Randy Travis: ‘Storms of Life’ launched the career of one of country’s biggest stars

Country superstar Randy Travis remains in critical condition after suffering a stroke on Wednesday night, following hospitalization for congestive heart failure. The singer has made headlines for the wrong reasons over the past year, experiencing multiple alcohol-related run-ins with the law. These troubles have obscured the fact that Travis was long one of the genre’s most bankable stars, one whose success matched the quality of his work.

His 1986 debut album, “Storms of Life,” hit the top of the country charts and sold more than 3 million copies. Travis wrote two of the album’s 10 songs, including “Reasons I Cheat,” which Post critic Bob Allen called “a starkly fatalistic evocation of middle-aged despair and alienation — which sounds particularly convincing, even if it does come from a photogenically handsome young singer-songwriter who is barely out of his mid-20s.”

In an interview with The Post the next year, Travis told Allen about the song:

“A lot of those songs, like ‘Reasons I Cheat,’ just come from a line. I started with the title on that one before I had anything else. I guess all those years, working in clubs, you hear a lot of things, talk to a lot of people … to tell you the truth, I don’t know where exactly those ideas come from.

“I guess you could just say,” he laughs easily as he takes yet another stab at the question, “that I’ve lived a lot in 27 years. I guess where I’m from, I kind of grew up fast.”

Read the entire 1987 profile of Travis below.

By Bob Allen
Special to The Washington Post
February 15, 1987

The pantheon of great hard country/honky-tonk singers more or less begins with artists of the late 1940s and early ’50s, such as Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb. They were among the first to interject gritty realism, aggressive instrumentation and a graphic fatalism into mainstream country music, which until then was largely dominated by artists such as Roy Acuff and the Carter Family.

In more recent decades, this tradition has been reaffirmed by Frizzell/Williams disciples like George Jones and Merle Haggard, who in turn have profoundly influenced a newer generation that includes George Strait, John Anderson and Gene Watson.

And that’s why Randy Travis, who is now being acknowledged the most recent heir apparent to this tradition — and who is appearing at the Patriot Center with Conway Twitty on Saturday — will readily tell you that he’s not doing all that much that’s new or different.

“I grew up listening to all those people from the time I was 8 or 9 years old,” Travis explains. “Those are some of my favorites still, and that’s just the kind of music we do: the kinds of songs that those people would do. Nothing but good country music.”

It is just this sort of uncluttered musical vision, along with his hard-edged vocal style, that has won the 27-year-old Travis recognition as country’s newest honky-tonk star.

Like Hank Williams and others, this never-married, dangerously handsome singer can evoke such a sense of bedrock despair. Many who hear him for the first time, singing about hard living and hard times, assume that they’re listening to a man twice his age.

So how does he manage such emotional verisimilitude about the darker implications of midlife crises and middle-aged burnout cases — which is what the preponderance of songs on the album are about?

“I don’t know,” Travis shrugs and yawns as he sips his third cup of coffee of the morning and stares out the window at a snowy Kentucky landscape. As he yawns again, he recalls how icy roads turned the relatively short bus trip up from Somerset to Paducah, where he is playing this particular evening, into a hazardous all-night adventure. He ended up sleeping on his tour bus, he explains, and only made it to this Executive Inn where he’s now ensconced in time to change, work out with the weights he carries on the bus and grab some breakfast.

On this particular morning — as on most — he is affable and relaxed. But he is not especially prone to abstract theories about either the art of singing honky-tonk music or the question of his exalted position in the current musical scene.

“I don’t know,” he begins again. “A lot of those songs, like ‘Reasons I Cheat,’ just come from a line. I started with the title on that one before I had anything else. I guess all those years, working in clubs, you hear a lot of things, talk to a lot of people … to tell you the truth, I don’t know where exactly those ideas come from.

“I guess you could just say,” he laughs easily as he takes yet another stab at the question, “that I’ve lived a lot in 27 years. I guess where I’m from, I kind of grew up fast.”

What Travis is singing is something that people are hungry to hear. “Storms of Life,” his debut album for Warner Bros., has already produced two No. 1 singles: “On the Other Hand” and “Diggin’ Up Bones.” The album itself also hit the No. 1 slot and has already sold in excess of 500,000, a rare feat for a first-time country artist.

Not surprisingly, Travis seems pleased by his ascension to stardom after 14 years of grinding it out in the North Carolina and Nashville bar/nightclub scenes. He walked away with the Country Music Association’s 1986 Horizon Award (as the new artist showing the most dramatic upward career movement). The West Coast-based Academy of Country Music seconded this opinion, voting him Top New Male Vocalist of the Year.

He also won a Grammy and was nominated for an American Music Award (he lost to the Judds). He also recently became the 62nd member of the Grand Ole Opry, which is only a short walk down the street from the Nashville tourist bar where he cooked, sang and bided his time for the better part of four years.

And, of course, there’s more. He has been praised effusively (in The Wall Street Journal) by Nat Hentoff. Newsweek called him “A New Honky-Tonk Hero.” And Rolling Stone said: “Of all the cool new country stars, expect Randy Travis to last the longest.”

Indeed, of all the talented male newcomers storming the barricades of country music’s status quo, Travis is probably the most vocally gifted. He is also unaffectedly purist in his musical sentiments. There is none of the vague “cow-punk” overtones and role playing that one gets with a Dwight Yoakam. None of the Americana heartland rock ‘n’ roll overtures that come with a Steve Earle. Almost as a point of pride, Travis makes clear that he was never much for rock music.

“Naw,” he grins and curls his upper lip ever so slightly. “I mean, sure, I heard it some. Mainly because of some of the kids I was running around with in school, I’d hear it in their cars. But if I ever bought a record or turned on the radio, it was always country.”

Any doubt about this is dispelled by a listen to the 10 songs on “Storms of Life.” As a collection, they are as about as quintessential an example of hard country music as one is likely to find on the contemporary market. They are like little late-night bar stool confessions of heartbreak and emotional dislocation — tales of mislaid pasts, misled lives and the overwhelming pain of life itself.

They also remind the attentive listener that the distance between a master of the modern short story like Raymond Carver and Nashville songwriters like Paul Overstreet (who wrote or cowrote three of the hit singles from the record) or Travis himself (who contributed two of his own original songs to his debut album) is not great.

But it is Travis’ singing that puts the songs across with such devastating clarity. To hear him reel off lines like “I’m growing older/ My life’s growing colder” (from his own “Reasons I Cheat”) is like having a cold wind howl up and down your backbone.

Life began for Travis (real name: Randy Traywick) on his family’s farm, about 30 miles outside of Charlotte, N.C. His father, who raised turkeys and horses and had his own construction company, was an avid country fan and an amateur musician. By age 8, Travis was singing and playing guitar, with his parents’ encouragement. And he listened to his father’s old ’78s of Hank Williams, Stonewall Jackson, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.

By age 10, he and his brother Ricky were singing at local VFW halls, square dances and fiddlers’ conventions. At 14, he moved up to the beer joints and roadhouses as a solo artist. “Mama and Daddy would always carry me to where I was working, and would stay around and look out for me,” he remembers.

It was in this environment, while occasionally presiding over fist fights from the bandstand and dodging the occasional flying bottle, that he learned his licks. He’d slave away, week after week, month after month, functioning more or less as a human jukebox, cranking out whatever country hits of the day the crowd wanted to hear.

At some point, however, he hit a stormy adolescence; the idyllic life of raising horses and turkeys (“The dumbest animals in the world,” he says) lost its hold on him. He moved — or, more accurately, ran away — to the big city of Charlotte.

“I left school in the ninth grade,” he sighs, as if still suffering from mild contrition over his wayward teen-age years. “I just hated it. I was going to school, but then I’d get there and find somebody to skip with. I just couldn’t stand to be there.

“It got to where I would run away from home,” he continues. “I went through kind of a wild period there. I got into drinking and drugs. Got caught several times trying to outrun the police. And I wrecked my brother’s car. I got locked up in jail a lot of times — the Monroe jail, the Charlotte jail, wherever it might be — for fighting, assault, driving under the influence, breaking and entering. A lot of different things, all piled up over a period of several years. I kept getting put on probation.”

Travis was staring at a five-year sentence when his deliverance came in the form of a woman named Lib Hatcher, a local club owner who recognized his ability when he won a $100 talent contest that she sponsored. She saw to it that Travis was placed on probation once more — this time, in her custody. She gave him a job washing dishes, cooking and singing at a Charlotte club she owned called Country City, U.S.A. Hatcher still manages his career and they share an apartment in Nashville. “We’re just close friends, just business partners,” Travis says in response to recently published hints of a romantic involvement.

Country City, U.S.A. served as Travis’ base for the next six years. His day there often ended at 2 a.m., when he finished out his last musical set, and began again at 5 a.m., when he went into action slinging sausage and eggs in the restaurant’s kitchen.

In 1981, Hatcher began divesting herself of her club. She moved to Nashville and began managing a tourist nightspot near the huge Opryland/Grand Ole Opry complex called the Nashville Palace. As part of her plan, she took Travis to Nashville with her.

“The Palace was right down the street from the Grand Ole Opry, and it would always fill up every Friday and Saturday night when the Opry was over,” he recalls. “I’d worked in those clubs in North Carolina for all those years and, you know, people there would mostly come in just to drink and dance and have a big time.

But I remember the first night I sang at the Palace,” he laughs nervously. “It was the first time I’d ever been in front of an audience that would actually sit and listen to you. The first time I played there, it scared me to death| I thought they hated me|”

Travis and Hatcher bided their time at the Nashville Palace for the better part of four years. Demonstration tapes that Travis circulated on Music Row were turned down at least once by every major label. He recorded a live album (using the name Randy Raye) that sold briskly with the Friday- and Saturday night audiences at the Palace, but generated little attention elsewhere.

But artists like Reba McEntire, Ricky Skaggs and George Strait began moving into the front ranks. Travis made occasional appearances on “Nashville Now” and “Nashville After Hours,” a couple of musical showcases on The Nashville Network, which is the Opryland Corp.’s national cable TV channel. He landed a songwriter’s contract with CBS Songs Publishing Co. Ever so slowly, the word of mouth began to spread.

Then someone at Warner Bros. Records, which had passed on signing him previously, decided the label needed a Ricky Skaggs or a George Strait of its own. At a party one night, someone in Warner’s A&R department ran into somebody from CBS Songs, who said, “Yeah, we’ve got someone who may be just what you’re looking for … ”

Travis’ first single release, “On the Other Hand,” died in the charts at No. 67. Some months later, after “Storms of Life” was completed, the song was released again. This time, it went to No. 1, and won the Country Music Association’s annual award as Song of the Year.

“It seems like once it all started, it was really amazing how fast everything happened,” Travis says. “That part of it seems amazing to me, for sure.

“But you know, a lot of people have asked me, did I ever get discouraged during all those years, did I ever feel like it was never going to happen for me. Well, no. I never really did. It just seemed like once I got to Nashville, I always knew it would, eventually.

“I’ll tell you what is funny, though,” he says, laughing softly at his naivete’. “I worked clubs for all those years, from the time I was 14, right on up to last year. And we still work a club date now and then. Doing clubs, you’re always singing everybody else’s hits: Merle Haggard’s hits, George Jones’ hits, Lefty Frizzell hits, Hank Williams hits … Then all at once, you get to where you’re doing Randy Travis hits.”

He grins and shakes his head with mild disbelief: “That’s weird, man. Yeah. That’s a big change, for sure.”

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