Hanging in a frame on the wall of his office in Georgia is a bit of Washington area memorabilia that reminds country star Travis Tritt how lucky he is to be making a living at music. It's from a night in a little roadhouse in Alexandria, when he could finally say to himself, "I'm a professional musician."
"It's the contract from my first paying gig after signing with a booking agency," Tritt recalls. "It was in 1989, in a place called Zed, and they were paying me $500 to play with my band. Before that, I'd booked my own shows, and this time it was the William Morris folks that did the deal. It felt like the big time. That was a great gig."
Tritt remembers pulling up to Zed -- a rowdy honky-tonk on Route 1, near the Krispy Kreme that is now a Mexican restaurant -- in a 1963 MCI bus that used to carry Randy Travis's T-shirts. "That's all he used to carry in that one bus," says Tritt laughing. "We bought it just before hitting the road then, in '89, and we put the band and the crew and the gear and the T-shirts and everything on that bus. And that was the first time we'd have a driver taking us anywhere. He was multitasking, too, selling T-shirts."
Though it's remembered fondly, the Zed gig was not the smoothest. "I remember the power went out in the middle of our set," Tritt says. "Somebody must have walked behind the drum riser and kicked the power cord out of the wall or something. But it was one of many small clubs that I really got my start in. You can always find the downside to something, and there were plenty of downsides in those early years, but for all the bad things that happened, I look back on all those as really the thing I built my career on. I learned a lot in those clubs. I learned who I was. I found my voice, so to speak, as an artist. I learned a lot about my audience: what they expected from me, who was listening and why, what they would and wouldn't accept from me. So many little things I learned, not only as a singer and a songwriter, but how to be an entertainer on stage. When you've got to fight against alcohol, pool tables, pinball machines, dartboards, the football game on Monday night TV, you learn in a hurry how to make yourself stand out. They were a great training ground."
That show at Zed was just as Tritt's debut CD, "Country Club," was being prepared for release. The album's title track was breaking on radio, and very quickly, little honky-tonks gave way to arenas and fairgrounds. That song was the first of 23 Tritt recordings to enter country radio's Top 10, songs such as "Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)," "It's a Great Day to Be Alive," "Put Some Drive in Your Country," and "T.R.O.U.B.L.E." They've helped him sell 20 million albums, and his latest, "My Honky Tonk History," should add quite a few more.
The title of the album indicates a look back on those heady days of youth, back when Tritt proudly wore his mullet haircut and his black leather pants. His mullet has been sculpted into a softer, less drastic 'do, and he favors faded jeans these days, but in "My Honky Tonk History," the singer has assembled as solid -- and rowdy -- a collection of songs as any he's ever released. "I'm really, really happy with this record," he says, almost sounding surprised, perhaps because for the first time the album isn't made up mostly of his own compositions. "I generally write about two-thirds of the material, but that's not the case with this one," Tritt says.
"I had actually written several things for the album, but then we started getting songs from outside writers -- like we always do -- and there were suddenly all these songs that really spoke to me, like they were coming to me for a reason, real barnburners like 'When Good Ol' Boys Go Bad' and 'It's All About the Money' and 'My Honky Tonk History.' They were songs that took me back, right back to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, Hank Williams Jr., the early stages of my career, and it felt like the perfect time to record them, so I put a bunch of mine on the shelf and went with what felt good."
The early stages of his career weren't so tremendous, recalls Tritt, who arrived in Nashville in 1982. "I remember when I first came out, I didn't look like anybody else. I looked more like out of a biker bar than out of CMT. And when I came to Nashville, lots of booking agents and record labels said, 'Well, we just don't know what to do with this guy, bringing in all this stuff from outside country music.' I was trying to do something different. I liked George Jones and Merle [Haggard] as much as anybody. I loved bluegrass. I loved blues. I loved rock 'n' roll. I loved southern gospel. I loved southern rock. All that music was in what I was doing, and it took a while for people to get it."
They might have gotten it too much, because now, Tritt has to put up with imitators such as Montgomery Gentry, Big & Rich (and the rest of their "Muzik Mafia" buddies) and others who play at being rowdy outlaws.
Tritt is diplomatic about the trend: "It's really funny, but good, I guess, that this has come around to being what Nashville wants to hear." But his tone indicates as much patience with these folks as he has with the hat acts that still clutter the charts with their soft-focus pop that some still insist on calling country music. That is to say, not much patience at all.
Tritt got so fed up with Nashville's way of doing business that in 1998 he declared himself done. Ten years on major labels had seen him ride up and down the success roller coaster, and he was disheartened when "No More Looking Over My Shoulder" didn't reach the same platinum levels as all his previous releases. He quietly retreated to north Georgia, and then came back in 2000 with "Down the Road I Go," a mature, even anthemic CD that sold like the Tritt of old. Now, two releases past that "comeback," Tritt seems to be enjoying his entry into middle age (he's 41) and seems less worried about making his mark on the radio or CMT.
"At this point in my career, I'm not as concerned about certain things as I was starting out. I'm still fortunately with a major label, but if that all went away tomorrow, I'd be perfectly okay with it. I've got friends like Charlie Daniels and Ricky Skaggs who have their own labels, and they put out the music they want to put out, when they want to put it out. They're in charge of their career, and I feel somewhat like that."
He feels he has a loyal fan base that will be with him for as long as he wants to make music. That awareness seems to give him an almost relaxed attitude toward recording and touring, as if the stress has gone out, knowing he has nothing left to prove. "But I'm still a control freak when it comes to the music itself," he says. "I still want it to be something I'll be proud of when I'm sitting in my rocking chair."
If Tritt is taking the long view these days, it is in part because of the recent deaths of so many of his musical heroes that he was able to call friends. "I did make great friendships, with Waylon [Jennings], Johnny Cash, Ray Charles. All of those were personal losses for me," says Tritt quietly. "Not a day goes by that I don't think of all those guys. I was lucky enough to have been able to become friends with each of them -- a fact that still amazes me.
"But at the end of the day, my thoughts are less about sadness than about finding inspiration. You look at those bodies of work and look at the influence that those people had -- especially Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. Their music has literally reached around the world and touched people in tons of different genres outside of the country music world. I think they set the bar for what you'd like to sort of work toward. And there's no way in the world that I will ever be even anywhere close to having the type of outreach, but I hope that at the end of the day, when I'm all done and my career is over, I can say that I have touched one-tenth of the people that those people have touched. It's all I've ever tried to do, just get my music out there and hope it makes people feel better somehow."
TRAVIS TRITT -- Appearing Sunday at Merriweather Post Pavilion with Diamond Rio, David Lee Murphy, Blue County and Rachel Proctor. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Travis Tritt, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)