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Randy Travis comes full circle (almost)

Wednesday, May 27 1998
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Country singer Randy Travis' tour bus - over half a million dollars' worth of steel and chrome, emblazoned with an adobe-village mural on either side and muzzled with a tucked-and-tooled cream-and-turquoise Indian-motif leather front end - idles in a parking lot behind Universal City's Country Star Restaurant. A TV camera crew and a handful of fans (including several highly impressed bus drivers) gather outside the opulent coach, each seeking their own little chunk of Randy. In town to appear as a presenter at the Academy of Country Music Awards, do lunch with corporate sponsors and tape a slew of TV talk shows, all hyping his new You and You Alone album and his appearance in the motion picture Black Dog, Travis has been politely reeling out the same canned responses to the same painfully predictable questions for the last four or five days.

The previous night's ACM show, a horrific series of artless pop singers stuffed into Wrangler jeans or ill-advised formals, and the shallow, puerile music it showcased, only exacerbated the fear and disgust this year's death toll of country irreplaceables (Owen Bradley, Cliffie Stone, Floyd Cramer, Carl Perkins, Tammy Wynette, Rose Maddox) has brought to every pre-Garth country fan. In this dreary context, a visit with Travis has intriguing possibilities; he is, after all, one of the few remaining authentic country singers able to command respect in the market. Although his last few albums at longtime label Warner Bros. positively choked, Travis' track record - he has sold some 20 million records and placed 25 hits in the Top 10 - still merits serious consideration. Having quit Warners last year to ink with (and kick-start) DreamWorks' Nashville division, Randy is under a lot of pressure to make multiplatinum all over again.

When Travis first broke out, with the stunning 1986 Storms of Life album, he represented both a natural artistic evolution and a startling commercial revolution. George Strait and Ricky Skaggs had already established the so-called "New Traditionalist" movement, but Travis, with a smoldering stage presence that recalled the emotional intensity of Hank Sr. and the ingenuous sweetness of Ricky Nelson, began selling so many records so fast that Music City was caught completely unaware; at the time, moving several hundred thousand units was standard and achieving a gold record was still a respectably Big Thing for a country artist (Strait, who was selling out huge stadiums in a matter of minutes, didn't score a platinum album until 1987 - with a greatest-hits set that required almost two years to make the grade). Travis stormed up the country and pop charts at such an alarming rate that he was responsible for Billboard changing the way it tracked country-music sales, and he did it with a classic honky-tonk baritone singing style and a steel-and-fiddle-drenched sound.

That voice was forged on the classic hillbilly anvil. Born Randy Traywick in North Carolina on May 4, 1959, Travis began entertaining as a child: "Me and my brother Ricky, he's 13 months older, we had bands together from the time I was 9 until I was 16." Seated at a table inside the sumptuously appointed bus, Travis recounted his hard-charging past. "We would enter fiddlers' conventions, play at Moose lodges, VFW halls; then, by the time I was 14, we were in the nightclubs, playing for people out there dancin'. It was quite an education for a 14-year-old. So yeah, I've been doin' it for almost 30 years."

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This valuable experience contributed to Travis' warm, Lefty Frizzell-like phrasing style, which also calls to mind Merle Haggard, with whom Travis shares another similarity - a not inconsiderable police record: "Oh, the charges ranged from trying to outrun policemen to driving under the influence to breaking and entering to trying to steal a van. I don't know if I was ever charged for anything to do with fights or not - I was in so many fights, I can't remember them all."

This tendency toward hopped-up wilding finally had a 16-year-old Travis (after a 135-mph car chase that ended piled up in a corn field) looking at a five-year prison stretch, until Lib Hatcher, a Charlotte, North Carolina, club owner, pleaded for leniency on his behalf; he was released on her recognizance. Thus began an intense relationship, personal and professional; they toured relentlessly, often just the two of them in a single car, working one-nighters with house bands all over the Southeast ("Try to do a two-hour show on nothing but a conversation - that's tough"). Hatcher, who has a good two decades' age-edge on Travis, focused her entire life on the teenager; eventually, she divorced her husband (her unlikely partnership with Travis later bred some very colorful, if unfounded, rumors; they wed in 1992) and sold her home and nightclub, and the pair wound up in Nashville circa 1981, where Lib managed the fabled Nashville Palace nightclub and Randy a worked as both cook and singer, until the 1985 single "On the Other Hand" began to make big noise on the charts. By the following year, all of Nashville lay at Travis' feet, spread out like a free lunch.

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