Randy Travis was working out one day, listening to a demo CD labeled “Gospel Compilation for Consideration.” A few songs had already gone by when he heard these first words: “A farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher … .”
“I thought, surely this is not a gospel song. Somebody must have made a mistake!” Travis laughs.
He enjoyed the melody enough to give the song, “Three Wooden Crosses,” a second listen, and that’s when he was struck with the story. In the song, a hooker accepts the preacher’s Bible just before he dies (along with the farmer and the teacher) following a bus crash on the way to Mexico. The hooker raises her son with the guidance of the bloody Bible, and he eventually becomes a preacher himself.
Currently in the Top 10 on Billboard‘s country singles chart, “Three Wooden Crosses” is a highlight of Travis’ second gospel album, Rise and Shine. His first, Inspirational Journey, arrived in 2000. By then, Travis had already racked up 15 No. 1 country hits and more than a dozen additional Top 10s. But after the acclaim from Inspirational Journey, Travis chose a casino date to unite his gospel material and his best-known hits — such as “Forever and Ever, Amen,” “Deeper Than the Holler” and “Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart.”
“I was just a nervous wreck the first night, to be honest with you,” Travis says. “It came to the portion in the show when we were going to do a few songs from Inspirational Journey, and I just thought, ‘Oh, how is this going to work?’ But it worked incredibly well. The response was as if people were hearing hits that they knew from hearing the radio. And it’s been like that since day one.”
With his reputation (he ranked No. 13 on CMT 40 Greatest Men of Country), Travis could get away with delivering gospel songs to a country crowd, but how would a tried-and-true gospel audience respond? Travis himself concedes that, at first, he wasn’t too keen on performing in churches, a marketing idea from his record company.
“I didn’t come from a background that had any religion whatsoever,” he says. “I’ve been very upfront about that. I was about as lost as you could get. I was arrested no telling how many times and an alcoholic and an addict. They said, ‘We want you to promote this in churches, and I said, ‘You want me to go where and do what?'”
Despite his initial reservations, Travis’ music ministry has earned three Dove awards, the Gospel Music Association’s highest honor, and he continues to sing in churches, casinos, theaters, festivals and so on.
During his conversation for this interview, however, Travis is relaxing in his newly built house in Santa Fe, N.M. “It’s a nice change to be home for a while,” he says in his refreshing and relaxed manner. “So I’m in no hurry, in other words. Whatever you need.”
After talking about “Three Wooden Crosses” for a while, the interview turns more into a casual conversation about his hobbies and other country stars he admires:
• On his early days singing in North Carolina clubs: “I was very fortunate in the respect that I started working in clubs at 14 and by the time I was 16, I was in them fulltime and still doing other jobs. I was opening shows for people like Johnny Russell and Little Jimmy Dickens. By the way, those are the two greatest entertainers I have ever watched in my life. (laughs) They have a God-given thing that you can’t really develop, an ability to just mesmerize an audience.”
• On his pre-stardom days of cooking at the Nashville Palace: “I knew how to cook a little already. I enjoy good food and I just wanted to know I could be able to feed myself. (laughs) A lot of guys would hear this and say, ‘You sissy,’ but in school, in order to avoid going to the gym and doing any sports, I took home economics in the sixth and seventh grade. (laughs) There was only me and one other guy in there with a bunch of girls. But I learned a few things there, then I went to the Palace and started out as a dishwasher and started working with a guy who cooked there and learned how to prepare the dishes they made. I am not a great chef by any means. I can just kind of get by.”
• On wife Lib’s abilities in the kitchen: “My wife is an amazing cook. People who have never had her cooking will eat with us, and it invariably gets around to ‘You need to open a restaurant.’ And I’m really quick to speak up, ‘Huh-uh, no no no no no.’ (laughs) I’ve been there, she’s been there. That’s a job you never get away from. That’s a seven-days-a-week job and I want nothing else to do with that.”
• On Patty Loveless : “You probably do the same thing, get records that you’ll listen to, and you like so much that you just wear them out, and that’s the only thing you listen to for a few weeks. That was the last album I did that with, was her Mountain Soul album. I mean, there are no flaws on there. It hurt my feelings that she didn’t ask me to sing on it. (laughs) I’m joking with you, although it would be an honor to sing with her. I find nothing wrong anywhere throughout that record. I love every bit of that record.”
Travis also hints that there’s interest in turning “Three Wooden Crosses” into a movie, as well as releasing more singles from Rise and Shine. (“When Mama Prayed” and “Pray for the Fish” are in the running.) He hopes to do another mainstream country record and has already recorded four songs for it. There’s also talk of an album of hymns.
Still, he’s unafraid that he’ll alienate his core country audience.
“Listen to me speak,” he says. “What else am I gonna do with the voice I have?”