last vocal tracks for Sticks and Stones, his inaugural album for Atlantic Records. Helping Lawrence celebrate his accomplishment was Sonja Wilkinson, a friend since kindergarten back in Arkansas. They'd hit a couple of clubs and listened to country superstar Alan Jackson play a local gig. At around three in the morning, he dropped Wilkinson off at her Music City hotel. They sat in the car for a few minutes, marveling for the umpteenth time about Lawrence's bright future.
Of course, Lawrence didn't know at the time that Sticks and Stones would quickly spawn four juicy hits, each scaling the charts with a bullet.
This night, the only bullets that were on his mind were those in the chamber and clip of the .38 special that was suddenly pressed against the back of his head.
"There were three of them," Lawrence recalls during a telephone conversation from Dallas, where he was preparing to play to a packed house at Cowboys, a popular Big D dance palace. "Two of them had guns. They took our money--about $500--credit cards, and the keys to Sonja's Corvette. I kept thinking about what people always say: 'Just give them what they want; don't resist.'"
When the thugs didn't immediately take their loot and drive off in his friend's Sting Ray, Lawrence knew that such traditional advice wouldn't suffice.
"When the one with the gun at my head asked, 'What room are you in?', I just went cold," Lawrence says quietly. "They weren't trying to cover up their faces or anything, and the way they were looking at her was frightening. I was sure they were going to rape her and probably kill us both."
Two of the bandits began marching Wilkinson toward the hotel, while Lawrence and the third man--still pushing the pistol against Lawrence's head--followed a dozen or so yards behind.
"I can't say that I was frightened," Lawrence says without a trace of bravado. "I kept thinking, 'Man, this isn't really happening. This is somebody else, not me.'" As they drew nearer to the darkened hotel, however, reality hit him hard.
"I just decided that they would have to kill me here," he says. "I'd die fighting."
He whirled around and grabbed his assailant's pistol--getting his finger shot in the process. The two men with Wilkinson were distracted; Lawrence shouted for Wilkinson to run. She did. As Lawrence grappled with the gunman, one of the other men fired at him, striking him in the hip. Lawrence tried to flee. A shot grazed his arm, while another bullet hit him in the back of his knee, felling him. He lay helpless as the men emptied their guns at him before taking off into the night.
"The bullets were pinging off the pavement all around my head," Lawrence remembers. "I was sure I was going to die. Thank God, they were pretty bad shots."
At Nashville's Vanderbilt Hospital, surgeons removed the bullet from Lawrence's knee, but chose to leave the one lodged in his hip.
"The doctors told me that the bullet in the hip had missed a main artery by a tenth of a millimeter," Lawrence says. "They said that if it had hit the artery, I'd have bled to death in three minutes."
Having survived--and recovered--from this harrowing ordeal, Lawrence is understandably one thankful Arkansan. Not only has Sticks and Stones gone precious metal, but the first three singles--the title track, "Today's Lonely Fool" and "Runnin' Behind--all shot to the top of the country charts. The fourth, the clever ballad "Somebody Paints the Wall," (Seems like every time I make a mark . . .), went into this past holiday season at Number Six--with a bullet.
Had his parents had their way, however, Tracy Lawrence might never have found out about the bright lights--and muzzle flashes--of the big city. He'd moved with his mother, stepfather and five siblings from hometown Atlanta, Texas, to Foreman, Arkansas, when he was 4. His was a very religious upbringing: "Mama wanted me to be a preacher."
"My folks are typical Southern Democrat Methodists who didn't encourage my guitar playing," Lawrence laughs. "It wasn't the instrument itself; it was where I played it. By the time I was 17, I was in bands playing in honky-tonks. They didn't like that much, and they couldn't see how I had a shot at doing anything but wasting my life away. Add to that my rotten rebel ways. I just kept getting caught--and they were concerned for my future. But, I got away with a lot because I always made it to church. As long as I was in church on Sunday morning, Mama was happy and forgiving."
In an effort to please his parents, Lawrence spent a couple of years at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia before dropping out. Then he tried the workaday world.
"I thought maybe my folks were right," he says. "I got a job working at a paper mill and I played in local clubs a few nights a week. I got a nice apartment, and I was seriously thinking about marrying this girl. I even bought a ring.