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Sunday, 14 December, 2008 8:32 PM

Randy Travis Revisits his Roots on 'Around the Bend' (CMA)

Photo by Eric Swanson

Warner Bros. Nashville recording artist Randy Travis.

By Tom Roland
© 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 revive.

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.

"MySpace, YouTube . 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 knowledge there."

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, are typical.

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 risk.

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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