Randy Travis finds inspiration

Jeffrey B. Remz, December 2000

Randy Travis was the catalyst of the New Traditionalist movement 15 years ago when he brought traditional country music back to the fore with gazillion-selling "Storms of Life."

The man with the great voice had his ups and downs - both personally as a teen and more recently career-wise - but Travis, in his usual low-key style, is upbeat about his decidedly different album, "Inspirational Journey."

"Inspirational" as in Christian, faith or inspirational music. ButTravis' latest is not solely a case of preaching to the converted. The music is far more country than gospel with more emphasis on matters of faith and making choices than overt Christian themes.

"It 's what I wanted it to be," says Travis in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "It's not like I'm preaching a sermon to people."

"The message is there - no doubt," he says in his native North Carolina drawl. "That's important. The writing in this album is very important to me. I wanted it to be right on the money as far as what's written in the Bible. I didn't it to be my version or anything like that."

"But at the same time, I didn't want it to be that like you're preaching to the choir. It's music that the everyday man and woman could listen to and be touched by it and consider where they are."

"It doesn't matter what faith you come from in a lot of cases - it's about living right."

This was not the first time Travis chose to explore matters of faith. His 1991 album, "High Lonesome," closed with "I'm Gonna Have a Little Talk," a gospel-oriented song written by Travis and Don Schlitz.

Travis, baptized seven years ago with wife and manager Libby, also hopes the album, released by Warner through Atlantic's Christian music division, will cause listeners to undergo a religious reawakening as well.

"Maybe some people who were like me - there wasn't a road at all," says Travis, talking openly about past difficulties. "I was so far gone. I straightened up because my wife was used to a totally different lifestyle than I was used to. No one told me to. I just wanted to."

The album was a long, long time in the making - four years. Only one song is particularly well known - the standard "Amazing Grace." Travis had a hand in writing 3 of the 12 songs.

Travis said he chose unknown songs because "that's just what I wanted to do. (Long-time producer) Kyle (Lehning) and I talked about doing standards versus doing new. I said I wanted to do new material. The folks at Atlantic were nervous about that."

The easy going, catchy lead-off "Shallow Water" starts with Travis crooning "I will not drawn in shallow water/Not with your love within my reach."

"Baptism" is slated to be released to country radio as a single, but under the name "Down With the Old Man." This is actually the second time Travis has sung it. Kenny Chesney included it on his album, "Everywhere We Go" with Travis helping out.

Travis already had recorded his own version. Chesney sent word that he wanted Travis to sing on his album. "He had done ' the song and called and asked if I'd go in the studio and sing a song with him. I said, 'sure I'd love to'...Then I got the tape, and it was "Baptism.' I said, 'I can't believe it.'"

Travis said the label "wanted more standards. It's easier to get more people's attention. So many of the great songs - 'How Great Thou Art,' 'Amazing Grace' - they've been done hundreds of time. What else am I going to do to them?"

"It was kind of like when i started recording for Warner - here were all these songs for country," says Travis. "These more country feeling things like 'Baptism' and like 'Drive Another Nail' - they were just there, and no one was recording them. I was thinking this is just great. Why hasn't someone recorded this before.? It's like when I was doing 'Storms' - no one was doing this country material."

Travis closes the album with "Amazing Grace."

"'Amazing Grace' I did because my mom asked me to. I told Kyle it's been done every way. I said let me sit down in front of the mic, with the acoustic and let me play it."

"There's no voice separation - (it's) the voice and the mic," says Travis. "He comes in and moves the mic the distance between my mouth and the guitar, made a couple of adjustments. 'Okay, let's do it. The rest, I just wanted to do original material. There's so much good material written. Why not do it? I prefer to do new stuff."

Travis' mother died before she was able to hear his version.

Travis, 41, was not exactly the model citizen growing up as Randy Traywick (he later changed it because to Travis because "it's a shorter name to write. Traywick is a long name. I was very uncomfortable with it) in the tiny town of Marshville, N.C., about 40 miles from Charlotte.

Travis was not exactly the church going kind as a youngin'.

"Not that much," he says of his church attendance. "My mom was a very good person. If you were looking for a poster child for turning the other check, she was the best I've ever seen. I went to church for a short period of time, but it didn't take. Then, I went out to the drugs and the alcohol. Just went from bad to worse."

"I had a record down at the court house long as I am tall," says the very lanky Travis. "I was so out of control that it was ridiculous. My mom was a wonderful woman. She really was, but she could not control us."

"My dad was gone a lot," says Travis. "He worked a lot, and he had construction company. He did a lot of things. He raised cows and horses. I dropped out of school at 15. It was actually against the law to, but (my parents) said, 'He wouldn't go. He wouldn't do homework.' I kept getting into trouble."

But he also was singing playing with his brother Ricky. Travis hails from a very musically-inclined family.

At 16, Randy entered a talent show hosted by the Country City USA club in Charlotte as a soloist. After winning, he was invited by the club owner, Lib Hatcher, to play regularly at the night spot. The stint lasted about five years with Travis first performing on weekends and then fulltime.

In the late 1970's, Hatcher took over as Travis' manager. He recorded a few singles for the Paula Records label, "Dreamin'" and "She's My Woman" with Joe Stampley producing.

In 1981, Travis moved to Nashville, while still playing at Country City, USA.

Hatcher moved to Nashville as well, managing The Nashville Palace. Travis cooked catfish and washed dishes, while also singing.

By this time, he called himself Randy Ray.

In 1983, Travis recorded his first album independently, "Randy Ray - Live at the Nashville Palace."

The dream of becoming a singer on a Nashville label was not happening too fast. In fact, he was rejected by about every label in town for years.

Travis said it was "always the same reason - too country. I didn't get discouraged. Never did, and neither did she (Libby). We always felt for some reason this is going to work. So we kept working whatever job it might be."

Warner finally signed Travis in 1985. A soundtrack single was followed by his debut, "Storms of Life," a classic. The first single "On the Other Hand," did not do well, but he was in the top 10 with "1982" in late 1985.

And then the label did something ultra-rare; it re-released a single, "On the Other Hand." This time it climbed to number one. Ditto for "Diggin Up Bones."

In fact, seven of his next eight singles hit the top including "Forever and Ever, Amen," the Country Music Association single of the year, "Too Gone Too Long," "I Told You So" and "Deeper Than the Holler."

The New Traditionalist movement was on with Travis as its leader. The Urban Cowboy boom, which actually killed country music earlier in the decade, was long forgotten.

The hits continued to roll in for the easy going singer, including the Brook Benton hit "It's Just a Matter of Time" and "Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart."

After 12 albums for Warner, the magic seemed to be gone with four straight singles making little headway, and Travis left in 1997.

Travis was the first artist to ink with the newly formed Dreamworks Records label in Nashville. When "Out of My Bones," the first single from the new label's debut album, "You and You Alone" was released in 1998, he delivered the label its first number one country hit.

Travis did fairly well with "A Man Ain't Made of Stone" album, but soon Travis and Dreamworks realized they were on different wavelengths, leaving Travis currently without a label.

Travis says part of the problem was a lack of distribution by Dreamworks. Wife Libby (they married in 1991 amidst earlier rumors Travis was gay) would go into record stores while on tour and many times find only one or two copies of the album. When an artist tours, CD sales increase. But when there are no CDs to be had...

"James Stroud's the head of the label, and James Stroud is a friend of mine, and he always is. He played drums on the first two albums I recorded. James, however, wants to produce a little more modern, a little musically oriented record. They just liked too much music and too little vocals. That's my thought. As a man, I think the world of him. I think he's a good producer. The problem lies in mixing the records. That part, we somehow we lost touch and lost control in there somewhere."

One thing remaining constant is the quality of his voice.

"I just started singing," says Travis. "As I've gotten older and sang more and more, you learn things - breathing techniques, singing from the stomach. It's a gift, one of those gifts you don't have to work for."

"I think it's a gift you're born with - whether writing playing or singing. I think it's something you develop over time."

Travis makes it quite clear that he is not the least bit happy about the state of country music in recent years.

"I'm a country singer. No doubt. I've had a great career. I'm extremely fortunate, but it's almost like doing things backwards. In country radio, you release the single. You get attention for the single, which is coming from the new album, maybe the album by the same tile, and then you got out and play."

"In this day and time, it's tough because there are so many records being released. The country industry has just gone nuts. I'm sure they wouldn't appreciate me saying this They've oversigned acts. If someone writes 20 songs and one is worth recording, that's a pretty good percentage...how do you find that many good songs? A lot of songs hitting the airwaves are bad."

"The blame lies everywhere. You've only got a handful of producers making (records) on those acts, so records musically sound alike. Music sounds alike. Bad songs. They're overproducing."

"There are a few people making good records still, but everybody is so locked into 'let's do more crossover sounding stuff, and let's sign more people.' I think they have come to the point 'let's sign everybody we can. Throw out as many pieces of product as we can, and something will stick.' It's that kind of mentality now. That's not smart. I can't tell you how many people I've talked with on the road who say I can't listen to country radio any more. I don't blame them. The business has been ruined. Where everybody goes back six, eight years, everyone was selling good (numbers of) records."

"And now you can count on one hand those people who can truly sell tickets and records, and you won't use all your fingers. What I don't understand is why people is who are at radio, running labels, signing acts, producing acts, the acts themselves (don't realize) that something is not working here. Maybe we need to try better quality songs - the music being about the songs. The music is not being about overproduced songs."

As for Travis, he is continuing his acting career and forging ahead with his musical career as well. He has done many television and theatre movies and may do a few more early in 2001.

He recorded a live album in Anaheim in mid-December for release on CD and DVD, though he is uncertain which company will do the releases.

Through good and bad, Travis seems to keep an even keel, figuring it will all work out.

"I think timing plays such a big part in what happens to people and careers. I think timing is what happened to me in country music. - I got turned down by every label for 10 years because I was too country, and then I got signed because I was country."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com