June , 2011
By David Huff
Enjoying A Lifetime Career, Nice and Easy!
JAM Magazine Speaks With Award Winning Country Legend
Randy Travis doesn’t mind that the sun has begun to set on his legendary career. The seemingly never ending sunset has been hanging over this Grammy award winning artist for twenty years. As the torch bearer for the neo-traditionalist movement that revolutionized country music in the mid-80s, his remarkable run of success was unrivaled for six years. Then it all unraveled quicker than you can say “hat act.” The movement, spearheaded by Clint Black, Alan Jackson and especially Garth Brooks, would send the career of this smooth singing baritone into a tailspin he’d really never recover from.
Country music was still suffering from the John Travolta inspired urban cowboy hangover when an album, Storms of Life, was released in 1986. This debut by the former Randy Traywick, not only brought country back to its roots; it caused a generational shift back to the days of George Jones and Merle Haggard. Suddenly, this back-to-basics approach to recording country music was cool again. Chasing the ever elusive cross-over single to pop radio, ala Alabama, was suddenly yesterday’s news. Over the next several years, Travis would release five straight No. 1 albums, sell an astounding 14 million records, and at one point release seven consecutive chart topping singles.
Travis was still at the top of his form in the beginning of the '90s, starting the decade with his biggest hit, "Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart." Then the hat acts attacked with a vengeance. The Marshville, North Carolina native would find solace in acting as he contemplated his next move. Wind in the Wire, a soundtrack to Randy's short-lived television series in 1993, marked the first album without a Top 40 hit. Though he rebounded the following year with four Top Ten singles on This is Me - including the No. 1 hit "Whisper My Name ' - but Travis' day in the sun was over. Or was it?
Like Ulysses cursed voyage home from the Trojan War, Travis himself would undergo a spiritual journey that would test him in ways he never thought possible. Supermarket tabloids would do character assassination pieces on him. His marriage to manager Lib Hatcher, 19 years his senior, would be thoroughly scrutinized. So would the divorce. He would release traditional and gospel songs in an attempt to embrace the Christian music genre. It yielded a No. 1 hit, “Three Wooden Crosses,” but it wouldn’t inject any life to his career.
Through it all, Travis persevered until he finally returned home. In 2010, the singer received his sixth Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Carrie Underwood. It ended a 21-year draught. In June 2011, the multiple award winning artist released Anniversary Celebration. It featured the legendary singer performing duets of his classic hit singles with Zac Brown, Underwood, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Don Henley, Alan Jackson, George Jones, Willie Nelson and others, to celebrate his quarter-of-a-century run in country music.
JAM: To be honest with you Randy, I pretty much dismissed country music my whole life, choosing rock and roll as a far more pleasing platform to operate from.
Randy Travis - Well, if it gives you any comfort, I’ve dismissed rock and roll most of my life. I’m the opposite of you! I don’t care much about rock. I grew up with country music, and I’m lost if I wander outside the business. This should be an interesting conversation.
JAM: From 1986 thru 1990, you ruled country music with an iron fist, producing five consecutive No. 1 albums and selling 20 million records worldwide. It all came crashing down with the so-called “hat act” movement spearheaded by Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson. What do you remember about that time in your life, and what exactly did happen?
It actually goes back a little bit before that. This business really started making a strong turnaround about the mid-‘80s. Before that, all the country artists were too busy trying to record crossover music in an effort to hit the pop audience. It didn’t work for 95 percent of the people who tried it. Kenny Rogers and Alabama come to mind, but those two were the exceptions rather than the rule. You would have your one hit wonders, but the music overall was uninspiring. I got totally bored with country through the ‘70s and into the ‘80s. Now some people, like George Strait, and before that Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, they sold some serious amounts of records singing traditional country music. Then Ricky Skaggs came along in the ‘80s ending Alabama’s stranglehold on country giving the music a bluegrass feel to it.
JAM: You were considered ‘too country’ in the early ‘80s and no record label would touch you. Finally, one day Warner Bros. says to heck with it, signs you, and before you know it, you’re in the studio recording an album.
The record company began to see that pop-oriented country music had run its course. They signed me thinking my traditional approach might work, if given the opportunity. So, in 1985 Warner signs me and I release my debut the next year. That record, Storms of Life, sold over a million copies the first year. That was unheard of for a country artist to do in those days. The second album released ten months later, sold five million. I didn’t expect any of this to happen, and I’m sure Warner was just as shocked as I was. Before my debut came out, gold was the standard used to measure the success of an artist’s music.
JAM: I would say you exceeded that mark and then some.
My goal was to make a living as a singer and a songwriter. After that first album came out, I toured and recorded albums non-stop for seven years, eleven months out of the year. Finally around 1992, I had enough of waking up on a bus in a different town every day. I took a break and ended up acting, which I enjoyed very much.
JAM: Throughout the early part of the ‘80s, it seemed like country music was going through this Las Vegas period, where everyone was like a lounge act without much substance.
That occurred in the ‘70s as well.
JAM: The first half of the '80s, Alabama ruled the airwaves. They won Entertainer of the Year awards five consecutive times. When Ricky Skaggs snapped Alabama's streak, people in Nashville hailed his win as a victory for country music. Then you come along with Storms of Life and really shook up the foundation under country music's feet. Change really isn't a popular term in Nashville is it?
During that time period you referenced, the powers that be in Nashville were fighting all changes. They believed the only way a country act could sell records was to attract a crossover audience. That reluctance to change anything hurt country music for many years. Today, Nashville is open to all kinds of music, and people are influenced by all different types of entertainers. Now it’s a lot easier to record country music. It’s common today to see both a traditional song become a hit as well as a cross-over sounding tune.
JAM: Have the various radio formats that dominate the airwaves created change in country music as well?
Truthfully, radio is a big part of what controls our industry. If programmers say they need more of this type that's what the labels will try to give them. It's a strange system, sort of like the old saying, 'the tail wagging the dog.' That's how much power radio has in our industry. The new trend from radio, artists, producers and heads of labels seems to be leaning heavily back toward the pop song in country. They are also doing some other things I don't agree with. They are into signing a lot of acts where quality in the music isn't a real issue.
JAM: That’s a pretty profound statement.
There's some great singers coming along, but there's also several sound-a-likes. For instance, I could pick ten male vocalists and put them on a song where they sing alternate lines. You wouldn't know who was singing what because there's basically no difference in their voices. Record company's lost their focus for a long time because all they thought about was making money. In other words, they'd stick somebody in a pair of jeans and a hat, sign them, and hope to turn a profit. They don't care if the performers are great singers or stylists. I'm from this school of thought you should be able to recognize an artist after hearing them sing two words. For example, when you listen to George Jones or Merle Haggard on the radio, there's no doubt who it is the moment they open their mouths
JAM: The word platinum has become a catchall phrase in country music where gold used to be the standard artists shot for. Has that level of achievement changed the thinking of the Nashville hierarchy when it comes to signing acts today?
It has changed the thinking a lot in the areas I’m talking about. I went through many years of being turned down by every label in town. They just wouldn’t sign anybody new. They were afraid to take chances and they didn’t want to sign a traditional singer. Now it seems they are breaking a new act every other week. Country radio can only play so many records during the course of a day, so we’ll see how long that lasts. But yeah, label thinking has changed a lot over the years.
JAM: From June 1986 to August 1991, you released six studio albums and toured behind every one of them. You finally took some much needed time off. During that period, hat acts dominated country radio creating a movement that drastically changed the musical landscape. Was that a cause of concern for you when you came back to record material for 1994’s This Is Me?
Well, we looked at hundreds of song before we settled on the final ten, so I guess you could say yes, I was concerned somewhat. The thing is I really wanted to do something different with that record. No artist wants their albums to sound the same time and time again. We thought about that when selecting songs for This Is Me. I found a few things that were unlike anything I had done before, like “Honky-Tonk Side of Town.” That rowdy song was quite a departure for me.
JAM: This is Me would produce your last No. 1 song, “Whisper My Name,” for the rest of the decade.
Back then, radio was looking for up tempo music, and I was lucky enough to have three singles on that record that were Top 5 hits. I know we looked at more songs than you could ever imagine, but at the end of the day, I went with my gut feeling when it came to selecting songs to cut on that record.
JAM: This is going to sound like a stupid question, but what is straight ahead country music?
It is traditional country music. The music goes back to the Haggard and Jones era of music. For a while in the ‘90s, they called it new tradition and placed George Strait, Dwight Yoakum and myself in that group.
JAM: You mentioned earlier you could put ten people on a song singing various lines and you couldn’t tell who they are. How can country music performers establish any type of individuality when all they really do is interpret music written by other people?
When you are a singer, everybody interprets what they sing in a little different way whether they wrote it or not.
JAM: Let me put it to you this way. Rock and roll bands are self-contained units. Their identities are created from within that core group. Country music relies a lot on songwriters pitching their compositions for others to interpret. When it comes to individuality for an established artist, there isn’t any because everyone is singing someone else’s work.
Here’s the thing. The voice is the big part of establishing an artist’s identity in country music. There’s no doubt people like to hear different sounds in those voices. I think the actual song itself is the most important thing when you look at the overall success of an entertainer, whether it’s rock, pop, the blues, jazz, country whatever it might be. I think those singers that have been able to choose wonderful music, and who are stylists with their voices, are the most successful. There are a lot of great, great singers out there who’ve made songs their own they didn’t write. That’s the beauty of our business. You don’t have to be a great songwriter to be a great performer.
JAM: Have you ever rushed an album out and later regretted the decision?
I felt a little hurried on the High Lonesome album. There were some great songs on that record, but I rushed it a little more than I normally like to do. After I had lived with it for awhile, I remember thinking there were two or three tunes on there I wish I had replaced with something else. I wasn’t worried about the production or the performance, but a few of the songs I wish I had changed.
Yeah, but that’s true on a lot of albums, especially in the early years. We worked 200 days a year, sometimes performing twice a day. Then you had to make time to try and write, then look for songs, go to award shows, do interviews. When you add it all up, it was really hard to come up with the ten right songs to make an album. Personally, I think a record should have ten singles on it every time you put a new one out. I truly believe people deserve that kind of quality from an artist. I have listened to several different formats over the last several years, and you can tell when performers are getting lazy. They make records with a couple of really good songs and the rest of it consists of fillers. It’s a real shame.
JAM: Rock and roll is so accustomed to controversy it’s literally a way of life for the industry. One of the things that shocked me was the vicious way you were attacked in the press where it looked like they were trying to destroy your career. Why did all that happen to you?
Are you talking about the gay article?
JAM: Yeah, that whole episode blew my mind.
It did mine too. I was shocked by the suddenness of it all. Here’s the one thing I realized from that entire episode. In the beginning, whether you’re an actor, singer, dancer, whatever it might be, everybody is pulling for you to succeed because you are an underdog. After you’ve had a certain amount of success, it’s kind of like people throw up their hands and say, “Okay, I think that’s enough.” It’s almost like a signal for the press to find something bad to write about that person. Sadly, that is part of the entertainment business that no one is immune to. Those supermarket tabloids don’t care about the truth. The one thing that’s hard for me to understand, are the people that buy those rags and believe everything they read. I don’t get it, seriously, I don’t. For one thing, these folks that write that stuff must be without morals. They actually make up stuff. I had a guy tell me, and he’s a writer that researched this out for me, that tabloids will have somebody who works in a place, go down the street and make a phone call saying they have this information. By law, all tabloids have to prove is an actual call took place. As long as they can produce a phone log with the time and date of the telephone call, it’s tough to go after them.
JAM: I remember when those ridiculous stories broke out it unjustly pushed you into a corner. Did it speed up your marriage plans?
No, but it hurt my career a little bit. The record sales definitely went down after those stories came out. Country music fans are so loyal to the artists they really admire, is it wrong to assume they would whither any storm that rained on the parade of their favorite performer?
A big portion of them will, but there again, the audiences have fragmented into quite a diverse age group. Country music appeals to people in all walks of life now. It’s constantly going through these cycles and the fans are not as loyal as they used to be. That said, there are people that will be there with you until your last album, or the very last concert performance you ever have.
JAM: One of the reasons I started listening to just a little bit of country is the fact I started hearing elements of rock in the music that harkened back to the days of The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg and Jackson Browne.
JAM: Does that tinge of rock influence affect your style of music at all?
As far as what I do, not at all. It certainly has cut down on the traditional stuff we’re hearing, but there’s plenty of room for everything. I think you’re observation is right about the sound that is dominating the country music airwaves these days. I just happen to be one of those people that believe in hearing more of that old style country. When your business defines itself by saying country artists, country radio and country music, that’s what I believe we should hear more of. In the end, I don’t control that. But no, that rock influence doesn’t change anything as far as what I do.
JAM: When you change producers on an album, does that mean you are going to change your approach to the music as well?
In a way, yes! Every producer will go into the studio with the same song, but come out with a slightly different sound, or feel to the record. A lot of people do change producers in order to do something a little bit different. A lot of them think they will come out with a fresher, newer sound. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I have been with my producer Kyle Lehning pretty much since the beginning.
JAM: How do you know who to trust after some of the things you’ve been through?
I’ve been around this business long enough to know who to trust, and who to avoid.
JAM: Is respect hard to come by in country music?
I think that respect is hard to come by in every form of music, and that extends to the business world as well. It’s something you have to constantly strive for. I think people develop their character by the way they handle their personal life, by the way they regard those who work with them, and by the way they treat people who have nothing to do with the business.
JAM: Because of the tremendous loyalty factor of country fans with artists, does that relationship make it easy, difficult or challenging for you to roll with the changes that occur within the industry?
That’s a tough road to travel when you have established yourself in this business. That said, there are several acts that have walked that line pretty well. We all know that change is inevitable through the course of one’s career. Some people try to adapt their music to ride the trends and end up taking it to the extreme. You compare their new record with the previous release and you think, “What in the heck are they doing?” It’s like the artist abandoned the very sound that made them recognizable in the beginning. So again, change is a fine line to walk once you have made a name for yourself. Everybody likes to experiment a little bit with their sound. I’m no different. At the same time, however, you have to stay true to your art form. That’s something I’m very aware of when it comes to recording new albums.
JAM: In rock and roll, if you take two to three years to make a new album, it’s considered normal by today’s standards. You do that in country music, they almost consider that a comeback.
Yes they do. If you don’t put out a normal album for almost two years in our business, that’s exactly the way people will look at you. It’s like “Well, he’s been gone for a long time, and now he’s back!” Country music fans are set in their ways when it comes to artists they like. When you do something out of the norm, they have a tendency to wonder if something is wrong. To me, that’s okay. Country fans really care about the artists they enjoy listening to. I have a special bond with my audience that I’ve cherished my entire career.
JAM: Has your dalliance in acting been a way for you to step back and take a deep breath before jumping back into the fire, or was it just something you fell in to?
Basically, acting just sort of happened for me. It was a profession I wanted to try, especially after I worked on Matlock with Andy Griffith. I was a huge fan of Andy’s, especially the old Andy Griffith shows. So after I worked with him, and had such a good experience with it, I decided to pursue other acting opportunities. Seriously, it’s just something different to do. It’s not necessarily a way for me to get a way from the business of music. I wouldn’t try to do that. Anybody in this profession will tell you that touring can take a toll on you mentally and physically. It’s not like your bus just pulls up to the venue and you step out to do a two-hour show. Your day is filled with all sorts of activities that can wear you out before you ever hit that stage. The one thing I have never gotten tired of is the audience. I don’t think anybody ever could, or ever would. Once you perform in front of a large amount of people, there’s something very habit forming about the experience. I will perform as long as somebody wants to come out and see me. I’ll keep recording albums as long as people want to buy the music. Acting is something different I wanted to try and I did. When opportunities come my way, I’ll do them if they don’t interfere with my music.
JAM: You have mentioned that you're a stylist when it comes to shaping the music you sing. Do you consider yourself an entertainer first, a musician distant second, and does that change your approach to the type of songs you record?
Well, I consider myself a very poor musician to begin with. I am a terrible guitar player. It wasn’t something I concentrated on as a kid. I started when I was eight and somehow I became a poor rhythm player. You put a lead guitar in my hand and you might as well forget it. I play just enough to write. I can set down some rhythm tracks in the studio, but that’s all I can do. I think I am a singer first before an entertainer, but at the same time, I do believe in incorporating entertainment into singing. There are different ways to approach music. I am not one to jump around stage and swing from ropes, but at the same time, I like to talk to the audience and make them laugh.
JAM: From my observations, there haven’t been great innovations in country music, just subtle changes, like videos, that have been effective in getting an artist’s message out. Was that difficult for a traditionalist like you to conform to?
I accepted it to a certain extent, but I’ll admit some of it was hard to deal with. When I hear songs that are nothing but an attempt to create an up tempo record that radio will play, it irritates me because that music will be forgotten in three months. There are records on the radio right now that are being played that are just that - an attempt to get airplay. Other than that, I can roll with the flow, speak my mind on where the business is, and try to make the best music I can.
JAM: Do you have to make concessions at times?
I have never had to. In the beginning, because things went so fast for me, the label let me do what I wanted to. They never asked me to do any particular type of song, and they were happy to give me free reign so to speak. I don’t move a million albums on a release anymore, so I guess you would call me a gold selling artist today.
JAM: You never wavered from your convictions, and for years it steered you in the right direction musically. When your career starts to go off course because other factors in country music start asserting themselves, have those convictions also hurt your career?
Well, if it ever comes to a point where you don’t care what’s going in your career, it’s time to get out. I don’t consider myself in a situation where I have to compete so strongly with new artists. For instance, Reba McEntire put out a string of albums for years, and gold was the best she ever did. Then for whatever reason, she finally hit her stride and became a double and triple platinum selling artist. In this business, every body has their moment in the sun. Mine started early and lasted about six or seven years. That’s nothing to complain about. It’s more than most people get, so I am very grateful for it. In the future, I could have another album that jumps out there and moves a couple of million, but truthfully, I don’t foresee that happening. To be honest, when you have sold that type of quantity of records for as many years in a row as I did, I have to be realistic and look at it like this. How many more times will those same people continue to purchase your records? Even if I did come up with another album that has all the right songs that connects with people, there’s no guarantee they’d purchase my music in droves. The model of the music business has changed drastically since I first started.
JAM: Shania Twain married one of rock’s greatest producers, John “Mutt” Lange; who was also a great songwriter in his own right. Together, they wrote two albums that sold nearly 30 million albums worldwide. Is there a fine line between rock and roll and country music that is constantly being tested and has it ever interested you to explore the medium just a bit in your music?
It has never tempted me to look into it. People have certain voices for certain types of music. I would sound like an idiot trying to sing rock and roll. It’s not something my voice is suited for. I am a country singer and that’s all you’ll ever make out of me. There are people who can walk that line, and have success with it. Garth Brooks was able to do that. He could do a straight ahead traditional country song and then come out and do a remake of a Billy Joel song. I can’t do that, I don’t care to, and it’s something I’m just not in to. There again, rock and roll is something I just don’t care about. I’ve been lucky to make a living out of what I believe in and what I love to hear.
JAM: Is it tough for you to find songs?
It is tough for everybody. There are so many people recording these days, the publishers look at the business different than when I first started. They don’t wait on a certain artist to come into the studio nowadays when they think they have a great song. Because there are so many people recording in the studio on a constant basis, every time a good song is written, it is grabbed and recorded very quickly. It’s hard to find real quality songs that you believe in, and that you want to put your name behind.
JAM: Because of the influx of new people in the business, is it tougher on you to fight through the crowd and get preferential treatment?
I’m in a good situation. Radio is really nice to me. They are very open to playing anything I put out every time I put it out. Over the years, outside of a couple of exceptions, we’ve never had trouble getting airplay.
JAM: You have accomplished so much, have you ever contemplated walking away?
Certainly I have thought about it, but at the same time, it would definitely be hard to do. I have such a love for the music, I enjoy performing. It would be tough for me to leave. It would be like leaving a large part of me behind, no doubt.