On the main stage of Billy Bob's Texas, past the mechanical bulls and the neon lights and the line-dance floors throbbing to the "Cha-Cha Slide," Randy Travis, the reed-thin king of country, looked out onto the crowd of thousands he still drew in the twilight of his career.
Through the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s, he cut 20 studio albums and has sold more records than almost any country artist but Taylor Swift. And if you belong to her age demographic, and don't even like country music, odds are you've still heard "Forever and Ever, Amen." It's not only the sweetest paen to everlasting love I've ever heard, it's also an exemplar of Travis' prodigious songwriting gift. Nobody in the business can build a melody and a hook better.
So, as he croaked the first lines of one of my favorite songs, "Diggin' Up Bones," my heart sank into the pit of my gut. His voice sounded rusted, unsteady, and I feared that maybe Travis' gift, like so many before him, had been corroded by the the very exploits that are the raw material of a good country song.
He got cited and arrested for public intoxication in front of a Baptist church in Sanger during the wee morning hours in February 2012. Later that year, he reportedly strode into a Pilot Point convenience store in naught but what God gave him and purchased cigarettes. He was later found sprawled next to his Trans Am on a farm-to-market road near Tioga and arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. A couple of weeks later, he was cited for the alleged simple assault of his fiance's ex in front of Prestonwood Baptist in Plano.
His publicist has said Travis is dried out. He's better now. And when I took a fortifying gulp of bourbon, I hoped to hell his publicist was right. Travis' songs are the soundtrack to my childhood. I can sing just about every word of his hits, introduced to me by Top-20 country radio in the backseat of my mom's pickup.
I don't listen to country radio anymore because it's awful. So, I don't hear Travis much these days. But by the time he hit the first few, spare chords of "Whisper My Name," I stopped worrying about him. If you haven't heard these songs in a while, I encourage you to revisit them. They're gorgeous and sad and they transport you back to a very specific time and place that aches in a way.
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I'd never seen him live before, but I have difficulty imagining that his talent as a live performer has dimmed. He still has that same incredible range, from the trademark, table-rattling bass in his voice, to the nasal highs that don't sound far removed from old songs sung in Appalachian hollows.
Backed by a group so tight it wouldn't surprise me to learn they were old Nashville session hands, Travis led an adoring crowd through "Too Gone Too Long," and "If I Didn't Have You," sending shouts of delight (mostly from women, the man hasn't lost his touch) when the gravelly bass in his voice traveled through the bodies of everyone in the room. He was clearly having fun on stage, telling goofy, mostly inoffensive jokes (An 88-year-old woman is pulled over for speeding, and tells the cop, "I have to hurry up and get where I'm going before I forget where it is."), and grinning flirtatiously off side stage between verses.
He closed his hour-and-a-half-long set with "Forever and Ever, Amen," and it was as beautiful as the recording that is now roughly a quarter-century old. At the very end, when he warbled "A-a-a-a-a-a-men," and his head shook from side to side like he was knocking those notes loose, and his deep voice was felt as much as it was heard, Travis wasn't an old country crooner on the wane. Whatever it is he's grappled with over the last year or so, his sound still comes through. Randy Travis is, apparently, irreducibly Randy Travis.