Striving for Ease

Randy Travis Stays With Us

Randy Travis is so much not an original that even his new traditionalism was a copy. Although many claim he saved country music from Urban Cowboy, that flick blighted 1980 and his chart blitz began in 1986, well after bluegrass boy Ricky Skaggs, chicken-fried John Anderson, long-haul George Strait, and Reba McEntire Inc. established back-to-basics as a viable Nashville future. In New York in 2002, Travis is an enigma if not a nonentity compared to any of those guys—even the struggling Anderson, a favorite of mine who has always gotten props in rock circles because he's always been part rock and roller (plays fast, gets hairy, etc.). But Travis was the big cheese back then. Soft-spoken and good-looking, his deftness overshadowed only by his modesty, he delivered spare new songs with a deep old feeling over Kyle Lehning honky-tonk that rarely exceeded midtempo, going platinum or better every year and winning dozens of CMA, AMA, Grammy, and other such awards as he prepared the way, who knew, for the 1991 SoundScan putsch of Garth Brooks. Yet though Travis continued to sell some records after 1990, the awards stopped short. After 1996's Full Circle, he was taken off Warner's hands by the poachers at DreamWorks, where he lasted just two albums. His most recent album was sacred material, loosely defined, with a follow-up due in the fall. A new country album is also projected.

Meanwhile, Warner's odd pair of 1992 Greatest Hits CDs—two arbitrary volumes so brief they would have fit onto one disc, 11 cuts apiece including four decent-to-excellent bonus tracks—have been supplanted by Rhino's just-released two-disc The Randy Travis Anthology: Trail of Memories. This is a feast from a label that's been dishing up too many leftovers—44 tracks all told, starting with most of 1986's debut, Storms of Life, and continuing on to three DreamWorks tracks, including the marginal 1999 pop charter "Stranger in My Mirror." As a great singer who charted pop three years ago, Travis obviously needn't regard himself as a has-been. But his moment is past, and Anthology has the effect of turning it into history. With McEntire on Broadway and Strait up to Latest Greatest Straitest Hits over here, and Skaggs safe in the bosom of Americana and Anderson working his fifth label over there, how does their crucial formalizer and torch-passer measure up? After all, unless you happen to be Alexander Pope, neoclassicism isn't much of a ticket to enduring artistic vitality. The only surprising thing about the answer is how emphatic it is: What a voice the man had.

He still has it, of course—he's only 43, and so far his instrument has only darkened and deepened. But for our purposes its presence in the past is what counts. Taste in voices is personal by definition, and putting aside the mathematics of range and pitch control, which even Mariah Carey fans realize don't mean much in pop, judgment in voices isn't so objective either. Nevertheless, few who know the territory would deny that Travis's voice is something special—that it has more to it than even McEntire's or Strait's, much less Skaggs's or Anderson's. Good voices last. Once one gets to you, it stays with you, subsuming such petty considerations as style and content along the way. Back in the '60s it seemed critical to proclaim that Jerry Wexler had saved Aretha Franklin from the pop vapidities of Columbia Records. In retrospect, however, Aretha's Columbia recordings are also fairly precious—you know she'll never sound so young again. Right, that's Aretha, always an extraordinary case. The shock is that Randy Travis turns out to be extraordinary too, albeit less so. As much as I liked his music in the '80s, I like it more now, and find that the distinctions I so painfully drew among his albums at the time—a champion of 1988's Old 8 X 10, which "only" went platinum, I can now hear, for instance, why many prefer Storms of Life—don't matter as much as what holds them together: the voice, the voice singing.

If this seems perilously close to the canary fancying that's given the world so many Mariah Careys, let me note immediately that John Anderson versus George Strait is still no contest by me. Frazzled though Anderson's drawl may be, it's artist versus craftsman—he's funny, he's soulful, he's avid, and he moves. Anderson versus Travis, however, now seems a close call. We always knew, sort of, that over and above material and production that outclassed his immediate forebears, what made Travis new traditionalism's breakout artist was an ache that invoked the pantheon—Jimmie and Hank, Lefty and Merle. None of the others had anything like it, and only Anderson was oddball enough to compensate. Problem was, Travis's manifest unoriginality seemed to relegate him to the segment of the second tier also occupied by—well, Anthology made me wonder, who? Maybe Carl Smith, a '50s hitmaker whose honky-tonk you've never heard because it was kind of bland. But play Travis and Smith back-to-back and the analogy crumbles. Smith has a flexible, nicely nasal baritone suitable for funneling songs. Tucked off to the side to signify yearning and cultural loyalty, Travis does too. It's about an eighth of his total voice. At the center of his music is a more resonant and capacious thing whose immense power Travis never, ever unleashes.

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