Originally published in the August 6, 1996 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
The man who helped turn the tide back toward traditional country music is back on the scene, having come—to borrow the title of his new album—full circle. Several new country artists, along with many music business executives, credit Randy Travis with steering country music away from the bland pop trend back to the post-Urban Cowboy daze.
Randy’s traditional sound is not the product of some marketing plan dreamed up in a Music Row office. It’s the result of the years young Randy Travis—born Randy Bruce Traywick—spent listening to the traditional country greats while growing up in North Carolina.
“Merle Haggard, George Jones, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams Sr. have always been my favorite singers and always will be,’’ Randy told Country Weekly during a break in dress rehearsal for his upcoming tour. “My mom and dad were always big fans of Conway [Twitty] and I sang a lot of his tunes, too, through the years. But I grew up listening to hard-core country like Ernest Tubb, Don Gibson, Stonewall Jackson, Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves.’’
So how does it feel hearing himself referred to as an influence on younger stars: Strange? Happy? Or . . . old? “Old, there you go, that’s how it makes you feel,’’ the 37-year-old responded, laughing. Then he added, “Daryle Singletary is the only one I know of that I’ve heard say that I influenced him. It’s a great feeling. It’s nice to think that you’ve done something that someone else thought so much of that it made them think, ‘Well, that’s what I’d like to do when I get to that point.’ ’’
Music industry experts have no doubt about Randy’s influential role. Jim Ed Norman, president of Randy’s label, Warner/Reprise Nashville, told Country Weekly: “Randy Travis came at a crucial time in country music history. He helped the industry re-focus its energies and reminded us of the value of a tradition inherited from the legends who came before him. He is a giant upon whose shoulders many of today’s young performers stand.’’
And veteran broadcaster Ralph Emery, who’s seen his share of country music trends, declares: “Randy, Ricky Skaggs, George Strait and Reba kept traditional music alive—and Randy was in the forefront of that group. He was new, young, good-looking, with a very infectious smile and had some great songs—and people were ready for that. He played a great role and made a very important contribution to country music by turning it around, and he probably didn’t realize what he did.’’
Randy’s response: “I always look at it like I got to be part of what really turned this business around—me and a few others. George Strait and Reba McEntire were no doubt a big part of that—they were four or five years ahead of me. Also, Ricky Skaggs, John Anderson and Willie Nelson.”
“I’m looking at people who were doing strictly country music and were coming up with big record sales for those days. The music business establishment finally began to see that maybe we needed to stop attempting to do so much crossover and just make good country records.’’
Randy sees his role in that critical period in the mid-’80s as being in the right place at the right time. “It all worked for me. I had great songwriters giving me their best material. I had great management and a good record label. So I got to be a part of a group of people who helped turn this business around.’’
It didn’t come easy. “I was turned down by every label in town in those days, sometimes two, three and four times,’’ he revealed. “Warner Bros. twice.’’ He credits Martha Sharp, a former executive at Warner Bros., with taking an interest in his music. “Martha came out and listened to me at the [Nashville] Palace, but I honestly didn’t think she was that impressed. She heard our set. I said hello. She said goodbye. But a month after that I was signed to the label and just kept going from that—far beyond what I ever anticipated.’’
His first No. 1 hit came early in 1986—“On the Other hand,’’ a re-release of his first Warner Bros. single from the previous year. In 1985, it reached 67 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart. After his follow-up “1982’’ climbed to No. 6, Warner executives wisely chose to try “On the Other hand’’ again, a rarity in the music world. It ignited a string of 13 more chart-toppers, gaining the attention not only of millions of new fans, but hundreds of radio and music business executives always anxious to identify and exploit the latest musical trend.
Opening the floodgates for “new traditionalists,’’ Randy made it not only possible, but imperative, that record labels once again sign artists who talked, sang and sounded . . . well . . . country! And who does Randy favor among the plethora of so-called new traditionalists who have emerged during the past five years? Daryle Singletary, for sure. Elizabeth Hatcher-Travis, Randy’s manager and wife, is managing Daryle and Randy helped co-produce his first album. “He’s a good vocalist,’’ Randy says.
“Without a doubt, Alan Jackson is a man who can be there as long as he wants to be because he has that kind of talent. He knows how to pick great material and write great material, and he’s a good singer.’’ Randy admires Clint Black, “who is such a great talent that he can have pretty much any kind of career he wants to have as long as he wants to have it.’’ And Mark Chesnutt. “He’s great, isn’t he? I love being around Mark—he tickles me to death.’’
Randy’s latest pick for stardom: “There’s a new kid and all I know about him is by his first record, but I love it.’’ Referring to Paul Brandt’s debut single “My Heart Has a History,’’ Randy added, “This guy has a voice that stands out and is recognizable. If he can keep picking material like that, I think he’ll have a great career.’’
And how about that super-seller named Garth Brooks? “Garth may be around for another month or two,’’ Randy joked. “He’s a bright guy in a field of his own. He’s in the business of Garth while the rest of us are into country music. Totally, it’s a different world with him.’’
It’s a totally different world with Randy Travis, too. His distinctive, rich voice will never be confused in this sound-alike-prone era. And the new 12-cut Full Circle album doesn’t have a weak spot in it. “I’ve bought a lot of records over the years and have heard some albums that had two or three hits and then a lot of, truthfully, garbage—just fillers to fill up the rest of the album. I’ve always said that I want to make albums that are good from beginning to end. There are no filler songs on the albums and I hope we have done that with this album.’’
Despite Randy’s track record of cranking out 7 platinum albums, Full Circle wasn’t an easy ride. “It took about a year, and we thought we were close, we thought we almost had an album. “And then Kyle [Lehning, his producer] and I both listened and lived with what we had for a while and he was telling me, ‘You know, some of this stuff is probably not going to work, it’s going to fall by the wayside.’ I said the same thing—‘We need to get back in the studio real soon because I’ve been living with it, too, and I’m not liking a lot of what we have here.’ So we canned a lot of things and just started over.’’
That’s when one of the best songs—Mark Knopfler’s “Are We in Trouble Now’’—came along and became the first single. “That’s one of the last songs we found. He writes and plays guitar so good. Honestly, when you listen to Mark sing, he has a really unusual sound and he’s not going to get country airplay. But a lot of his phrasing is like a country singer—he writes like a country singer and it really works good in this format.’’
Another highlight of the album—a remake of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road’’—arrived by “accident,’’ according to Randy, whose version is scheduled to be on the soundtrack of a movie produced by and starring Bill Paxton. He met Paxton when they worked on the HBO movie Frank & Jesse and the Twister star later asked Randy to record the song for his new movie. “Kyle and I went into the studio in L.A., where we seldom ever work, and I’ve got to hand it to Kyle, the way to produce it, to bring in a stand-up bass, was a great idea.’’
“Roger Miller was tops when it came to songwriting,” says Randy. “There are some writers who come along once in awhile like Roger, and they have this odd ability to say things in such a way that you would never think of. You or I would write it down and it would say the same thing, but it would be worded totally different. He had such a gift that it was incredible.’’
The album’s title came from Randy’s career and the constant evolution of country music, according to Randy, who credits Warner executive Jim Ed Norman with the title idea. “It deals with a lot of things. This is our 12th album and we put 12 songs on it. The music business itself goes in circles—it goes away from country and back to country.’’
Randy Travis, who brought it back to country once, now hopes to ensure it stays that way. And the man who has been predicted for future Country Music Hall of Fame induction has more goals. He told Country Weekly: “I’d like to work in a successful theater movie, rather than just made-for-television stuff. I’d love to continue having hits, and I want to continue playing the shows on the road and keep writing.’’
A fan of such writers as Willie Nelson, Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet, Randy wants to emphasize this grassroots sector of country music. Long before he was on a record label, Randy pitched his songs unsuccessfully to Conway Twitty, Gary Morris, Earl Thomas Conley, Gene Watson and George Jones. “Finally, when they wouldn’t cut them, I said to heck with it, now that I’ve got signed, I can sing them myself. On this particular album, for instance—‘Future Mr. Me’—that song was pitched to everybody. George Jones heard that song, but he passed on it. I thought he could have killed it. “Conway Twitty and Gary Morris had ‘I Told You So.’ ‘Good Intentions,’ which was on an earlier album, was pitched to a lot of people and so were a lot of my tunes, but nobody would ever do them.’’
Thanks to Conway, Gary, George and others, country music fans had the opportunity to hear these songs directly from their own composer—the trendsetting traditionalist Randy Travis.