In a year that has already brought the deaths of immortal talents like George Jones, Slim Whitman, Patti Page, and Jack Greene, not to mention the untimely loss of Mindy McCready, it is understandable that the recent news regarding Randy Travis is having the country music fans collectively holding their breath with nervousness and dread.
There is something distinctly different about how I am processing the news about Randy Travis. The thought of losing him is inextricably linked with a feeling that we’d be losing an essential core of the country music that I fell in love with more than two decades ago. Now, I remember Randy Travis from when I was a child. What little kid wouldn’t be in love with a catchy song like “Forever and Ever, Amen”?
By the time I was old enough to discover country music on my own, he was already something of an elder statesman, despite his young age. As I delved into the history of the genre I was falling in love with, widely accepted concepts like Travis starting the new traditionalist movement and Storms of Life being one of greatest albums of all time had taken root. The truth is, traditionalism never really went away, and even during the Urban Cowboy years, artists like Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris were having commercial success with roots-based music.
But Randy Travis didn’t just have a bit of success. He sold millions of records in a time where almost no country acts were doing so, and certainly none who didn’t incorporate pop or rock sounds into their work. His massive success was the tipping point that made the nineties boom inevitable, as labels saw new acts like Clint Black and Alan Jackson as being capable of superstar status, instead of just being genre favorites that sold moderately well.
He never really got the credit he deserved for this, with the industry treating him like old news despite him continuing to score hits and sell platinum throughout the nineties and early 2000’s. There are so many great singles that I was around for when they first came out. “Before You Kill Us All.” “Look Heart, No Hands.” “Out of My Bones.” “Whisper My Name.” “If I Didn’t Have You.” “Better Class of Losers.” “The Hole.” “Three Wooden Crosses.” “Dig Two Graves.” The list goes on and on.
He’s also responsible, through no fault of his own, for what I call country music’s Messiah Complex. After he revolutionized the widespread appeal for traditionalism, which led to a solid decade of traditional country artists being signed and succeeding wildly, the sounds began to drift back to pop and rock flavorings. Since this shift, every slightly twangy newbie has been anointed as the savior of country music. Lee Ann Womack, Brad Paisley, Dixie Chicks, Joe Nichols, Josh Turner, Jamey Johnson, and Gretchen Wilson have all been shouldered with the burden of being the next Randy Travis.
This has led to deep disappointment when their second or third album struggled, or even worse, to feelings of betrayal when these selected stewards veered away from traditional country music. All that pressure, and not a one of them even started off with an album in the same league as Storms of Life, though Johnson and the Chicks came remarkably close.
I can’t get my head or my heart around the thought that his contemporary titan might not be with us anymore. I can’t stomach the coverage that focuses more on his personal troubles than his incredible body of work and peerless impact on country music as a whole.
Please use the comments to share your own thoughts and feelings about Randy Travis. Also, I recommend reading the Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists piece that Leeann Ward wrote a few years ago. It’s an excellent place to start for those who are looking to discover the his rich and diverse catalog.