Randy Travis

TrackAlbum
On The Other HandStorms Of Life
The Truth Is Lyin' Next To YouAlways & Forever
Honky Tonk MoonOld 8x10
The Blues In Black And WhiteOld 8x10
Hard Rock Bottom Of Your HeartNo Holdin' Back
Whisper My NameThis Is Me
Amazing GraceInspirational Journey
Three Wooden CrossesRise And Shine
In The GardenWorship & Faith
What Have You Got Planned
Tonight Diana
Influence Vol.1: The Man I Am

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

Like Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle, Randy Travis was one of a group of remarkably talented country singers who released their debut albums in 1986. This group also included Dwight Yoakam and k.d. lang and they often tended to be linked together by the music press as part of what was described as the ‘New Traditionalist’ movement in country music. However, while they all shared a deep respect for the pioneers of country music in the 1950s and early 1960s, over time, the musical differences between them were to become increasingly apparent. Travis was undoubtedly the most traditionalist minded of the group and, as a singer, he was also, with the possible exception of k.d. lang, the most technically accomplished. He was also, at least early in his career, by far the most commercially successfully of those country artists who released their first albums in that year.

Randy Travis’ popular success in the late 1980s and early 1990s played a crucial role in creating the crossover appeal for country artists, on which later singers like Garth Brooks and Keith Urban were to capitalise. Unlike Travis, however, the country influence in their work was an extremely diluted one and they often owed as much to American MOR artists as they did to the giants of the genre like Hank Williams, George Jones, Patsy Cline and Lefty Frizzell. In this regard, Travis was a very different type of artist, whose music was always firmly rooted in country music tradition. However what really marked Travis out from other singers of his generation was his remarkable voice, which was one of the greatest ever in country music history. Indeed, there are very few male singers in the history of the genre who can compete with it and only a handful who have surpassed it. His voice had a smooth, supple and mellifluous quality which would have been remarkable in any genre. When combined with that resonant country twang which he used sparingly but to great effect, this marked him out as a vocal stylist of rare quality.

Along with this, Travis also possessed a mastery of phrasing and an understated, yet often devastating, skill as an interpreter of other people’s songs. Like Bing Crosby and Chet Baker, he was also a master of letting the words do the work and he rarely over sang on any of the songs that he recorded. At his best, this relaxed naturalness was an integral part of his greatness as a singer. In probably the best piece that I have read on Travis’ work, Robert Christgau, the well-known American rock critic, has claimed that his singing style was characterised by a ‘striving for ease’. For Christgau, Travis’ best work has been done when he achieves that objective and he attributes his mid-career problems to his inability to maintain that poise.

While I frequently disagree with Christgau’s judgements on other artists, it seems to me that this is one of his most perceptive and well-argued articles. I highly recommend it to those who are interested in Travis’ work. The flipside of this sense of ease was, however, that one did not go to Travis for the kind of existential angst or hard-edged songs of working class life that one could get from great country songwriters like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash. What Travis’ work promised (and more often than not delivered) was high quality material delivered with impeccable musicianship by a consummate singer.

Randy Travis first announced his arrival as a major new talent on the country music scene with the release of his excellent debut album, Storms Of Life, in 1986. This was one of those rare albums which sounded like a classic on its first release and still does almost three decades later. The record also set the template for the series of fine albums which he was to make between then and the mid-1990s. In this first golden (as it were) phase of his career, his records managed to combine sustained commercial success with the maintenance of a high standard of artistic excellence. His albums in this period were all superbly produced by Kyle Lehning, who played a role in Travis’ career which was analogous to that played by Peter Anderson in the case of Dwight Yoakam (more on this in a subsequent Toppermost). Lehning’s great skill was to find a balance between the creation of a slick and commercial sound, which enabled Travis’ records to cross over on to the pop charts, with the retention of a rootsy quality which was in line with the singer’s traditionalist leanings.

The records they produced in this period also benefited from the contributions of some of the finest session musicians in Nashville, including people like Mark O’Connor on fiddle, Béla Fleck on banjo, Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins on piano and Jerry Douglas on dobro. At this time, Travis and Lehning also showed an unerring eye for selecting quality songs from first rate songwriters, most notably from people like Paul Overstreet, Don Schlitz and Trey Bruce. Indeed, it was a song written by the first two of these which provided Travis with his first single and which gave the first intimation that here was a very special artist indeed.

That song, On The Other Hand is my first selection here. In a clever twist, the song begins as if it is going to be a classic country infidelity song. However, the narrator changes his mind about being unfaithful to his wife in the course of the song when he catches a glimpse of the wedding ring he is wearing ‘on the other hand’. As always, Travis sings the song with great subtlety and delicacy and it is the standout track on his first album. This is the case, even though it is probably the most consistent album in terms of the quality of the songs on it that he has ever made. Indeed, such is the quality of the record that it proved very difficult to choose which song from it to include here.

My next selection, The Truth Is Lying Next To You, again features the kind of clever word play which is a central feature of modern country music. However, it is given real emotional depth by Travis’ heartfelt performance. Honky Tonk Moon, by contrast, is a beautifully mellow song, which Travis imbues with a sunny optimism. His remarkable vocal dexterity is also apparent on my next choice, The Blues In Black And White, which also serves as a showcase for his masterly phrasing.

At this point in his career, Travis appeared to be on a roll both in a commercial and an artistic sense. It was from this point onwards, however, that the Midas touch that he had displayed up to then began gradually to fade. In part, this was due to the emergence of a group of young pretenders (including Garth Brooks) on to the country music scene, several of whom had greater crossover appeal than even Travis himself. His attentions were also distracted at this time by his attempts to pursue a side career as an actor. At this point, also, rumours began to circulate in the American tabloid press about his private life, which had a damaging effect on his popularity among a section of the country music fan base. Also, like many other singers who are only occasional songwriters, he was always heavily dependent on the quality of the songs which were supplied to him. As this began to decline, his albums became more hit and miss affairs and the great performances on them were more thinly spread. It should be noted here, however, that even when the songs on the records were not worthy of his great talents, Travis continued to sing them superbly.

Even on these later records, however, there were usually at least one or two songs which lived up to the high standards that he had previously set. These include two of my favourite ever vocal performances of his – the first on the superb single, Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart, one of his best mid-tempo performances (and which also features a superb banjo part by Béla Fleck) and the second on the excellent song, Whisper My Name, written by Trey Bruce. On it, Travis gives a towering exhibition of country-soul singing, one which, in my opinion, ranks among the very best such performances in his career.

From the mid-1990s onwards, however, Travis’ career appeared to fall into something of a rut. He continued to make some fine, if occasionally patchy, records, but these did not match the high standards he had set with his earlier ones. While he continued to have some commercial success on the country music charts, this was not on anything like the scale he had done previously. This situation could, perhaps, have continued indefinitely if the singer had not decided to venture into the county gospel field, releasing his first album in that genre, Inspirational Journey, in 2000.

On this, and on the other fine albums in the same vein that he released over the following five years, Travis’ singing was as good as it had been at any point in his career. Remarkably, as Robert Christgau has pointed out, the ease which had been the key feature of his vocal style in his early years returned on them as if it had never gone away. By this point, his voice also had a weathered quality about it, which added to its emotional depth.

Whether this artistic revival was a product of the singer’s own beliefs (he identified as a ‘born again’ Christian) or of the fact that he had grown up with this type of music all around him, these records represented a surprising return to form for an artist now into the third decade of his musical career. Many of the songs he recorded on these albums were standards which had previously been recorded by some of the greatest singers in both the country and gospel music genres. Nevertheless, Travis versions often came close to being definitive. I have selected two of the best of those here; the first his beautifully pared back version of Amazing Grace (a world away from the slick production which characterised his early records) and the second, his magnificent and powerfully affecting version of In The Garden. For me, this is, by far the best version of this great song ever recorded. My other selection from those albums, Three Wooden Crosses, is a morality tale which, in the hands of another artist, might have come across as rather forced. However, Travis carries it off because of the patent sincerity with which he sings the song. It also has an inclusivity about it which is rare in such songs, especially in the country music genre.

My final selection, What Have You Got Planned Tonight Diana, comes from the first of the two fine covers albums which Travis made before the major health setbacks he suffered in July 2013, although they were released after them. ‘Diana’ had previously been recorded by Merle Haggard (Travis’ own particular musical hero) and Johnny Cash. For me, however, Travis’ version supersedes even those by these two great singers. There is also a lived-in quality in his voice on the song, which perfectly suits its subject matter.

Although Randy Travis seems to be making a steady recovery from the life-threatening health crisis of two years ago, it remains an open question as to whether this fine artist will ever record again. Even if he does not, however, he has already created a superb body of work, which ranks among the very best produced by any country artist over the past thirty years.

 

Randy Travis official website

Randy Travis biography (iTunes)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …

TopperPost #499

3 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Jan 26, 2016

    I think Randy is perhaps the one who sneaks up on you. Steve is intense, Lyle is clever, but Randy is subtle. Loved listening to this.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jan 28, 2016

    David, thanks for this. In my opinion, Travis is second only to Lefty Frizzell as the great master of under-statement in country music singing…

  3. Andrew Shields
    Nov 21, 2016

    An update on Randy Travis’ health. He sang the final “Amen’ in “Forever and Ever, Amen” at the recent CMA awards. One of the few genuine good news stories in recent months. And lovely to see Dwight tap his shoulder at the end. (The clip has been removed from YouTube but hopefully it will return one day… Ed.)

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓