Randy Travis doesn't know how long he has to live. The director hasn't told him yet.
"I survived in the first script, then I found out I was going to get killed off," says Travis from a movie set outside Calgary, where he's playing a Texas Ranger named Bones in a period Western. "Now, I'm not sure what's going to happen to me."
Travis, though in top physical condition a month after turning 40, can empathize with the character. As recently as last year, Travis questioned whether any life was left in hisother career, the one where he sings about kinfolk and commitment and other, generally innocent themes in a baritone from the gods. But the woes that sparked all the self-doubt, like a label split and forgetting how to craft a hit, are behind him. "It's like I'm a kid again," Travis says with a laugh. "But maybe that's just because they have me riding a horse so much out here."
Even if darker forces in the music industry had forced him to ride into the sunset against his will, the legend of Randy Travis would endure. It all began the night a 16-year-old named Randy Traywick won a talent show at a club in Charlotte, N.C. That got him a small cash stipend, one dinner at Staley's Steak House and some time in a local recording studio. The performance also convinced club manager Lib Hatcher that the troubled ninth-grade dropout could make a living making music if he'd only straighten up. Hatcher gave him a weekend job and dubbed herself his manager, and, before long, his lover.
"I never asked her what she saw in me that night," Travis says, "and she still hasn't told me."
The unlikely pair barnstormed throughout the South promoting two independent records, the first recorded under his real name, the second under Randy Ray. "We were like Loretta Lynn and her husband in `Coal Miner's Daughter,' driving around from radio station to radio station, just trying to get somebody to play my songs," Travis says.
They moved to Nashville together in 1981, but still struggled to find a major label willing to take a chance on a young singer who favored old-style country music. The hunt finally ended in 1985, the night some folks from Warner Bros. stopped by the Nashville Palace after hearing about a talented kid who worked the stage and the grill there. Bob Saporiti, who at the time was national promotions director for the label, was a member of the scout team.
"I remember walking in back before that show, and I ran into this guy in the kitchen peeling the potatoes," says Saporiti, now vice president and general manager of Warner Bros. Nashville. "So I tell him I want to meet the singer who was going on that night, and he says, `That's me.' He went onstage and just blew us away, and afterward I go in back again to say goodnight, and there he is washing pots. It's one of those great country music stories, and it's true." Along with the memories, Saporiti says he still has the Randy Ray T-shirts and records he took home that night tucked away in a safe spot.
The label countrified his stage surname to Travis, and soon enough everybody wanted to play his songs. It took some months and a lot of word of mouth, but his debut single on Warner Bros., "On the Other Hand," eventually hit No. 1 on the country charts in 1986. Before the end of the year, Travis became the youngest male ever asked to join the Grand Ole Opry. His second CD, "Always and Forever," stayed atop the album chart for an astounding 43 weeks and sold 5 million copies in an era before Garth Brooks, when country albums just weren't supposed to sell like that. Travis was also the top-drawing live act in country music and got most of the credit he deserved for ending Nashville's post-"Urban Cowboy" infatuation with pop pap. His was THE voice of the oxymoronic new-traditionalist movement.
But that wave had crested by the time Travis and Hatcher, 18 years his senior, got married in 1991. After releasing two greatest hits packages simultaneously a year later, Travis, a hobbyist gunslinger, began feeling less than bulletproof.
The label, he says, suddenly stopped letting him and Kyle Lehning, his producer since "On the Other Hand," have any input about such basics as which songs would be released as singles. Disputes about the way Warner Bros. promoted Travis also arose. And, coincidentally or not, country radio stopped playing his material.
Critics never abandoned Travis, but by 1997, with his hitless streak at the three-year mark, Travis felt like he'd have to buy airtime to get on the radio again. So when his Warner Bros. contract came up for renewal, Travis says, he told the label he wanted out. Nobody there tried to change his mind.
"We loved our time with Randy," says Saporiti, "but in this business, there comes a time where maybe things have run their course and you just need change. There's only so many ideas you can come up with in one place before you just run out, and I think that's what happened with Randy at Warners."
Going label-less for the first time in 12 years, and seeing the country charts loaded up with pop-star gals and guys who wear new hats, Travis found himself in a situation similar to what Randy Ray faced back in the day: wondering where his next record deal would come from.
The same country crossover that created some problems for Travis near the end of his Warner Bros. tenure may have shortened his stint as a label orphan. DreamWorks SKG, the entertainment conglomerate founded by multimedia moguls Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, decided to cash in on country's post-Garth popularity by opening up a Nashville office in 1997. Travis became the first artist signed to the new label.
Travis built up his acting resume during his last few years at Warner Bros. His friend Andy Griffith got him started with an appearance on "Matlock," and Travis has gone on to work on more than a dozen feature films. But Travis denies his signing with DreamWorks was in any way related to the fact that the label's heavies are also Hollywood moguls. He harbors no desire to lunch with Spielberg.
"I've still never met the man," Travis laughs.
DreamWorks paired Travis with a new team of producers, including label exec James Stroud and Byron Gallimore, who has crafted nothing but hits for Tim McGraw. The results, the CD "You and You Alone," were released last spring. And Travis quickly learned how unfounded his career fears were. His first DreamWorks single, "Out of My Bones" (which bears no connection to the Texas Ranger he's now portraying) put Travis on top of the singles chart for the first time since 1994. A follow-up single, "Stranger in My Mirror" also charted.
"I wanted to leave Warners, but it was frightening to go so long without getting anything new on the radio," he says. "You start wondering if you're ever going to be back, about if you come back, will radio even want you. But getting that first single to be a hit, that was a good welcome back for me. It's nice to be back on the radio."
His role as headliner at WMZQ's shindig at Nissan Pavilion this weekend shows he's back in favor with country radio. Travis still doesn't understand, however, exactly what went wrong there.
"I don't think I changed," he says. "As an industry, I think maybe there was a little too much emphasis on the orchestrated pop sound, and that we need to stick a little closer to our roots as far as the music is concerned. If not, we're just going to confuse the audience. Everything moves in cycles, and if the cycle in country music moves back toward the traditional, like it was in the mid-1980s, I think that would be great."
Even the folks at his old label think that Nashville is indeed on the verge of another traditionalist binge.
"We're very happy to see that Randy's happening again," Saporiti says. "I was just thinking today that what country needs is what he's got. This new kid we signed to Warner Bros., I tell you, he could be the new Randy Travis."
So, it's again up to Travis whether he'll stick around forever and ever. Even so, that might not be enough to keep poor Bones alive until the credits roll.
RANDY TRAVIS -- Randy Travis performs Saturday at Nissan Pavilion with Deana Carter, the Kinleys, Brad Paisley, SheDAISY, Shane McAnally, Sara Evans and Shane Minor. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Randy Travis, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8114. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
Nightwatch will return next week, but you can still chat with Nightwatchman Eric Brace Friday, live online at washingtonpost.com from 3 to 4 p.m. He'll have as his guest local jazzman Marcus Johnson, a rising pianist and composer and record company executive. Submit questions live or in advance at www.washingtonpost.com/music.
CAPTION: Randy Travis: Still countrier than the radio, despite branching into Hollywood work.