By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Teamed with the tasteful, simpatico production of Kyle Lehning, Travis began racking up hits and awards at a dizzying pace. Subsequent releases sold more and more; Travis easily quadrupled the potential Lib Hatcher had seen in the pot-smoking teen renegade, but each set, responding to the dreamboat image his eager fans helped cultivate, came out softer and more cheerful, to the point of seeming almost impossibly positive. Despite its folky underpinnings, country is, of course, the most calculatedly commercial popular music form (even Johnny Cash's late-'60s exercises in social conscience were as much shrewd marketing as soul-deep soapboxing), and the Travis-Lehning team handily exploited their audience's rose-tinted expectations.
But by the early '90s, after the ten-gallons of Clint and Garth had cast an Olympian shadow over Nashville, Randy's sales began to slip. Asked what it felt like to be considered essentially washed-up in his mid-30s, Travis does not hesitate: "Well, going from having albums that have 3, 4 or 5 million in sales down to having gold, or in the case of Full Circle, gosh, 200,000 units - that's a scary thing. I think it would be to anybody, and it makes you worry a little bit about whether you're an artist that radio wants to play or the people want to hear anymore. The last two albums we had at Warner Bros., This Is Me and Full Circle, it was like nobody knew they existed. We put out six singles in a row, and every one failed, one right after another. But I had disagreements with the head of the label in Nashville, and also with the head of promotions, about how a record should be worked. And if we're at DreamWorks and we're having success all at once, then I can't help but think that I was right."
While Travis sings wonderfully throughout You and You Alone, the album is more high gloss than true grit. Producers James Stroud and Byron Gallimore work with a palette of pop coloration that has nothing in common with Lehning's sweet, traditional approach; steel guitar and fiddle lines jostle uncomfortably between stabbing, sharp-toned electric-guitar leads, awash in synthetic arrangements; naturally, the first single, "Out of My Bones," made No. 1 in a matter of weeks.
Travis has apparently gotten back in step with the market, for which no one can fault him, but in order to do so he's had to severely compromise his style. Yet he remains one of the few contemporary country voices worthy of attention, both as a singer and as a commentator on the state of the art:
"Honestly, we're in a little bit of a peculiar position, because there are more artists than there have ever been, but record sales have gone down, radio stations in some areas have lost shares in the market. Record companies began to get greedy; they began to sign so many artists that a couple of things happened: Radio can only play so many records in a day's time, and all these people are listening to radio and hearing songs, and in a lot of cases they're saying, 'I like that, but I have no idea who's singing it' - I know I've been doing that, and I know voices pretty well.
"A lot of mediocre material went out for a few years, and that's very, very sad. A lot of artists started sounding exactly the same, as well as the productions. I think the labels, artists and producers have begun to see that we've made some mistakes along the way, but we've still got a ways to go to straighten it out. I try not to talk negative, but there are facts that you cannot ignore. And in my opinion, we need to lean more on the basics, back a little more toward the traditional sound and not so strongly toward the more pop-oriented music such as we've heard over the last five years."
Surprisingly straightforward, Travis doesn't stop there: "Some of the newer acts coming in really know nothing about the history of this business. It's not true of all of them, but that is a very sad thing that I have seen. You sit down and start calling off names of songs by people like Jack Greene or Ernest Tubb or Don Gibson, Freddie Hart, and they're just like, 'Who?' I don't feel it's my obligation to educate anybody on that - that's something you've got to want, or something that you came from, came across in your past. With me, it's what I grew up with. I'm a guy who's been listening to country music from the time I was able to turn a radio on."
Almost ironically, Travis, like George Strait and Reba McEntire, is an elder statesman - at age 39. He realizes what a precarious spot it places him in, particularly in getting radio airplay, the first avenue closed off to country veterans. Does that scare him? "It's not a fear - I know it'll come. I hope it won't come for a couple of years, but I know that down the road it'll be there. If you look at a career like George Jones has had, he got airplay for 30 years, so I hope I've got a ways to go."