Randy Travis, who was not much of a choirboy early in life, recently visited churches and Christian bookstores in Texas to showcase material from his first gospel album, Inspirational Journey.
The spirit of those performances was not altogether different from his secular shows, whether in the bars he inhabited as a struggling musician in North Carolina and Tennessee or in the larger venues he has played around the world since releasing his classic debut, Storms of Life, in 1986.
“The amount of believability is what is most important in a singer,” the seasoned entertainer believes. “So, whether I’m singing a Christian song in a church or a country song elsewhere, I approach either one with the same thought. It has to believable.”
Full of aw-shucks civility and gentlemanly charm, Travis talks on an October morning about his own inspirational journey. Seated in a second-floor office in his business digs on Music Row, there isn’t a bare wall in sight. The place is decorated throughout with gold and platinum albums, framed magazine spreads about the singer and just about every music award imaginable.
Travis has explored religious themes before. He recorded “I’m Gonna Have a Little Talk With Jesus” with vocal group Take 6 on 1991′s High Lonesome. His 1989 holiday album, Old Time Christmas, features traditional sacred numbers such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” And he teamed with Linda Davis on “Make It Through” for 1998′s The Prince of Egypt (Nashville) soundtrack.
For Inspirational Journey (read the review), Travis cut 11 contemporary songs, co-writing three including “The Carpenter,” which features his longtime hero Waylon Jennings and Jennings’ wife, Jessi Colter. The set closes with the traditional hymn “Amazing Grace,” which Travis recorded at the request of his mother, who died in 1998 while he was in the middle of making the album.
Throughout his career, Travis’ guiding vision has been simple: sing the best songs available in the most sincere manner possible. In his expressive and distinctive baritone, he has aimed to touch people with his music; he hopes his gospel set will go a step beyond what he has accomplished before.
“A country singer is all I will ever be,” Travis reasons, “but I still want people to look at this as something different than my normal albums. I hope this album affects people. I hope it makes them really stop and pay attention. Hopefully, people who aren’t necessarily listeners of gospel or Christian music will hear it.
“I would hope this entertains people but makes some of them really do some deep thinking, too, about where they are in life and what they’ve been doing with their life. If they are anything like I was in my early years — going down the wrong road — then I hope the album makes them consider changing some things.”
A ninth-grade dropout and rebellious throughout his teens, Travis, 41, developed a substance abuse habit that saw him consume LSD, marijuana, alcohol and other drugs. A run of legal scrapes over everything from speeding to burglary also marked his rough and rowdy days.
On the brink of doing jail time, Travis was saved by the intercession of Lib Hatcher, then the manager of the Country Palace Nightclub in Charlotte, where he had been performing. Hatcher took him in, let the law know he’d be looked after, and made plan after plan for his career. Travis and Hatcher moved to Nashville in 1981. They married in 1990, and she continues to manage his career today.
“My wife has been a huge influence steering me on the right track,” he says. “I can look back at my mom, too, and be amazed. She was a lady who had six kids and put up with more than anybody I’ve ever seen.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that until later in life,” Travis continues. “As a kid, I didn’t want to hear any authority figure, so I didn’t listen to my mom or my dad. I made a lot of mistakes as a result.”
In his spiritual life, Travis didn’t experience the kind of singular, radical conversion some Christians undergo. For him, insights and personal change happened gradually.
“I started thinking about what was going on, and how bad I had really been,” he explains. “I mean, I had been really bad. When I stopped to look at myself, I wasn’t seeing much. We’re talking about a lot of drugs and a lot of alcohol, stealing automobiles, breaking and entering. I don’t know how many fights.
“First came thinking about my life and what I had been doing. Later, I began reading the Bible a lot and watching preachers on television. Then I started attending church. About five years ago I got baptized. I still have a long way to go [spiritually].”
The baptism took place at a Church of Christ congregation in Ashland City, Tenn., near Travis’ home. Around the same time, the seeds of Inspirational Journey were planted.
“It took me four years to finish the album,” he admits. “We recorded the last track just over a month ago. The good thing about that is, I had plenty of time to look for material. I have been able to live with the songs for a long while, and they have worn extremely well with me over time.”
Atlantic Records’ Christian music division released Inspirational Journey. first to Christian music outlets, then Warner Bros. Nashville issued the title Oct. 31 to the general marketplace. The gospel album reunites Travis with producer Kyle Lehning, his creative partner from 1985 to 1996, when Travis had 15 No. 1 singles for Warner Bros. including “On the Other Hand,” “Forever and Ever, Amen” and “Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart.”
The new release follows Travis’ brief tenure, beginning in 1998, at DreamWorks Nashville, where James Stroud and Byron Gallimore produced his records. He issued two albums and had Top 10 country hits with “Out of My Bones,” “The Hole” and “Spirit of a Boy, Wisdom of a Man.”
Still, DreamWorks dropped him, and Inspirational Journey is a one-off release for Atlantic/Warner Bros. — Travis is not signed to any label at this point. There have been inquiries from other Nashville labels, but so far he isn’t talking about new possibilities. “I don’t want to really think about it until the end of the year,” he says.
Travis has inhabited every level of the spectrum as a professional country singer, working nightclubs for years before securing a major recording contract and climbing to the top of his field. Fifteen years after hitting the big time, and still in his artistic prime, Travis says he is content in his career.
“It’s a comfortable place to be,” he states. “If I don’t record anything for the next 10 years, I can still go out and work shows. So, in that respect, it’s extremely comfortable. I can just maintain right where I am. I can go do [a movie] acting job, then go out and play a few shows.”
Travis balances his musical duties with an acting career. He has appeared on TV shows such as Matlock and Touched by an Angel, his film credits include Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker, the Patrick Swayze feature Black Dog and the Steven Seagal flick Fire Down Below. He stars in John-John in the Sky, a new independent film being screened at film festivals, and he recently completed work on Texas Rangers with James Van Der Beek and Dylan McDermott.
In addition to their Tennessee home, which has been on the market recently, Travis and Hatcher maintain residences in Hawaii and Santa Fe, N.M. And he still spends time on the road, making tour dates.
“I still enjoy looking for new music, writing new music, recording new music and ultimately having new music to play for a live audience. Nobody gets over that,” he says philosophically. “I don’t think anybody willingly walks away from success in this business. Most of us keep working at it until it just is not going to happen anymore. Where I’m at in that, I don’t know. Maybe every label in town is sick and tired of me, I don’t know. But I hope that I have a few more recordings in me somewhere down the line.”