Sunday, 14 December, 2008 8:32 PM
Randy Travis Revisits his Roots on 'Around the
by Eric Swanson
Bros. Nashville recording artist Randy Travis.
2008 CMA Close Up News Service
Backstage at CMA Music
Festival in June, Randy Travis came face to face with the new reality.
Just outside his dressing
room at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, he met Taylor Swift for the
first time. At their impromptu encounter, with each scheduled as
a guest on the Lorianne Crook-hosted "CMA Celebrity Close Up"
interview television series presented by Great American Country
(GAC), she wielded a video camera, making sure to record her meeting
with one of the genre's heroes.
Their encounter seemed
to symbolize the juxtaposition of tradition and the dynamics of
a changing business. Travis' 2003 Country gospel album Passing Through
garnered significant Country radio airplay and earned him "Song
of the Year" honors at the 2003 CMA Awards for "Three
Wooden Crosses," and with release this year of Around the Bend
he reaffirms his ties to the traditional Country sound that he helped
For Swift, who attained
her phenomenal success in large part through her MySpace page, the
business of Country Music differs wildly from the one that Travis
knew as he earned his CMA Horizon Award in 1986.
. I've never dealt with dot-com,?? Travis said, leaning forward
in a corner chair in his dressing room. "'My space' is pretty
much something you don't get in - that's what I thought MySpace
was until we started this new album."
Around the Bend brings
Travis, whose music is built on an old-school foundation of Merle
Haggard, George Jones and Hank Williams, fully into the digital
age. And, by his own admission, he's still trying to get the lay
of this new land.
"In the studio,
I probably know no more than what the mute button on the talkback
mic is," he said, with a laugh. "That's pretty much my
He's making progress,
though. Warner Bros. Records re-established his fan club online
prior to release of the album and heightened awareness of Travis'
commitment to his followers by offering a free digital download
of the album's initial single, "Faith in You," written
by Tom Douglas, Joe Henry and Matt Rollings - whose opening line,
perhaps coincidentally, is "I don't have faith in technology."
"He's a lot more
technically savvy than he gives himself credit for," insisted
Peter Strickland, Senior VP, Sales & Marketing, Warner Bros.
Records. "He has been extremely active in providing his fan
base with content and information about what he's doing, almost
to the point where he's quickly gone from zero to 100 percent. It's
been a pleasure to see how much he's grown in that area."
Still, Travis' participation
in marketing Around the Bend adheres to the entrenched formula of
the artist focusing on the creative part of his livelihood while
the management team dictates business decisions. Seasoned as he
is, Travis is aware of what skills he lacks, understands how to
find partners who can augment his efforts and knows when to listen
to and learn from new information.
That's why he committed
to establishing the fan club online, even as his online skills were
still coming together, and was willing to bond with fans over Xbox
360 at the Warner Bros. booth in the truTV Fan Fair Hall during
CMA Music Festival. (Initially, he tried his hand at Guitar Hero.
When the allure of Aerosmith wore off, he switched to a road race
game, which he reportedly mastered with more enthusiasm.)
"At the end of the
day," Strickland said, "Randy is smart about wanting to
have his music be heard by his fan base, and he knows that the world
has changed. All the tools that we offer any of our artists are
available to him. It's up to every individual artist how much they
take advantage of those tools."
Travis has done exactly
that, to an extent that perhaps surprises and definitely pleases
Strickland. "It's just been so delightful to have someone who's
open to listening and wanting to take advantage of it," he
said. "It could have gone either way: 'I made my record and
here it is and it should be done the way it's always been done.'
That still happens today, and to have him engaged the way he is,
it's been delightful."
None of this has distracted
Travis from his primary responsibility. His talent for picking appropriate
material is evident throughout Around the Bend, but so is a greater
willingness to stretch as a vocalist. Phrasing with more abandon
than usual and straying from the original melodic template more
often, Travis displays a frisky approach that recalls the style
of his friend George Jones, with whom he recorded "A Few Ole
Country Boys" in 1990.
It's a somewhat different
sound than he cultivated in the '80s and '90s, but Travis doesn't
attribute its emergence to the gospel repertoire he's explored since
then. "Those vocal curls and things have nothing to do with
recording gospel or anything like that, I don't think," he
said. "As I have gotten older, for whatever reason, I just
started taking liberties, I guess."
One thing that hasn't
changed is Travis' ear for the unusual song with an important message.
"Forever and Ever, Amen," with its winking profession
of love for a balding woman, and "Three Wooden Crosses,"
in which a preacher confesses that his mother was a prostitute,
Maybe Travis' fans had
his tastes in mind in their response to one track in particular.
Warner Bros. had posted four songs on the artist's Web site and
MySpace page. When "Dig Two Graves," written by Ashley
Gorley and Bob Regan, earned the greatest number of Taylor Swift
meets Randy Travis backstage at the plays and stirred the most discussion
on message boards, the label and Travis elected together to release
it as the album's second single - a decision that was not without
Some of the greatest
songs in the Country catalog have dealt with death as a topic, including
a number of CMA Song of the Year Award winners, "He Stopped
Loving Her Today" (Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, 1980 and
'81), "Holes in the Floor of Heaven" (Billy Kirsch and
Steve Wariner, 1998), and "Three Wooden Crosses" (Doug
Johnson and Kim WiIliams, 2003) among the many on that list. Still,
the subject matter isn't exactly a favorite among radio programmers,
which makes "Dig Two Graves" an example of Travis' willingness
to confront convention when the song makes it worthwhile.
The same can be said
for "You Didn't Have a Good Time," a clever portrait of
an alcoholic wrestling with his conscience, penned by Kris Bergsnes,
Jason Matthews and Jim McCormick. The entire second verse takes
place in a bathroom stall, where the protagonist suffers the effects
of his debilitation.
"That song's pretty
graphic," Travis conceded. "But within the context of
that song, it sings great. That song, to me, is as well written
as anything I've heard in a while. It's as good a piece of writing
as there is on this whole album.
"I could relate to the whole song, unfortunately, in years
past," he added. "I think there are a lot of people across
this country - even in my family - that could relate to this song."
Ultimately, Around the
Bend re-establishes Travis as a player in his traditional market.
His recent gospel albums have won three Grammy Awards but at the
expense of reduced Country radio airplay and changes in some of
the venues he has played. Those who weren't paying attention began
to think he'd retired.
"I'm so tired of
hearing 'I'm gone' and 'I'm retired' and 'I quit,'" he conceded.
Travis has done much
to correct that impression, calling and visiting more than 100 radio
stations, making a ream of television appearances and committing
to his online community.
"It felt great to
start going through Country material again and to go in the studio,"
he noted. "If you ever were there in the studio with me, Kyle
[Lehning, producer] and all the guys playing, we never truly go
to work. It's just a big rehearsal and a lot of laughing, and you
wonder how anything ever gets done."
But it does. And now
Travis is back, face to face with a brave new world. He may not
feel completely at home there yet, but he's not fighting it either
- and it's welcoming him with (virtual) open arms.
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