For an all too short period in the late 1980s, Randy Travis was the biggest star in country music. But while his reign at the top was relatively brief, his influence is almost incalculable. His superstardom was a major factor in the reclamation of more traditional country music from the pop influences which had overtaken it in the ’80s, showing that it was not necessary to abandon the genre’s roots to appeal to mass audiences.
Born Randy Traywick in Marshville, North Carolina, in 1959, he started out singing in a duo with elder brother Ricky when he was still a child. The duo came to a halt when Ricky ended up in prison. Both boys were wild youths who got in regular trouble with the police. At 17, Randy made his final court appearance, and was told by the judge he should bring a toothbrush the next time he saw him to prepare for a long stay in jail. He was released into the custody of local club owner Lib Hatcher. She had taken an interest in the talented youngster after he won a singing contest at the club she managed in Charlotte, and focussed on helping him become a country star. Randy recorded a few singles for independent label Paula, and in 1982 the pair moved together to Nashville, where Lib took a job managing a nightclub, while Randy washed dishes and sang. Randy was rejected by every major country label because, despite his obvious talent, he was seen as “too country” in an industry dominated at that time by the Urban Cowboy movement and pop crossover. Using the stage name Randy Ray, he recorded a live album at Lib’s club, the Nashville Palace. It’s never been formally re-released, but the original vinyl LP has become a collector’s item. Many of the tracks can be heard on YouTube.
This exposure helped open a few doors in Nashville, and in 1985 Randy signed to Warner Brothers, who gave him his new stage name. His debut single, ‘On The Other Hand’, initially failed to make any inroads at radio, and might have confirmed those label executives’ “too country” reservations. Despite the lack of measurable achievement, the Academy of Country Music did name Randy the Top New Male Vocalist for 1985. The label had enough faith in Randy to push another single, ‘1982’. After this reached the top 10, they re-released ‘On the Other Hand’, which was to become Randy’s first #1 hit and an instant classic. Storms Of Life, his debut studio album, was a massive commercial and artistic success, uncompromisingly pure country, and regarded by many as the finest debut album ever released by a country artist. Follow-up Always And Forever was an even bigger success, the #1 country album for 43 weeks, thanks partly to the big hit, ‘Forever And Ever Amen’.
Randy was young and good-looking compared to most country stars of the time. Although he was firmly in the tradition of Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard, and was warmly welcomed by fans of traditional country music, he was also marketed to younger audiences as a fresh new artist, compared to what was categorized (only partially correctly) as a middle-aged, middle of the road, establishment. But more important than the image was Randy’s voice. His was one of the classic country voices, a supple baritone with distinctive inflections, which was immediately identifiable. He won a string of industry awards, including the CMA Horizon Award in 1986 and Male Vocalist of the Year in 1987 and 1988, and Grammy’s in 1988 and 1989. He also spearheaded the country music industry’s international marketing campaign in 1988, with his performance at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London forming the centerpiece of a major multi-artist initiative. He was the face of country music.
Randy and Lib’s relationship was by this time personal as well as professional. The label was not happy about the 16 year age gap, fearing fans’ backlash, particularly as Randy was being marketed to international and city audiences as something of a sex symbol. In 1991, however, they went public with the relationship and got married. They divorced last year, but Lib remains Randy’s manager.
It is possible that the news of the marriage did upset some fans. Randy’s career began to falter commercially in the 90s as a tidal wave of new talent came on the scene. Randy had developed an interest in acting, which probably distracted him from his music career to some degree. His earliest part was a cameo in Brat Pack western Young Guns in 1988, and he has since appeared in a number of film and TV roles. Faced with declining sales, Randy split with Warner Brothers in 1997, and signed with new label Dream Works. The move failed to revive his career, and he eventually returned to the Warner group.
The new millennium saw a distinct change in his career, as he released a string of religious albums, which were well received by Christian music organizations. He has won seven Dove Awards for his work in this style. He did enjoy one more big country hit in ‘Three Wooden Crosses’, but otherwise he has received little radio airplay in recent years even when he released a new secular album, Around The Bend, in 2008. He returned to the spotlight when pop-country star Carrie Underwood released her cover of Randy’s 1988 hit ‘I Told You So’ as a single, citing the original as a childhood favorite. After the pair duetted live on the song on American Idol, Randy’s vocals were dubbed on to the record, which was then promoted as a duet, which peaked at #2 on Billboard and won them a Grammy.
That success may perhaps have prompted his latest venture, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the release of Storms Of Life this month. Back at the height of his success Randy recorded a duets album with some of his Heroes And Friends; now, although his own commercial success has sadly diminished, he is the elder statesman of country with whom younger stars are honored to work. Anniversary Celebration is due in stores on 7 June, and consists of a collection of duets with stars old and new including Underwood again, Josh Turner, Jamey Johnson, Alan Jackson, and John Anderson.
Randy Travis was one of the first country artists with whose music I fell in love, and I am pleased to announce that he is our Spotlight Artist for June. Razor X paid tribute to his 1994 album This Is Me some time ago, and over this month we plan to highlight the best of his other work.