When Buffy Lawson went into the studio to record the vocals on her new album, she dimmed the lights.
"I thought, 'This is it. This is probably the last time,'" Lawson, 42, says. "I felt like I sang from a completely different place in my heart than I even knew existed. It felt different, and I knew that it was real, and I felt every word that I was singing."
If she was going to bow out of the music business, after nearly two decades of hits and misses in Nashville, she was going to do it on her terms.
But it turns out that I'm Leaving You for Me might be a career reboot, not a swan song.
"When our marketing gentleman heard it, he was blown away by what he heard and how he could promote it and get it out there," says Wrinkled Records president Sandy Knox. The marketer in question was veteran Nashville music executive Stephen McCord, who has had a hand in boosting the careers of The Judds and George Strait.
The title track, the first single from the album, has been getting radio airplay, Lawson has been out promoting it at stations in the Tennessee-Kentucky area, and audiences will get to hear the whole record when it drops Tuesday.
In some way, it is the realization of the dream Lawson had when she graduated from Tates Creek High School in 1988 and moved to Nashville at age 19.
"When I moved there, I just knew I was going to have a record deal within three weeks," Lawson says at Natasha's Bistro and Bar, where she will have two album-release performances Wednesday and Thursday. Wednesday's show is already sold out. "And I was sure once I was there, the music business would feel complete, now that I had arrived.
"Boy, did I learn the hard way that it takes a lot of sweat and tears and hard work — beautiful moments, disappointing moments. You have to be ready to play with the big dogs if you're going to remain relevant in this industry."
She has played with big dogs, even singing a duet with Neil Diamond (Marry Me in 1996), singing backup for artist Lorrie Morgan, and writing songs for legends Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. She came closest to realizing her dreams of country music fame in 2004, when she co-founded the duo Bomshel with multi-instrumentalist Kristy Osmunson and signed to Curb Records, then home to chart-topper Tim McGraw.
But in 2007, Lawson decided to refocus on songwriting, and she left Bomshel — the group continues with Osmunson and Kelley Shepard. In 2009, she returned home to Lexington.
"I began dating my high school sweetheart (Jimmy Hatmaker), and coming home just felt right," Lawson says. "Now, I go back to Nashville to do the work I need to do when I need to do it. But I like coming back home. I don't know that I would ever want to live there again. I think I'm enjoying it from afar, and I appreciate it so much more.
"But I have two different worlds now, and they both feel like home."
She thought she might have just one home. Lawson had settled into a day job at the Lexington Web site and magazine Tops in Lex, where she was an account manager and wrote a relationship column called "In the Buf." She was doing some performing but thought a music career had passed her by.
Then Knox, the Wrinkled Records president, pulled her back in.
Knox, who wrote three hits for Reba McEntire including She Thinks His Name Was John, considers Lawson such a close friend that when she had a heart attack four years ago, she called Lawson right after she called 911. When Knox decided to form a new artist-geared record label, she rang up her friend from Kentucky.
"She's a brilliant songwriter, and her lyrics move me," Knox says. "She's a really fun entertainer, and there's not a lot of editing when she's up there."
At Wrinkled, Lawson was given carte blanche to record with whomever, however she wanted. Her intention, she says, was to make an album that was an honest expression of herself in all her country, soulful glory.
The album is geared toward Lawson's forty something peers with a lineup of songs, many written or co-written by her, that address a life of victories and heartbreaks and contentment with the hand she's been dealt. It leans more toward torchy country and blues, and it has less of the pop sheen that a lot of country music has today.
"It's more grown-up, more reflective," Lawson says of the album produced by her longtime friend Walt Aldridge. "It's less of a party album and more of a sit-and-listen. It's a 'Buffy's all grown up now' record."
Even without commercial intentions, Lawson and Knox say, the record has attracted enough attention that Lawson has left the day job at Tops, although she still writes the column, which she says has gained a following and could lead to some other opportunities in syndication or radio.
There probably will be more music to make, too.
Told that Lawson thought she was recording her last album with I'm Leaving You for Me, Knox says, "I didn't know that was how she was feeling until a few weeks ago, and it kind of breaks my heart."
Noting that Willie Nelson didn't find success as a solo artist until his early 40s, Knox says, "I think this is a beginning for Buffy, and people will hear from her for the first time."
Lawson says she isn't necessarily counting on anything.
"What is really neat about this time period in general is that I've always been the kind of person that planned and plotted, and I had to know what was around the corner and who was doing this — 'what, when, where, why?' — and I had to know what was coming," Lawson says. "It was the only thing that made me feel safe in an industry which isn't.
"Now, I don't care anymore. I care about the music being good, and I care about the integrity of the process.
"But I'm not going to let my heart get broken at this point. I'm going to put myself in a position of being open to what it's supposed to be. I'll show up if they need me, and if not, I'll go home, pour myself a glass of chardonnay and jam to the record."