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Back to the Country

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."

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.

 

Storms of Life, the first debut album by a solo country artist to go platinum in less than a year, was an impressive start, particularly coming from someone of such tender years. Amid warm acoustic guitars, sad fiddles and sadder steel guitar, Travis caressed lyrics with a convincingly world-weary tone. The album's centerpiece, his self-penned "Reasons I Cheat," was a daring psychodrama wherein the young hillbilly Turk cast himself as a paunchy middle-aged man ("the hair that I'm losing," "the dreams that I've buried") lost in a bleak suburban landscape.

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."

Right now, Travis always has somewhere else to go; he's already late for a TV talk-show taping, and the interview is terminated. Yet when he emerges from the bus moments later, he doesn't dive for the waiting limo, but stops to chat with, pose for and dispense autographs to the fans, who've waited hours for this chance.

You and You Alone is certainly not among Travis' best work, but every country performer's career is similarly peppered with successful concessions that count as artistic missteps - anything to keep the career rolling. If Garth Brooks, with his recent six-disc, 66-cut box set, wears Nashville's Number of the Beast, then Randy Travis is a hillbilly John the Baptist, raising a beautiful voice in the wilderness. Possibly the last, best hope for an increasingly moribund idiom (one now fragmented even further by the ham-fisted artistic recidivism of the New Depression bands and droning Americana singer-songwriter movements), Travis might well initiate another revolution. If only he'd apply more of that outspoken prescience to his music. At the very least he knows what's going wrong, and apparently does not intend to give up what becomes, with each passing year, more and more of a struggle.


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