Updated February 03, 1992 12:00 PM

COUNTRY MUSIC THRIVES ON LOVIN’, cheatin’, truckin’ and Texas—and on heartache and pain made sweet by melody. Real life, by contrast, often offers pain without poetry—or, for that matter, without even making sense. No one knows that better than country newcomer Tracy Lawrence, whose first single, “Sticks and Stones,” hit the top of the country charts last week. In May, on the day he finished recording his debut album of the same name, the 24-year-old singer went out for a celebratory evening with his former high school sweetheart—and wound up getting shot four times.

The trouble started late in the evening as Lawrence dropped off his friend, Sonja Wilkerson, at the Nashville hotel where she was staying. Stepping out of her car in the hotel parking lot, Lawrence recalls, “I turned around and was looking at the barrel of a gun.” Encircled by three armed young men, he and Wilkerson were forced to hand over their keys, credit cards and more than $500 in cash. “Then,” he remembers, “they said, ‘What room are you in?’ ” With that, the thieves began marching the couple toward the hotel.

“In my mind, the only reason for taking us to a hotel room was to rape her,” Lawrence says. “They didn’t try to hide their faces. They would not have let us live. I decided that if I was going to die, I was going to die fighting.”

As two gunmen strode 20 paces ahead with Wilkerson, the third walked close behind the slender, 6′ singer and pressed a gun to his head. Suddenly, “I reached around and grabbed the gun,” Lawrence says. “It immediately fired and shot my finger. The other two turned around. I yelled at Sonja to run, and she took off. One of the two fired and shot me in the hip. I tried to get away, and the other guy shot me, grazed my upper right arm. Then he shot me in the knee, dropped me and continued to shoot until he was out of bullets. I was lying face down. I could hear the bullets bouncing on the pavement up around my head.” As the gunmen fled, he remembers thinking, “Why is this happening to me? My whole life is just starting, and I’m fixing to die.”

Lawrence had been shot four times at close range. Yet, almost miraculously, none of the bullets hit a vital organ, and he wound up spending only three days in Nashville’s Vanderbilt Hospital. There, doctors removed the bullet from his knee but left a second lodged in his hip. “The bullet in my hip missed a main artery by a 10th of a millimeter,” he says. “The paramedics told me I would have bled to death in less than three minutes if it had hit my artery.”

Still, given the severity of the knee and hip wounds, doctors predicted Lawrence might need a year to recover completely. Frustrated, he canceled tour plans, postponed the release of his Sticks and Stones album and retreated to the Nashville home of his comanager, Jeff Carver. “One week after he had been shot, I looked out the back window and saw him on his crutches walking in the cornfields,” says Carver. “I think he was just so excited about his career he was determined not to let this gel the better of him.”

Wilkerson, meanwhile, was left with scars of a different sort. She returned to resume her studies at Oklahoma Slate University but for months afterward suffered from nightmares. Like the singer, who has taken to carrying a .32, Wilkerson has also purchased a pistol for protection. “I know we would have been killed,” she says now. “Tracy definitely saved my life. There aren’t too many people around today who would have cared enough about someone else to do what he did.”

Lawrence says he doesn’t think of himself as a hero and credits his small-town upbringing in Fordham, Ark., for the values that guided him that night. “I had a strong family life growing up,” says the singer, who has two brothers and three sisters. His stepfather, banker Duane Dickens, and his mother, JoAnn, a home-maker, “were very conservative. They didn’t drink, they didn’t smoke, they went to church on Sundays and never went on a vacation without taking all of us kids.” They also didn’t cotton, initially, to his choice of careers. “My mama and daddy weren’t real happy,” Lawrence concedes. “It was the lifestyle of singing in them honky-tonks and dives.”

Which is where Lawrence learned a lot of his licks during two years of college at Southern Arkansas University before dropping out in 1988. Spotted onstage at a Kentucky nightclub, he was signed by Atlantic Records and, with the company’s backing, landed some commercial endorsements—for jeans, boots, hats and guitars—even before releasing a record. “He had looks, he’s young. The women love him,” says Atlantic president Rick Blackburn.

Now, although his knee “still bothers me occasionally,” Lawrence has resumed his career and has even begun mapping plans for a second album. As for Sonja, she and Lawrence still keep in touch—although mostly by phone these days. “We were always good friends, but [the shooting] put a bond between us,” says Lawrence. “When you go through something like that with somebody, it does something to you. It made our friendship very special.”