Every #1 Single of the Nineties: Tracy Byrd, “Holdin’ Heaven”

“Holdin’ Heaven”

Tracy Byrd

Written by Bill Kenner and Thom McHugh

Billboard

#1 (1 week)

September 25, 1993

A radio breakthrough that signals changing times.

The Road to No. 1

Tracy Byrd was an accidental star.  His goal was to pursue business, and he was studying that in college when his friends encouraged him to go into one of those old shopping mall recording studios and cover “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”  Byrd had been fooling around with music already, performing in a local Texas band called Rimshot, but it was this recording that encouraged him to pursue music full-time, as the owner of the recording studio pushed Byrd to enter a local singing contest.

Byrd was only 24 when he landed a recording contract with MCA Nashville, and his rise to fame demonstrated how quickly the industry was changing.  The label followed the blueprint laid down by labelmate Mark Chesnutt, sending pure country singles to radio.  The first barely charted and the second, a cover of Johnny Paycheck’s “Someone to Give My Love To,” peaked just outside the top forty.

Yet the album, Tracy Byrd, was selling decently, thanks to an ad campaign that focused entirely on Byrd’s physical appearance.  The teaser ads ran on CMT and TNN, and built up demand for his album while radio was showing no interest.  Advance orders exceeded 150,000 copies at launch, following over 50,000 copies of the “Someone to Give My Love To” cassette single being sold.

The album sold well enough to essentially force radio to take another look at Byrd, and that benefitted his third single, which interrupted the reign of Garth Brooks for a week on the Billboard singles chart.

The No. 1

Marketing and fan demand aside, “Holdin’ Heaven” was also an indication of what country radio was starting to look for in its new artists.  Byrd’s a pure country vocalist in the vein of predecessors like the aforementioned Chesnutt, as well as Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Joe Diffie, and Tracy Lawrence, to name but a few young country artists who broke through during the boom years.

But all of them broke through with mature songs that were wiser than their years.  The same would’ve been true of Byrd if radio had paid attention to his earlier releases.  But they waited until he put out a frothy uptempo song about falling in love.   This is a turning point for the young men coming up on radio from this point forward, and we will see it repeated in this feature with debut singles by Clay Walker and Wade Hayes in the coming months.  Instead of making music with an older country music audience in mind, the focus is turning to younger listeners, with romantic themes and pulsating beats being the new priority.

“Holdin’ Heaven” works fine as one of these singles, and that’s partly because Byrd could sing those more mature country weepers well.   Byrd was just rarely paired with such material, and when he was, radio was resistant to it.   If you look at just his radio hits, he comes off somewhere between B-list hat act and C-list novelty singer.   Neither characterization captures the depth of his catalog or the true breadth of his talent.

 The Road From No. 1

Country weeper “Why Don’t That Telephone Ring” followed “Holdin’ Heaven,” and it struggled at radio like his first two singles did.  Still, Tracy Byrd went gold, and he upped the tempo for his string of singles from his second album, No Ordinary Man.  The first three releases went top five, and they consisted of one redneck humor song (“Lifestyles of the Not So Rich and Famous”) and two consecutive line dance hits (“Watermelon Crawl” and “The First Step.”)  But the song that would power the album to double platinum sales was a love ballad, and we’ll be covering it here when we get to the spring of 1995.

“Holdin’ Heaven” gets a B. 

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

Previous: Wynonna, “Only Love” |

Next: Vince Gill, “One More Last Chance”

3 Comments

  1. The unintended consequence of George Strait’s popularity and success begins to rear its pretty head with acts like Tracy Byrd, Clay Walker, Rick Trevino, etc.

    Staying with Byrd specifically, his popularity is as easy a place as any to mark the emergence of image over substance as to the music coming out of Nashville.

    The wonder of Nashville to date in the early nineties was that it truly felt like a meritocracy. We have already celebrated the Lee Roy Parnells and Hal Ketchums of that era as well as the success some falling stars and singer/songwriters enjoyed. Everyone seemingly had room at country music’s table.

    Until that table began to shrink and feel more like a competitive game of musical chairs than an inclusive gathering place.

    Nashville crunched the numbers Soundscan sales were providing and settled on the commodity they wanted to peddle with laser like precision, a pattern familiar to Music Row and Music City.

    None of this is to say Byrd didn’t have a classic country voice, a rich, resonant, and twangy baritone.

    I think “Why Don’t That Telephone Ring” is an amazing performance. His albums capture the conflict between his harder country credentials and the more soft country he had to release as singles to stay relevant on the charts. If you want a contemporary analogy look no further than Chris Young.

    I completely agree with Kevin that Byrd’s catalogue is much deeper and rewarding than his singles chart history would suggest.

    I consider him one of the hidden gems of this era. Dig into his deep album cuts and you will be rewarded.

    I love how this song sounds and feels.

  2. Excellent points made by both Kevin and Peter about the changing tides in mainstream country around this time period in the 90’s, at least as far as the male artists were concerned. I especially think Kevin’s comments about the newer male artists (and especially their record labels) beginning to target the younger audience with less mature songs is right on the money.

    I also agree with both on Tracy Byrd, especially concerning his most successful singles vs. his lesser known and often much superior album cuts. As someone who’s always been a fan of his and owns all of his 90’s albums, it’s been pretty frustrating to see him become another 90’s male act mostly known for his silly ditties and not much else, as evidenced on the recent Sirius list. I always thought he was heavily underrated as a balladeer, especially, and it’s on a lot of those lesser known ballads (“Why Don’t That Telephone Ring,” “Heaven In My Woman’s Eyes,” “Have A Good One,” “Good Ol’ Fashioned Love,” “If I Stay,” “Tucson Too Soon,” “For Me It’s You,” “Back To Texas,” etc.) in which his classic country style voice really shines, imo. He could even tackle some solid old fashioned shuffles and dancehall numbers like “You Lied To Me,” “Don’t Need That Heartache,” “Driving Me Out Of Your Mind,” “I Still Love The Night Life,” and “Undo The Right.”

    As pointed out, though, it was mostly the lighter and sillier stuff that radio liked from Tracy, and according to some older articles I’ve read on him from Country Music Magazine and Music City News, that would be one of his biggest frustrations he would face throughout his career. After the success of the No Ordinary Man album, he and MCA would often butt heads on the direction he wanted to take his music. The label and producers wanted him to continue doing the silly stuff, while Tracy longed to record more mature, traditional sounding material. I can imagine that other young male traditional leaning artists likely also had similar struggles by the mid 90’s. Heck, even his buddy, Mark Chesnutt, would eventually start complaining about being pushed in too commercial of a direction, which was why he ended up switching producers for his 1995 album, Wings, which was seen as a return to form for him.

    Anyway, as for “Holdin’ Heaven,” this has actually always been on of my favorites of Tracy Byrd’s ditties. Unlike the upbeat tracks that he would have success with on the next album, this one has always had more of a timeless dancehall feel to me, and there’s a certain charm to it that really helps it hold up well today. Tracy’s classic country and mature sounding vocals also do a lot to elevate an otherwise lightweight tune. All in all, it’s a solid toe tapper that I still enjoy a lot today, and it still makes me smile every time.

    It’s just too bad this ended up being the only real hit off of his great first album. It was such a crime that the excellent “Why Don’t That Telephone Ring” underperformed, and I love his cover of “Someone To Give My Love To,” which I wish he had broken through with instead (the song’s video was my intro to him). Other favorite tracks off that album for me are “Back In The Swing Of Things,” “Why,” “Out Of Control Raging Fire (w/ Dawn Sears),” “Hat Trick,” and “Edge Of A Memory.” He’s one of those artists I just can’t help but wonder how his career would’ve gone if only he came out a year or two earlier.

  3. Ah, boy. Y’all know how I feel about Tracy Byrd in general, so I won’t rehash that here.

    I had no idea that his self-titled album was selling well before “Holdin’ Heaven.” TIL! I bought that album because of “That’s The Thing About A Memory” and really enjoyed the whole thing, even “Holdin’ Heaven” although I thought it was one of the lesser cuts. I also really liked his version of “Talk to Me Texas.” I only found out many years later that song was originally recorded by Keith Whitley.

    (As an aside, Jamie, I liked Chesnutt’s What A Way To Live more than Wings; I always thought WAWTL was pretty much in line with his previous albums. In fact, it strikes me looking back in many ways that was one of his more traditional-sounding albums, with both the originals and the covers. “Down in Tennessee” was probaly the most underrated song he ever recorded, I think.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.