Tony Cummings examines the 25-year career of award-winning country music star RANDY TRAVIS
Randy Travis is by any standards a huge recording star. His current appearances as a singing coach on American Idol and the release, through Authentic, of 'Three Wooden Crosses: The Inspirational Hits' album are just the latest milestones in a multi-faceted career of over 25 years that has seen the country music star rise from honky tonk bar obscurity to become a mainstream hitmaker, a best selling Christian retail act, an actor in numerous movies and TV series and, if that wasn't enough, a seminal figure often credited with being one of the creative savours of country music. For it was in the '80s that Randy, along with George Strait, launched the "neo-traditionalist" movement in country music turning the music away from the smooth string-filled blandness of "cowboypolitan" and back to a tougher, gutsier sound of its original roots.
The title track of Randy's new album is a song that presents a story of redemption - of once lost, now found. He told Christianity Today magazine how the story of the song echoes events in his own life. "I came from a background that was heavy with drugs and alcohol and arrests. I've heard people speak about how a vision or something hit them, like a light turned on, right then and there. For me, I was into my early 20s and I went to bed one night and just started reading the Bible. That's how the slow process of coming to understand that I needed to know more about the Word of God began, and then coming to the point of accepting Christ and water baptism. Because of my background, I really had no fear of anything or anybody. But I came to a point in my mid-20s where I thought, The only thing I'm really afraid of is that if I died now, I know I would go straight to Hell. I would hear, 'Depart from me worker of iniquity, I never knew you,' not, 'Well done, good and faithful servant.' That was a sobering thought. So the drugs and alcohol, I stopped that cold turkey. The drinking, running totally wild, running around getting locked up for driving under the influence, trying to outrun police and many, many fights - all that stuff stopped by my mid-20s. The marijuana lasted a couple more years, then I finally stopped that too."
Travis was born Randy Traywick on 4th May 1959 in Marshville, North Carolina, the second of six children of Bobbie, a textile factory worker, and Harold Traywick, a horse breeder, turkey farmer and construction business owner. While growing up, Travis was forced to take guitar lessons by his father and began performing at the age of eight with his brother, Ricky. They'd naturally turned to country music. Said Randy, "I remember my daddy had all these old records, Hank Williams, Letty Frizell, Ernest Tubb and old guys like that. I listened to them from when I was small."
Harold Traywick entered Randy and Ricky in a talent contest at a nightclub called Country City, USA in Charlotte, North Carolina. Ricky, who, like his brother, had brushes with the law, was sentenced to jail and Randy had to complete the contest alone, but he won anyway. The club's manager, Elizabeth "Lib" Hatcher, took an interest in Travis and gave him a job singing at the club. Travis began focusing on music. He first recorded for Paula Records (the subsidiary of Jewel Records who hit big with Mickey Gilley) under the name Randy Ray. Paula released two singles, "She's My Woman" and "Dreamin'", but neither sold. Travis' legal troubles continued and he was due in court for probation violations. Hatcher went to court on the singer's behalf to plead with the judge. Travis was released in her custody with the warning that if the judge ever saw him again "he'd better bring his toothbrush, because he would be going to jail for a very long time."
Travis moved in with Hatcher. This put further strain on her already
fragile marriage. She eventually left her husband and, in 1982, she
and Travis relocated to Nashville, Tennessee. Travis was soon being
turned down by every record label in town. His early demo tapes were
criticised by Nashville record executives as being "too country."
Hatcher took a job as manager of a nightclub, The Nashville Palace,
and hired Travis as a cook and singer. It was during this time that an
unlikely romance began to form between the two; Travis said "I think
we discovered how much we needed each other."
In 1982, Travis recorded an independent album 'Randy Ray Live' and Lib Hatcher used it to secure a deal with the major Warner Bros Records. However, the label said they had to keep their romance a secret so as not to turn away fans, and changed his stage name from Randy Ray to Randy Travis. In 1985, Warner Brothers released Randy's single "On The Other Hand" which peaked at number 67 on Billboard's Country chart. His next single, "1982", became a Top 10 hit followed by the re-release of "On the Other Hand" in 1986. The re-release became Travis' first number one hit.
The singer/s debut album as Randy Travis, 'Always & Forever' was released in January 1987. Produced by Kyle Lehning it captured Travis' world-weary vocals perfectly. His hillbilly inflections were drawn out and the arrangements kept sparse but vital, a throwback to the best work of George Jones and Merle Haggard. When listeners discovered that the singer was not even 30 years old, they lapped it up. As one country historian wrote, "Old timers liked it, young kids liked it and rock fans fell for Travis in a major way. The album went to the top of the charts and remained there for some months. It was eventually to sell over four million copies." The stone classic on 'Always & Forever' was the song "Forever And Ever, Amen". A haunting love song which merged romantic and, courtesy of the Lord's prayer, divine love ("I'm going to love you, forever and ever, forever and ever, amen") it struck a note for marital stability in the country field too often celebrating affairs and D-I-V-O-R-C-E. "Forever And Ever, Amen" won the 1987 Country Music Association award for Single Of The Year. The album also won the corresponding album award and Travis himself was selected as Male Vocalist Of The Year, a feat he repeated in 1988. More hugely successful albums, 'Old 8x10' (1988), 'No Holdin' Back (1989), 'An Old Tme Christmas' (1989), 'Heroes And Friends' (1990) and 'High Lonesome' followed.
Travis and Hatcher married in 1991. That year Travis took part in "Voices That Care", a multi-artist project that featured other top names in music for a one-off single to raise money for the allied troops in the Gulf War. The project included fellow singers Garth Brooks, Kenny Rogers and Kathy Mattea. Also in 1991 Country Song roundup magazine reported a particularly significant event for the singer and his wife. "Randy Travis and new bride Lib Hatcher were baptised during a Sunday night worship service at the Ashland City Church Of Christ recently. The couple has been attending the church, located near their country home, for more than a year. Randy had invited the church's minister, Dan Harless Jr, to his home earlier in the week and informed him of his desire to be baptised. Randy had been baptised in his youth but told the minister that it didn't carry the spiritual significance he wanted."
By 1992 Randy had clocked up so many country chart hits that Warner Bros were able to release two volumes of a 'Greatest Hits' compilation. But as it turned out, his popularity was beginning to wane. In 1997 he left Warner Bros for Dreamworks Records but his albums for that company, 'You And You Alone' (1998) and 'A Man Ain't Made Of Stone' (1999), again failed to sell like in the vast quantities of old. Travis had made a move into acting starting with his television series Wind In The Wire in 1992 and over the next decade and a half made numerous appearances in films like Frank & Jesse (1994), The Rainmaker (1997), Texas Rangers (2001), National Treasure: Book Of Secrets (2007) and The Wager (2007). But it was his album in 2000 which most surprised the music industry observers by being a full-on move into Christian music. Although the industry was used to mainstream country stars releasing one-off albums of hymns and gospel evergreens, the release of 'Inspirational Journey' was clearly a more serious attempt at expressing an authentic Christian faith.
Four years in the making, the album featured three songs co-written by Travis as well as cuts penned by some of Nashville's top tunesmiths. Travis told Billboard at the time of the album's release, "It's something Lib and I had been talking about doing for years. And obviously we talked about doing a lot of standards. But how many people have already recorded them and how many different ways can you possibly do them? It made more sense for me to find new material and approach it that way." After working with James Stroud and Byron Gallimore on his Dreamworks albums, on 'Inspirational Journey' the singer reunited with his longtime producer, Kyle Lehning. "I had fun working with James and Byron and I felt good about the songs we recorded," Travis said, "but there's something special with Kyle, whether it's a chemistry or whatever, it's not there with anybody else."
One of the standout songs on 'Inspirational Journey' was "Baptism", written by Micky Cates and previously a hit for Kenny Chesney. The song vividly describes a country baptism right down to the mud under the young man's toes. "It's a brilliant piece of writing," said Travis. "There are lines in that song that are just incredible." For the album, Travis co-wrote "I Am Going" with his friend and frequent collaborator Buck Moore. "Buck and I wrote it after his mom passed away," Travis explained to Billboard. Travis also co-wrote "The Carpenter" with Chip Taylor and Ron Avis. On the record, the song features vocals by guests Waylon Jennings and his wife, Jessi Colter. "I loved what they did," enthused Travis. "I've been a fan of Waylon's my whole life. It's really neat to have him singing on there and Jessi also. She's a true stylist, a very unique vocalist."
Two years later Travis signed with Word Records who released 'Rise & Shine', a collection of story songs penned from a Christian perspective. For 'Inspirational Journey' Travis, his wife/manager Lib and producer Kyle Lehning had spent years gathering songs. When it came time to record 'Rise & Shine', they not only launched an aggressive search for material, but the artist also worked with such co-writers as Ron Avis, Mike Curtis and Lance Dary. "It was one of those amazing times for writing," he said. "It seemed like everything we were writing, we were feeling good about." Among the cuts Travis co-wrote were "That's Jesus", a tune he and Curtis completed after hearing one of pastor John Hagee's sermons. Travis said they used so much of the sermon that they gave Hagee a writer's credit. "I'm Ready" is a cut Travis wrote with friend/bus driver Avis while they were on the road. Though he didn't write it, Travis admitted that "When Mama Prayed" had an autobiographical ring to it. "That one got to me, especially when you get into the second verse," he said of the lyric that read, "Seventeen and wild I hit the bottle/Doin' any dang thing I well please/Burnin' down life's highway at full throttle/While Mama burned a candle on her knees."
But it was another song on 'Rise & Shine' which was to dominate the album and make record industry history. The gospel ballad "Three Wooden Crosses", written by Kim Williams and Doug Johnson, relayed a tale of tragedy but concluded in hope and higher purpose. Word Records released the song to mainstream country radio and witnessed the rise of a major mainstream hit. "Three Wooden Crosses" achieved number one status at country radio, an unprecedented achievement by a Christian record label on the country charts. Back with a mainstream smash, when that year Country Music Television compiled their 40 Greatest Men of Country Music list Travis was ranked at number 13. The singer continued to act in film and television and appeared on the finale of America's hugely popular drama series Touched By An Angel.
In 2003 Word released 'Worship & Faith' which, compared with the pioneering nature of its predecessor, was a somewhat disappointing project. It contained such oldies as "Will The Circle Be Unbroken", "How Great Thou Art", "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" and "Softly And Tenderly" and in material at least resembled the kind of token gospel projects which are part and parcel of mainstream country culture. His next album though, 'Passing Through' (2004), made more music industry history for Word. It was the first time in the Christian label's 53 year old Christian history that they had released a "mainstream" country album (though several songs had a clear Christian sub-text). The project also renewed Travis' long term association with Warner Bros who handled non-Christian retail distribution.
Travis told Billboard that many songs on the album were autobiographical. "'That Was Us' really hits home," he said of the song that chronicled the lively exploits of some mischievous young men, closely mirroring his own wild youth in North Carolina, where drinking, high speed car chases and brushes with the law were regular occurrences. "'Daddy Never Was' is a song that has things I can relate to," Travis continued. "And 'Right On Time' is another one, considering where I came from. It took me awhile to get straightened out." The song also touched on his rebellious youth, with a lyric that stated, "You go through what you go through to get where you are/Lucky for me I didn't go too far/I turned around before I got to the end of the line/Took awhile to get here, but I'm right on time." The album included a couple of Travis-penned tunes. He wrote, "I Can See it In Your Eyes" with his friend, pastor Matthew Hagee, and "I'm Your Man" is a love song he penned for his wife when he was on the road.
The Christmas of 2007 saw the release of 'Songs Of The Season'. Unfortunately weighed down with a too-predictable song list ("Joy To The World", "The First Noel", "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"), the album was saved from being another of Nashville's notorious Christmas-by-numbers releases through Randy's rendition of Andrew Peterson's breathtaking Christmas composition "Labor Of Love". At the time of it's release Cross Rhythms wrote, "It is, to my mind, the greatest Christmas song written since Buddy Greene and Mark Lowry penned 'Mary Did You Know' in 1991, its stark images of the unsentimentalised virgin birth contrasting powerfully with all those sanitised versions of the events in that Bethlehem stable we hear every year. It's a masterly lyric ("It was not a silent night, there was blood on the ground/You could hear a woman cry in the alleyway that night on the streets of David's town/And the stable was not clean and the cobblestones were cold/And little Mary full of grace with tears upon her face had no mother's hand to hold/It was a labor of pain, it was a cold sky above/But for the girl on the ground in the dark with every beat of her beautiful heart/It was a labor of love").
In 2008 Word released the rather unfortunately titled 'Around The Bend'. Like 'Passing Through' the project straddled both mainstream and gospel markets. Reviewer Hilary Brown clearly enjoyed it, writing, "He sounds much the same as he ever has, possessing one of the most beautifully burnished voices in existence, an instrument he can use with amazing subtlety. Many of the songs on 'Around The Bend' either directly discuss faith or contain it as a strong background element, and Travis is a traditionalist when it comes to nostalgic pleasures and true love. Still, when he gets to turn a humorous phrase, as on 'Everything That I Own (Has Got A Dent)' and 'Every Head Bowed' (a song about hunger and the seeming endlessness of food-blessing rituals), there's a lovely gentle wink in the way he delivers it, and he's often an interesting interpreter. His cover of Bob Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice It's All Right' phrases the song without a darker meaning, as a consolation rather than a text to be examined, and that choice may serve as an emblem for the rest of the album."
The latest Travis album to hit the CD racks is the compilation 'Three Wooden Crosses: The Inspirational Hits Of Randy Travis'. As well as its smash hit title track there are 19 other songs on the two-disc set, including an intriguing version of "Swing Down Chariot" where the country music star is joined by the veteran African American gospel team The Blind Boys Of Alabama. The album is already clocking up considerable sales. Recently Travis spoke to Christianity Today about the differences between playing to church and country audiences. "The big difference [with the country audiences] is you're probably not going to do an altar call. We see a lot [of people accept Christ] at the performances within churches because I will usually do a question and answer with the pastor. It's a wonderful thing to watch the altar call after we've finished and see people accept Christ. It is the thing we are all supposed to do. What does the Word say? Something to the effect of, 'You are saved by the blood of the cross and your testimony.' The pastor will sometimes request certain songs because a lot of the pastors actually do listen to some country radio. So they're familiar with some of the hits from years back."
Randy will be 50 on 4th May. He doesn't mind getting older. "I can do anything I could do at 16 - it just hurts a little bit more!" He's also found an inner contentment. He told Christianity Today, "I'm far more at peace with myself, just having come to know more and more of the Word of God, and that assurance that I will spend eternity in Heaven. There were a lot of drugs, alcohol and fighting at such a young age. I didn't know any peace of mind, so I had a lot of growing in that area to do. It's nice to feel that peace of everything, in everything."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.