LOS ANGELES — Randy Travis had an all-American day Friday (Nov. 30).
His latest movie, Texas Rangers, opened here. It’s an old-fashioned western — the kind that once both embodied and shaped American cultural ideals — in which characters grapple with right and wrong and the gray areas between.
Friday night, Travis performed at the seventh annual American Veteran Awards at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, a patriotic event where even the dessert featured red, white and blue imprints on a wavy piece of white chocolate.
The American Veteran Awards recognize the entertainment industry’s contributions to military issues. The movie Men of Honor was recognized as best patriotic picture, and Vietnam veteran Dennis Franz of NYPD Blue was honored as veteran of the year 2002. First lady Laura Bush was named woman of honor.
Travis’ appearance placed him in an impressive setting filled with American TV, movie and sports stars. Among those who performed or attended were Hal Linden (recipient of the national veteran salute award), Ernest Borgnine, Robert Stack, Florence Henderson, Michael Bolton, Terry Bradshaw, Keith Carradine, Sam Donaldson (Ernie Pyle journalism award) and emcee Montel Williams.
To wrap up the night, several musicians took turns singing a full verse and chorus of “God Bless America.” Travis, in a dapper tux and burgundy tie, involved the audience most easily. He sang the anthem with just a few simple adornments, adhering to the melody in a manner that allowed the crowd — dotted with navy blue military uniforms and government issue crewcuts — to participate with obvious reverence.
Travis has involved himself with patriotic causes for years. He once participated in USO overseas tours five years in a row. More recently, after the tragedies of Sept. 11, he wrote and recorded “America Will Always Stand,” a song that invokes both God and the flag with unabashed patriotism.
“It’s sad, obviously,” Travis said of the terrorist attacks, “but it’s really been an amazing and a wonderful thing to see how people have pulled together since that has happened — the military doing what they do, and then all the people in New York.”
During the current crisis, George W. Bush has improved his standing with the nation. He already was on his way to building a solid relationship with Travis. The singer has a longstanding friendship with Bush’s father, former President George Bush, who in effect commissioned Travis’ 1991 hit, “Point of Light,” when he asked Don Schlitz and Thom Schuyler to write the song for his Points of Light community service program.
Within two weeks of George W. Bush’s inauguration in January, Travis had dinner at the White House with the new president. (Coincidentally, Bush once owned a baseball team with the same name as Travis’ new movie.) Travis has been impressed with what he’s seen from the first family.
“Bush Sr. and this Bush — they’re great, just so down to earth, easy to talk to,” Travis said.
“Looking at what has happened in this country, I’m sure happy to see that he’s there,” he continued. “It was a close run, no doubt, and I guess if they kept recounting, they might have given it to Al Gore. I have nothing against him, but my gosh, watching how President Bush has taken control and is running, I am impressed beyond words.”
Words are, in fact, an important element of Travis’ history. Vaulted into the American consciousness 15 years ago when he grabbed his first hit, “1982,” he developed a body of work in which conscience plays a major role. That’s apparent in Randy Travis Live: It Was Just a Matter of Time, the first concert album of his career, recorded last December in California, and released in August.
The songs suggest that Travis is highly attuned to issues of personal character. “Wisdom of a Boy, Spirit of a Man” finds a young adult struggling to take the high road as he learns from his mistakes. “On the Other Hand” embraces old-fashioned fidelity in the face of dire temptation. And even “Forever and Ever, Amen,” with its tongue-in-cheek humor, wraps itself in the promise of a deep commitment.
“I listen to songs and I don’t want to hear one with a lot of wasted words that go nowhere,” Travis said. “Obviously, I’m not this highly educated, well-read person. I didn’t come through college and read Shakespeare or anything like that, but to me, the writing, the words, that’s the most important thing about the song.”
The words in Texas Rangers work together to create a story that adheres to time-worn themes of the Old West: courage, justice and dignity, among them. The picture features relatively new personalities: James Vander Beek, Dylan McDermott, That ‘70s Show’s Ashton Kutcher and R&B singer Usher. Its style conjures up memories of classic names from Hollywood westerns: John Wayne, Tex Ritter and Gary Cooper.
Travis plays Frank Bones, a trusted aide for a tuberculosis-stricken Texas Rangers commander attempting to protect Lone Star State citizens from a band of ruthless cattle rustlers. The plot isn’t all that different from older vehicles for Tom Mix or the Lone Ranger; that’s part of the reason Travis was attracted to the movie.
“I grew up watching Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Rex Allen,” Travis recalled. “I knew their horses, I knew the sidekicks — everything about it. My dad loved ‘em, so I was forced to watch ‘em to begin with, and I grew to love ‘em. It’s all I wanted to see.”
Not that Texas Rangers’ story line is entirely from another era. The outlaws use a series of tunnels to their advantage, and they briefly attempt to convince the Rangers’ leader to defect. Watched with current headlines in mind, those moments in the film seem to make oblique connections to the war in Afghanistan.
They were not intended. Travis actually worked on Texas Rangers two years ago — long before the average Joe cared about Osama bin Laden — in Calgary. A grueling schedule had him filming during the week and flying to shows on weekends. After touring, he often got back to Canada around 4 or 5 a.m., with a 6:00 a.m. call time. Instead of sleeping, he put on the coffee and turned it into an all-nighter.
“I don’t think I’m over it yet,” he laughed.
Travis got the part, he said, because the director was impressed with his credentials. Travis could handle a pistol, and he’s a lifelong horse buff who actually helped some of his fellow actors learn to ride. When the stuntmen took over for the others, Randy usually insisted on doing the work on horseback himself.
“What’s amazing is I’m watching this stunt guy on some of the [uncut footage], and if you weren’t, say, myself sitting there looking, you would not know that was not Dylan, or that it was not James or Ashton or whoever. They were really good, and hair and makeup did a great job.”
Travis has made quite a side venture out of the movies. He’s been in at least 15 pictures, including The Rainmaker and Fire Down Below. He has shot another film, Long Ride Home, with Eric Roberts and Borgnine, but he’s not abandoning music.
Although he recognizes that traditional country music, the style that carried him to stardom, is out of vogue, Travis is at work on a new album. He admits some frustration with the current trend in country music, suggesting that the lyrics aren’t deep enough and the music leans too heavily on drum machines and rock guitar licks. He wishes there were more songs that used a simple, uncluttered style — the kind of arrangement that marked “On the Other Hand” and his performance of “God Bless America” at the veteran honors.
“There’s room for everything,” he insisted, “but we do call it country radio, country songs, country artists, so let’s get back to reality here.”
Reality certainly forms a backdrop for Travis’ current direction. He actively supports American servicemen, he still loves a film genre that puts adult choices in a moral perspective, and he tends to record songs with traditional sounds and traditional values.
Even on his all-American days, he waves a flag for his country and for his chosen brand of country music.
The Seventh Annual American Veteran Awards will air at 7 p.m. ET/PT Feb. 10 on The History Channel. It also will be seen worldwide at military bases on the Armed Forces Radio & Television Network.