This week sees the release of Volume 2 of the ‘Influence: The Man I Am’ album series by Randy Travis, featuring a set of Country classics from legendary artists who inspired the Carolina-native including heavyweights such as Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr. With a formidable career spanning almost thirty years it comes as no surprise that the term ‘legend’ is regularly being used to describe Travis himself. A staunchly traditional artist with an astounding baritone voice, the 55 year old is undeniably an influence on a huge number of singers who have followed him on to Country radio and is widely recognised to have kick-started the New Country movement.
Randy Travis was the second of six children and grew up hearing the musical favourites of his father, a man who favoured the hardcore Country sounds of Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and George Jones. Randy’s early singing aspirations were actively encouraged by his father and by the tender age of 10 years old he was performing in local clubs with his brother Ricky, under the name The Traywick Brothers (Traywick being the family surname). His love of music and general disinterest for everything else saw Randy drop out of school and he found himself finding trouble more than he should, being arrested on a number of occasions for minor offences. In 1975, now aged 16, Travis entered and won a talent contest in Charlotte, North Carolina. The owner of the club, Elizabeth ‘Lib’ Hatcher, was so impressed with the young singer that she offered him a job. Her new employee would routinely swap kitchen and cleaning duties for a singing spot at the club, where he regularly performed under the moniker Randy Ray. The teenager still managed to get into one more scrape with the law and was warned that his next offence would probably see him going to jail. Released in to the guardianship of Lib Hatcher, she became Randy’s manager and the hard work began to get the singer recognised in Country music.
The pair moved to Nashville in 1982 but found that Music City was in the ‘lost years of the Country crossover’, if songs were not being played on Adult Contemporary radio they simply failed to sell. Nashville had pandered to this and the style of music being released on its’ major labels was nothing like that which Randy was raised on, or wrote and sang. Unsurprisingly Travis was rejected by every record label of note in the town, meanwhile Hatcher became manager of nightclub The Nashville Palace, where the singer plied his trade. The decision to cut an album ‘Live At The Nashville Palace’ proved to be the turning point, an album which secured a recording deal with Warner Bros. Records. A deal that, with a break for a few years, still endures today. The only condition placed on their new artist was that the ‘stage’ name of Randy Ray was replaced…by Randy Travis.
In June 1986 ‘Storms Of Life’ the debut album from Randy Travis was released, with a huge amount of trepidation as to how a record full of traditional Country music sung by a vocalist born to be surrounded by steel guitar and fiddle would fare. This is borne out by Kyle Lehning, producer of the album and long-time collaborator, who recalls ‘when we finished Storms Of Life, I knew how much we’d spent on the record and I had figured out that if we sold 40,000 albums, Warner Bros would make their money back and then some, and let us make another one…which is all I was hoping for‘. Lead single from the album ‘On The Other Hand’ had a false start, peaking at number 67. The follow-up ‘1982’ cracked the Top 10 encouraging Warner Bros to re-release the debut single, which rapidly became Travis’ first number 1 hit. The album produced a second chart-topper with ‘Digging Up Bones’ and slowly but surely that 40,000 albums that Kyle Lehning hoped to sell became 4 million.
Keen to keep momentum going, sophomore release ‘Always And Forever’ debuted in April 1987 and proved to be an even bigger success. The album went on to move 5 million copies and handed Randy 4 number one hits whilst it enjoyed a staggering 43-week stay atop the Country charts. A track that propelled the popularity of the singers’ career was ‘Forever And Ever. Amen’, which earned both a Grammy & ACM award for Song of the Year. The ode to enduring love is one of the most iconic tracks of new Country and one that Travis will forever be linked with. ‘Forever And Ever, Amen’ was released in the UK and despite only peaking at No.55 made more of an impact than any Country single for many years.
From 1988 – 1991 Travis released four further albums, at the rate of one a year, all of which achieved platinum status or higher. He continued his assault on the top of the charts, chalking up a further eleven Top 10 hits, five of which went all of the way to number 1. The singer with one of the richest voices in Country music history was a bona-fide superstar and a pioneer for a new wave of traditional artists. It is widely recognised that this unassuming singer / song-writer paved the way for the likes of Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Mark Chesnutt to wrestle back the radio airwaves from the pop-flavoured sounds diluting the integrity of Country music. Included within this four album run was ‘Heroes And Friends’, a duets project that saw Travis using his commercial weight to cut tracks with a number of the greats of the genre. Duet partners included Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and, of course, the Possum himself George Jones.
Also included in this period was the release of an unsung gem of track, which is more than worthy of a mention. Randy’s ‘Old 8 x 10’ album featured a track ‘Promises’, which whilst released as a single, was done so as the final single from that disc and was almost forgotten in the momentum to move on to the next album. Peaking at number 17 the song, an increasingly rare co-write by the singer himself, is a stunning track. Stripped down production, reduced to almost just a guitar and that smooth baritone, ‘Promises’ remains one of the most emotional entries in Travis’ back-catalogue.
The next two years saw a brave step from Randy as he decided to concentrate on an acting career, securing a number of parts. Unsurprisingly a number of these were in Westerns, indeed a role in TV series ‘Wind In The Wire’ prompted the only album to be released during this mini-hiatus. Comprising tracks revolving around cowboy themes, the album is still a wonderful listen, proof if it were needed that he can sing material with any theme and make it compelling. In April 1994 ‘This Is Me’ was released and saw a return to mainstream Country, the break had only proved to increase the demand for new music from Travis. Prior to his ‘time off’ certain critics had noted that, whilst unable to deny that all of his work had been sung masterfully, a lack of creativity in material choices made it feel that the singer and his producing team were coasting. Whether this feedback ever made its’ way back to those preparing ‘This Is Me’, it is documented that in the build-up to recording the record Travis, Lehning and A&R Martha Sharp listened to over 1,000 demos to find the final 10 to make the final cut.
The hard work paid off and all four singles sent to radio hit the Top 10, with ‘Whisper My Name’ going to No.1. In a Country market that was rapidly changing, following the explosion of Garth Brooks on to the scene, and Country music flirting with crossover markets again, Travis and his traditionally grounded music remained popular with ‘This Is Me’ being certified gold. Two years later the ninth album to be released on Warner Bros Records, ‘Full Circle’ hit the stores, sadly this would prove to be the last release before Randy departed the label. As with his previous album, four singles were released, the difference this time was that all of these failed to rise in to the Top 20. Lead single ‘Are We In Trouble Now’ showed the most legs, peaking at number 24. Written by Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, ‘Are We In Trouble Now’ is another track that is a not an obvious choice as one of the finest in the Randy Travis setlist. A song as unassuming as its’ singer but his gentle, measured reading of a brooding love song is an absolute master-class.
Despite question marks over the relevance of straight down the line fiddle & steel Country an artist with such talent was unlikely to be in the ‘wilderness’ for long and newly formed label DreamWorks Nashville took the opportunity to sign Randy to bolster its’ fledgling roster. The result was his ‘You And You Alone’ album released in April 1998 to critical acclaim. A rejuvenated Travis had rarely sounded better and found himself back in the Top 10 with three of the singles released, lead single ‘Out Of My Bones’ was notable for giving DreamWorks its first number 1 hit. Although they remained only album cuts two of the highlights hiding here featured vocal pairings made in heaven; ‘I’m Still Here, You’re Still Gone’ saw Alison Krauss provide harmonies on a joyful bluegrass-flavoured tune, whilst the title track ‘You And You Alone’ was a stone-cold Country ballad with Vince Gill on board for harmony duty.
The relationship between Travis and DreamWorks lasted just two albums, albeit incredibly impressive albums. ‘A Man Ain’t Made Of Stone’ was the last of these and despite being a commercial failure it is widely considered to be one of the strongest albums in Randy’s discography. With a wonderful looseness to both the choice of material and delivery from the singer, this 12-track collection is a must-own for any self-respecting Country music fan. From the playfulness of the rocking ‘I’ll Be Right Here Loving You’, to the blue-collar anthem ‘The Family Bible And The Farmer’s Almanac’, to the goose-bump inducing vocals on mournful ballad ‘Day One’, the album delivers on absolutely every level.
The end of his tenure at DreamWorks prompted another change in career direction for Randy as he embraced his religious upbringing and from 2000-2005 he released five gospel albums, featuring Christian and faith-based material. Naturally radio airplay was vastly limited for the output, but that was not the goal, and definitely not something craved by the artist. Having said that, two of the albums ‘Rise & Shine’ and ‘Worship & Faith’ were both certified gold, as a new fanbase discovered this phenomenal voice. One of the tracks cut in the early 2000’s did make an impact on radio, in fact it gave Travis his sixteenth and final number 1 single (to date). ‘Three Wooden Crosses’ is a sublime example of Country music song-writing at its very best, a tale of faith and redemption, paired with one of the finest Country voices ever it was no surprise that it achieved such success. ‘Three Wooden Crosses’ also gave Travis his sixth and most recent CMA Award when it scooped Song of the Year in 2003.
Following their hugely successful 12-year relationship in the late eighties / early nineties it was fitting that when Travis returned to mainstream Country again he did so on Warner Bros Records. July 2008 saw the release of ‘Around The Bend’, a first collection of non-Christian based tracks since 1999. Having built both a reputation as one of the finest exponents of the genre and a fiercely loyal fanbase it was no surprise that the album debuted with the largest first week sales tally of the artists’ career. The reception at radio was a different matter however, during his absence from the airwaves Country had continued to move forward and, just as when starting out in the mid-eighties, such a traditional sound was the exception rather than the rule. All three singles from ‘Around The Bend’ failed to make a dent on the charts but critics and fans warmed to an album that showcased a voice that was stronger than ever and at its most relaxed to date. The album received a Grammy nomination, as did the track ‘Dig Two Graves’.
By 2011 Randy Travis has clocked up 25 years in Country music and what better way to mark the occasion than an album that teamed up the iconic singer with some of the brightest & best of the current scene, along with a few old friends. The ’25th Anniversary Celebration’ album featured new versions of a number of Randy’s biggest hits from the previous quarter of a century, as well as new material. Highlights of the re-cuts include that career-defining track ‘Forever And Ever, Amen’ with Zac Brown Band and the touching ‘He Walked On Water’ with Kenny Chesney. The new songs were just as impressive, the album kicks off with Brad Paisley joining in on the hugely fun ‘Everything And All’, whilst later on Tim McGraw adds vocals to the angry mid-tempo ‘Can’t Hurt A Man’.
The album was a fitting testament to the achievements of Randy Travis and the admiration with which he was held by all of his peers. In those 25 years he had charted over 50 singles, 23 of which had risen to number one, whilst selling over 20 million albums. Add to that his success at industry awards which saw the singer collect 9 AMA awards, 7 ACM awards, 6 CMA awards and 6 Grammy awards. It should also be noted that during his time away from the mainstream Randy also picked up 7 Gospel Music Association Dove Awards. An incredible list of achievements for a man who started out with limited aspirations, interviewed in 2011 Travis admitted ‘I just wanted to make a living in the business singing and writing, I didn’t really have any dreams‘. Whilst commenting on the period of his career when he was the biggest male star in Nashville the trademark humility was on show again ‘I was like a deer in the headlights quite often, because it went so fast and got so much bigger than anybody could have thought it would have‘.
In July 2013 the singer was admitted to hospital suffering from a viral infection which brought on heart failure and three days later he suffered a stroke which required him to undergo surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. The surgery saved his life and within weeks Randy left hospital and was transferred to a physical therapy facility. Ever since his public appearances have been few and far between and stories surrounding the progress of his recovery vary wildly. There seems to be no doubt his physical condition is still quite frail and he has been seen walking with a cane, however reports that he is still unable to speak (let alone sing) appear to be terrible scaremongering. Contrary to these reports some of those closest to Randy and his family confirm that he is continually improving and, slowly but surely, that singing voice loved by millions is returning. In June of this year Travis was in attendance to see the final concert performance by his buddy George Strait at the Texas show of his ‘Cowboy Rides Away’ tour and was clearly making friends with fellow artists.
In the months leading up to his illness Randy had been working in the studio on his ‘Influence: The Man I Am’ project, which saw him cutting versions of Country classics by legendary artists whose music had played such a part in the formative years of an artist who was himself now knocking hard on the door of legendary status. The list of songs / influences to be considered was so lengthy that a decision was made to split the recordings across more than one album. In September 2013 Volume One was released and boasted Randy’s wonderful interpretations of standards from Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell and Waylon Jennings. Such lofty material was always in safe hands with a vocalist who had learned from the best and, indeed, surpassed a number of his heroes. From the chugging fiddle-drenched ‘Saginaw, Michigan’, to the tender ballad ‘What Have You Got Planned Tonight Diana’, all the way through to the good-time ‘Why Baby Why’, every track is a gem handled with consummate ease by that rich baritone.
‘Influence Volume 2’ is released this week and adds even more to the musical make-up of one of Country music’s finest ever artists. Featuring tracks previously recorded by Hank Snow, Vern Gosdin, Marty Robbins and Kris Kristofferson this second instalment delves deeper into the rich heritage of the genre and blows the cobwebs off of some wonderful songs. Kicking off with a cracking version of Snow’s ‘I’m Movin’ On’ Travis never looks back as he sings his way through a journey through history. Whilst listening to Travis’ reading of the Haggard classic ‘Are The Good Times Really Over’ there is no doubt that this is the music that shaped the material that has featured throughout his career, indeed it would not have sounded out of place on debut album ‘Storms Of Life’ all of those years ago. The timeless Johnny Cash song ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ with its’ glorious opening lines ‘Well I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt, and the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad so I had one more for dessert‘ proves to be a perfect fit for Randy, as does the gentle honky-tonk toe tapper ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me’ originally cut by Marty Robbins. For traditional Country music lovers this an absolute godsend of an album (as is Volume 1) and for Randy Travis fans both of the Influence albums are must-own records.
Randy Travis is undoubtedly one of the outstanding Country singers of his (or indeed any) generation and an artist who, whilst remaining faithful to the traditional sounds of the genre, managed to kickstart the wave of ‘new’ Country and lay the foundations for the artists currently riding high in the charts. Possessing an instantly recognisable baritone voice, equally rich as it is deep, which remains an absolute joy to listen to. His body of work is phenomenal, delving through his back catalogue uncovers classic after classic all delivered with no frills, just plenty of steel guitar, fiddle and emotion. Let’s hope that Randy makes a full recovery and we are able to hear him sing again, in the meantime we can all take a huge amount of pleasure in re-discovering the music that Country fans have loved ever since those ‘Storms Of Life’ blew in.