Randy Travis was the first artist I fell in love musically, and one who saved country music in the second half of the 1980s from declining into pop-influenced irrelevance.
Randy’s new autobiography take us briskly through his childhood, blighted by a father who was an alcoholic bully, sometimes violent towards his wife and children, his youthful off-the-rails behaviour, and his joining forces with Lib Hatcher, the married mid-30s club owner who took charge of him and his career when he was barely 17. He admits he was sleeping with her when she was his court-appointed legal guardian when he was just 17 – we would certainly be calling this an abusive relationship if the genders were reversed, with no question. And that doesn’t even take into account the way Randy eventually discovered (post-divorce) just how badly she had been taking advantage of their relationship financially.
After they moved to Nashville Little Jimmy Dickens, a customer at the Nashville Palace, spotted his talent and gave him a chance to sing on the Opry. Ralph Emery was another early supporter. The young Randy, with only an eighth grade education, and not a very committed one at that, was rather naïve, signing anything Lib told him to. He comes across as very modest concerning his remarkable talent.
There is a lot of interesting detail both on Randy’s recordings and his touring. He comes across as a very nice, genuine person but not a very strong character, easily guided by his long term partner, who was in many respects the driver of his career. As we see his catapulting into stardom, it is clear that Lib Hatcher took advantage of Travis, viewing his success as her own. At times she undermined him, both controlling him by convincing everyone he had a number of allergies (he didn’t), and arguing with business contacts. On one occasion she had something close to a standup fight with George Jones’s wife Nancy, the latter coming off better. Randy wasn’t even allowed his own phone.
He did not think about breaking away until Lib’s attentions were distracted by another young man she could control, a young Irish pop singer. He found support from an old friend whose marriage was also on the rocks, and this blossomed into love. It was only after Randy filed for divorce that he began to see how much Lib had been taking advantage of his success financially. However, the divorce also led him into excessive drinking and things soon spiralled out of control, as we all remember from the lurid newspaper reports of public nudity while in a drunken fugue. Kyle Lehning and George Jones both tried to tell Randy he was drinking too much. When George Jones tells you you have a drinking problem – you really, really do.
The book is very well written, with the help of Ken Abraham. Randy is frank about his failings, accepting some responsibility for letting Lib control him, and acknowledging that he handled the new relationship with Mary a little irresponsibly at its outset. There is a bit too much medical detail following the stroke; while Randy appears to want to dispel thoughts that it was due to the drink problem, the level of detail is boring for the non-medical professional.
We end with details of Randy’s continuing recovery, and his gratitude for the support of fellow artists, with an element of redemption as he has mended some bridges burnt by Lib in earlier years. There are a couple of albums’ worth of unreleased recordings which may be released in due course, and my bet (given financial concerns set out in the book) is that this will be sooner rather than later; recent single ‘One In A Row’ is clearly one of these tracks.
This book is enlightening in many ways, and well worth reading.