Following his stint at recording only gospel music, Randy Travis returned with this first secular album in 9 years with the 2008 Warner Brothers release Around The Bend. While it didn’t chart any singles, the album would land in the Country Albums chart top 5 and the all-genre chart’s top 20. With 31,000 copies sold during its first week on the shelves, Around The Bend also gave Travis his best first-week sales of his career. It would also showcase the best of Travis’ mainstream country records more than any album, gospel or mainstream, he had recorded in the previous two decades. Around The Bend finds Travis in better form vocally than his past albums, but the album seems to be a bit front heavy with most of the memorable tracks stacked on the first half.
My favorite track, “You Didn’t Have a Good Time”, is a stark look at the night before, from the point of view of a man with a case of the “re-re’s”, as Willie Nelson might say. The re-re’s are the regrets and remorse that come after a night of unbridled alcohol consumption, the morning after, when you begin rehashing the events of the night before. Here. Travis takes on the role of the party-hearty character’s conscience as he narrates the highs and lows of last night, coming to the all-too-clear conclusion that, despite his own self-delusional theories, he really wasn’t the life of the party, that girl probably spilled her perfume, nobody can save him from himself, and there wasn’t a good time had. The sparse and melancholy arrangement, and the singer’s strong vocal performance, are a throwback to his glory days, despite the wear on his voice over the years.
Travis shines on the album’s up-tempos this time around, but not so much on the ballads. “Every Head Bowed” reminds us of his gospel of the past decade; it’s a tongue-in-cheek tale told from the point of view of a hungry little boy enduring the lengthy Sunday morning worship, and the grace before the meal at KFC, before finally getting his belly full. Despite its using the word “chicken” (a major personal gripe), it’s a neat honky-tonk/gospel fusion, with its rolling steel guitar choruses and piano-laden verses, and a highlight of the album.
Not since Johnny Cash recorded the song have I heard a more sublime version of Bob Dylan’s classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”. Randy’s driving, nothing-but-country, take on the song is a pleasure for its roadhouse atmosphere as much for his own blase’ delivery. On another scorcher, namely Noah Gordon’s “Turn It Around”, Randy leads the show with his weathered vocal, telling of a baffled-by-circumstances man once more made a fool by a woman’s leaving. It has a sound template for modern traditionalism with a walking bass line coupled with a shuffling steel and fiddle country sound.
Among the slower numbers, there’s less to be heralded. A bit dark for a love song and a bit sweet for a tale of woe, “Dig Two Graves” repeats the “I’ll die with you” theme that had become a staple after the successive passing of Johnny and June, and just never resonated with me, despite the quality of the recording. Hugh Prestwood’s “Love Is a Gamble” is a well written but somewhat saccharine story of a mother telling her young son her views on true love. Its contemporary arrangement suits the lyric, but its sound and content leave me reaching for the skip button. Much like “Faith In You”, a failed single, is way overproduced, and its mundane, cliché lyrics are beneath an artist of Randy Travis’ caliber.
Like the ballads, not all the swinging numbers reach their full potential. The title track is a snappy, affirmative take on overcoming what life throws at you, wherein the traditional country instruments – fiddle, mostly – are nearly overcome by the loud mix of drums, bass, and snappier than the lyrics electric guitar swells.
Around The Bend found Travis using his now more-limited vocal abilities to much better effect than previous work – namely the unsuccessful A Man Ain’t Made of Stone album – and certainly was stacked with better song selection. It’s a welcome return to form from one of country music’s greatest voices.
Buy it amazon.