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Randy Travis Stays With Us

Striving for Ease

Randy Travis is so much not an original that even his new traditionalism was a copy. Although many claim he saved country music from Urban Cowboy, that flick blighted 1980 and his chart blitz began in 1986, well after bluegrass boy Ricky Skaggs, chicken-fried John Anderson, long-haul George Strait, and Reba McEntire Inc. established back-to-basics as a viable Nashville future. In New York in 2002, Travis is an enigma if not a nonentity compared to any of those guys--even the struggling Anderson, a favorite of mine who has always gotten props in rock circles because he's always been part rock and roller (plays fast, gets hairy, etc.). But Travis was the big cheese back then. Soft-spoken and good-looking, his deftness overshadowed only by his modesty, he delivered spare new songs with a deep old feeling over Kyle Lehning honky-tonk that rarely exceeded midtempo, going platinum or better every year and winning dozens of CMA, AMA, Grammy, and other such awards as he prepared the way, who knew, for the 1991 SoundScan putsch of Garth Brooks. Yet though Travis continued to sell some records after 1990, the awards stopped short. After 1996's Full Circle, he was taken off Warner's hands by the poachers at DreamWorks, where he lasted just two albums. His most recent album was sacred material, loosely defined, with a follow-up due in the fall. A new country album is also projected.

Meanwhile, Warner's odd pair of 1992 Greatest Hits CDs--two arbitrary volumes so brief they would have fit onto one disc, 11 cuts apiece including four decent-to-excellent bonus tracks--have been supplanted by Rhino's just-released two-disc The Randy Travis Anthology: Trail of Memories. This is a feast from a label that's been dishing up too many leftovers--44 tracks all told, starting with most of 1986's debut, Storms of Life, and continuing on to three DreamWorks tracks, including the marginal 1999 pop charter "Stranger in My Mirror." As a great singer who charted pop three years ago, Travis obviously needn't regard himself as a has-been. But his moment is past, and Anthology has the effect of turning it into history. With McEntire on Broadway and Strait up to Latest Greatest Straitest Hits over here, and Skaggs safe in the bosom of Americana and Anderson working his fifth label over there, how does their crucial formalizer and torch-passer measure up? After all, unless you happen to be Alexander Pope, neoclassicism isn't much of a ticket to enduring artistic vitality. The only surprising thing about the answer is how emphatic it is: What a voice the man had.

He still has it, of course--he's only 43, and so far his instrument has only darkened and deepened. But for our purposes its presence in the past is what counts. Taste in voices is personal by definition, and putting aside the mathematics of range and pitch control, which even Mariah Carey fans realize don't mean much in pop, judgment in voices isn't so objective either. Nevertheless, few who know the territory would deny that Travis's voice is something special--that it has more to it than even McEntire's or Strait's, much less Skaggs's or Anderson's. Good voices last. Once one gets to you, it stays with you, subsuming such petty considerations as style and content along the way. Back in the '60s it seemed critical to proclaim that Jerry Wexler had saved Aretha Franklin from the pop vapidities of Columbia Records. In retrospect, however, Aretha's Columbia recordings are also fairly precious--you know she'll never sound so young again. Right, that's Aretha, always an extraordinary case. The shock is that Randy Travis turns out to be extraordinary too, albeit less so. As much as I liked his music in the '80s, I like it more now, and find that the distinctions I so painfully drew among his albums at the time--a champion of 1988's Old 8 X 10, which "only" went platinum, I can now hear, for instance, why many prefer Storms of Life--don't matter as much as what holds them together: the voice, the voice singing. If this seems perilously close to the canary fancying that's given the world so many Mariah Careys, let me note immediately that John Anderson versus George Strait is still no contest by me. Frazzled though Anderson's drawl may be, it's artist versus craftsman--he's funny, he's soulful, he's avid, and he moves. Anderson versus Travis, however, now seems a close call. We always knew, sort of, that over and above material and production that outclassed his immediate forebears, what made Travis new traditionalism's breakout artist was an ache that invoked the pantheon--Jimmie and Hank, Lefty and Merle. None of the others had anything like it, and only Anderson was oddball enough to compensate. Problem was, Travis's manifest unoriginality seemed to relegate him to the segment of the second tier also occupied by--well, Anthology made me wonder, who? Maybe Carl Smith, a '50s hitmaker whose honky-tonk you've never heard because it was kind of bland. But play Travis and Smith back-to-back and the analogy crumbles. Smith has a flexible, nicely nasal baritone suitable for funneling songs. Tucked off to the side to signify yearning and cultural loyalty, Travis does too. It's about an eighth of his total voice. At the center of his music is a more resonant and capacious thing whose immense power Travis never, ever unleashes.

In any case, that's the effect--a guy who could shake the rafters at the VFW or plumb the bowels of human misery, yet out of some combination of kindness and humility and innate good taste chooses not to. Forget Jimmie and Hank, so seminal that their influence remains incalculably general. Travis's subtlety traces to peerless understaters Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard. His pain and caring are all in his inflection, casual melismas, and sudden little shifts of grain and note value, and while his accent is pure North Carolina, where Randy Traywick grew up a horse trainer's son, he articulates every word. In this he's very Willie Nelson, although unlike Nelson he rarely extends his passion for American song beyond Music Row unless you count Western swing, which he might as well have been born to. In addition, Travis's signature low end links to George Jones's signature low end; there are even moments--diving to the bottom of "If I Didn't Have You," for instance--when he actually conjures country music's most inspired striver and Aretha-like wonder of nature. What makes these moments doubly remarkable is that the only thing Travis strives for is ease. He never reaches out and grabs.

The downside of this, as you could learn from anyone who rightly believes that young George could stick young Randy in his hip pocket and wrongly thinks the same of young Merle, is that Travis may be too smooth. Another analogy, let me note, is Jim Reeves, who evolved from fiddle-and-steel country No. 1's to Nashville Sound pop crossovers in the '50s, and who starts making sense after you've spent quality time with Randy Travis. The two share what a Nigerian Reeves fan once called his "cool sentimentality." As with Sunny Ade and Gregory Isaacs, it's the singing not the song. Sure I love individual lyrics--the vow of devotion "For Ever and Ever, Amen," the wedding-ring pun "On the Other Hand," the self-explanatory "Reasons I Cheat," the come-back-mama "Before You Kill Us All," a tribute to somebody's grandfather called "He Walked on Water." But most of the time I just bask in his skills and his enormously evocative voice. For a guy who's supposed to be selling lyrics, Travis sure ends up selling a lot of aesthetics.

All country singers validate their right to country emotions with an authenticity dance Travis's life has been a little too imaginative for. Unlike many who claim hellraiser, this painfully polite man really was a teenage badass, a hard-drinking druggie one strike from the end of the line, when he was turned around by a club-owning couple who believed in his talent. In 1981, the wife of that couple took the proceeds of an Urban Cowboy-inspired mechanical bull and left her husband for Randy and Nashville. Her name is Libby Hatcher, she's 19 years his senior, she still manages him, and in 1991 she became his wife. This was after the gay rumors started--rumors that were a lot harder on his CMA profile than Garth Brooks, and rumors he denied with uncharacteristic vehemence, as in: "Someone in Nashville is quoted as saying, 'If Randy Travis isn't gay, then my grandmother is Willie Nelson.' The person that made that statement better tell your grandmother to buy a red wig, get a bandanna, and learn to sing through her nose."

Well, obviously, who cares? Still, think about it. If Travis is in the closet, we have a simple explanation for any dissociation of meaning in his music--he would hardly be the first male homosexual entertainer whose lifetime of dissembling predisposed him to put his all into representational technique. But if we believe him, as the evidence and basic decency suggest we should, we also have an explanation. Country matinee idols are supposed to have a domestic side, and although Travis does his share of cheating songs, his clean-cut image meshes better with material like "For Ever and Ever, Amen." A wife old enough to be your mother, however, isn't the kind of forever Nashville ever has in mind. So when he was biggest his real love life was a secret radically more unconventional than the occasional one-night stand. That could firm up your commitment to representational technique pronto.

I've been listening to Travis's DreamWorks albums, and they're what you'd expect--solid, short on spark, sometimes a little forced. What I didn't expect was 2000's Inspirational Journey, where--can I say miraculously?--his early ease returns unimpeded. Could Aretha Franklin herself make such a claim?

Village Voice, Aug. 19, 2002