Striving for Ease

Randy Travis Stays With Us

In any case, that's the effect—a guy who could shake the rafters at the VFW or plumb the bowels of human misery, yet out of some combination of kindness and humility and innate good taste chooses not to. Forget Jimmie and Hank, so seminal that their influence remains incalculably general. Travis's subtlety traces to peerless understaters Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard. His pain and caring are all in his inflection, casual melismas, and sudden little shifts of grain and note value, and while his accent is pure North Carolina, where Randy Traywick grew up a horse trainer's son, he articulates every word. In this he's very Willie Nelson, although unlike Nelson he rarely extends his passion for American song beyond Music Row unless you count Western swing, which he might as well have been born to. In addition, Travis's signature low end links to George Jones's signature low end; there are even moments—diving to the bottom of "If I Didn't Have You," for instance—when he actually conjures country music's most inspired striver and Aretha-like wonder of nature. What makes these moments doubly remarkable is that the only thing Travis strives for is ease. He never reaches out and grabs.

The downside of this, as you could learn from anyone who rightly believes that young George could stick young Randy in his hip pocket and wrongly thinks the same of young Merle, is that Travis may be too smooth. Another analogy, let me note, is Jim Reeves, who evolved from fiddle-and-steel country No. 1's to Nashville Sound pop crossovers in the '50s, and who starts making sense after you've spent quality time with Randy Travis. The two share what a Nigerian Reeves fan once called his "cool sentimentality." As with Sunny Ade and Gregory Isaacs, it's the singing not the song. Sure I love individual lyrics—the vow of devotion "For Ever and Ever, Amen," the wedding-ring pun "On the Other Hand," the self-explanatory "Reasons I Cheat," the come-back-mama "Before You Kill Us All," a tribute to somebody's grandfather called "He Walked on Water." But most of the time I just bask in his skills and his enormously evocative voice. For a guy who's supposed to be selling lyrics, Travis sure ends up selling a lot of aesthetics.

All country singers validate their right to country emotions with an authenticity dance Travis's life has been a little too imaginative for. Unlike many who claim hellraiser, this painfully polite man really was a teenage badass, a hard-drinking druggie one strike from the end of the line, when he was turned around by a club-owning couple who believed in his talent. In 1981, the wife of that couple took the proceeds of an Urban Cowboy-inspired mechanical bull and left her husband for Randy and Nashville. Her name is Libby Hatcher, she's 19 years his senior, she still manages him, and in 1991 she became his wife. This was after the gay rumors started—rumors that were a lot harder on his CMA profile than Garth Brooks, and rumors he denied with uncharacteristic vehemence, as in: "Someone in Nashville is quoted as saying, 'If Randy Travis isn't gay, then my grandmother is Willie Nelson.' The person that made that statement better tell your grandmother to buy a red wig, get a bandanna, and learn to sing through her nose."

He never reaches out and grabs.
photo: Michael Tackett
He never reaches out and grabs.

Well, obviously, who cares? Still, think about it. If Travis is in the closet, we have a simple explanation for any dissociation of meaning in his music—he would hardly be the first male homosexual entertainer whose lifetime of dissembling predisposed him to put his all into representational technique. But if we believe him, as the evidence and basic decency suggest we should, we also have an explanation. Country matinee idols are supposed to have a domestic side, and although Travis does his share of cheating songs, his clean-cut image meshes better with material like "For Ever and Ever, Amen." A wife old enough to be your mother, however, isn't the kind of forever Nashville ever has in mind. So when he was biggest his real love life was a secret radically more unconventional than the occasional one-night stand. That could firm up your commitment to representational technique pronto.

I've been listening to Travis's DreamWorks albums, and they're what you'd expect—solid, short on spark, sometimes a little forced. What I didn't expect was 2000's Inspirational Journey, where—can I say miraculously?—his early ease returns unimpeded. Could Aretha Franklin herself make such a claim?

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