Summer’s No Bummer for Travis Tritt (Part 1 of 2)

He Discusses Spring Break, Family, New Album and Gretchen Wilson

In 1989, Travis Tritt surprised everybody with his first hit single, “Country Club.” Since then, he’s proven himself a prizefighter on the country charts. In the first of this two-part interview, the proud Georgia native opens up about his new album, My Honky Tonk History.

CMT: What do you remember the most about filming the video for “Girls Gone Wild”?

Tritt: You know, every now and then in country music, you just have to go into a situation, no matter how bad the circumstances are, and just pound it out. Sometimes you just have no choice. You have to wade out into the proverbial sewage up to your chin and just deal with it. This video was shot in a horrible location — in South Beach in Miami — and I had to be surrounded by 60 beautiful young women clad in nothing more than bikinis. You know, sometimes you have to suck it up and just go do it. I thought I handled it very well. I thought I handled it with a lot of professionalism considering the circumstances I was forced to endure. (laughs)

Well, it looked like you were having fun, so you fooled me.

That’s why I’m the actor that I am! (laughs)

What are your own memories of spring break?

It amazes me these days what 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kids do for spring break. First of all, I never knew what spring break was until I was 18. In my senior year, me and a buddy of mine drove down to Gulf Shores, Ala., in his pickup truck for about five days. Of course, we had no money. We broke down and had to stop at a truck stop and barely had enough money to buy beer, which was about the only essentials you needed. To heck with eating. You didn’t worry about breakfast lunch or dinner, as long as you had enough money for beer. That was all you needed. But nowadays, you’ve got kids that fly to Cozumel and the Bahamas and Fiji and all over the place. It’s pretty amazing to me.

How has the summer been treating you so far?

The family has been enjoying being out of school and summer vacation. I recently had an opportunity that was a red letter day for me. In 1992, I bought a little cabin up on a lake in north Georgia. It’s very secluded and off to itself. After Theresa and I met in 1995 and then started talking about getting married and having kids, we would talk about what a great place it would be to bring kids, when they got a little older. Teach them how to water ski, teach them how to jet ski, teach them how to kneeboard, teach them how to skip rocks, teach them how to inner tube. Do all these things that she and I both loved to do when we were kids.

We’ve taken our children up there in the past, but they’ve always been too small to get out there and enjoy that stuff. This was the first time we’ve been in about 18 months. My older daughter Tyler, who’s now 6, and my oldest son Tristan, who’s now 5, both got up on kneeboards, both learned how to skip rocks, both got on inner tubes by themselves for the first time and we pulled them all over the lake. They had ’perma-grins’ on their faces the whole time. So it was a proud moment for Dad, because all the things I had envisioned for this place, before they were even born, was now coming into fruition. It was a pretty neat day for me.

You’ve done well for yourself as a songwriter over the years, but you’ve only got one songwriting credit on the new album. Why is that?

I’ve always been the kind of person who believes in albums taking their own course and letting the best song win. Conway Twitty told me a long time ago that if you ever get to the point where you’re so arrogant about insisting on using your own material, you’re selling your audience short, and you’re also selling yourself short, because there’s a lot of great stuff out there. And this was coming from a guy who was a master at picking songs from other people. So I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind.

I had written some things for this particular album, but as we started getting songs in, this album started taking on a flavor of its own, which is kind of unique for me. Most of the time when I finish a project up, I’ll listen to the final mix and think I would like to have one more up-tempo, barnburner on this album like “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” or “Put Some Drive in Your Country.” Those seem to be the hardest for me, and they seem to be the hardest songs to find outside of my own writing. Songs that have that edge to them but still say something. They’re not just talking about the girl with the short skirt on or the guy with the pickup truck. They actually have something to say.

These songs started coming our way for this album that had that definite edge to them, and I took a lot of things that I had been writing up until that point and said, “You know what? They just don’t fit this project.” Once an album starts taking its own course like that, I think you’re really foolish if you don’t let it go its own way. And that’s exactly what we chose to do.

One of the songs on the album, “Too Late to Turn Around,” was co-written by Gretchen Wilson. How did you find that song?

The first demo we got of that song was a guy singing it. When we picked the song for the album, I didn’t know Gretchen had written it and I had never heard her version. A few days later, somebody told us Gretchen had actually written the song and sent her demo over to us. And she just wailed on it. I was in love with the song before. But after hearing her version, I thought, “Man, this is just incredible. We’ve got to get her to come in and do those same parts that she did on that demo.” She agreed to do that. Obviously, this was way before “Redneck Woman” was released.

She shared a story with my co-producer, Billy Joe Walker Jr., the day she came in to sing on the album and was marveling at how quickly things turn around and change. She was talking about how a few months prior, she was literally days away from packing everything up and going back to Pocahontas, Ill., and giving up. She’d been in town for a long time trying to make it, and nothing seemed to be happening for her. And then, all within a few short months, she gets signed to a record deal, I record one of her songs and asked her to come in and sing on it, which she graciously agreed to do. And after that, “Redneck Woman” was released and was a huge hit.

It took me back to the beginning of my career when people used to tell me, “Get ready,” because when this thing happens, if it happens for you, it’s literally like strapping yourself to a rocket and turning around and lighting a fuse and getting ready for it to go off. It’s a rocket ride. It’s amazing how fast things can change. It’s good to see good things happen to good people, though. As far as I can tell, Gretchen’s good people.

Didn’t your own career take off a lot faster than anybody expected?

Oh yeah, absolutely. There was a lot of skepticism all over Nashville about me when I first came in. Everybody seemed to be paying a lot of attention to the long hair, the leather and “This guy’s a Southern rocker.” They’d say, “That music is dead and over with. Nobody does that anymore,” or “The country-rock thing is done and past its time.” And I’m going, “Has nobody seen a Hank Williams Jr. or Charlie Daniels show lately?” It was very frustrating.

My peers at the time — guys like Clint Black and Garth Brooks — were getting signed to whole album deals and being able to go out and promote things that way. I got signed to a three-single deal, and I don’t think anybody at the label expected any of the three songs we released to do anything. I think they were as surprised as anybody when the first single, “Country Club,” took off and did something. It was definitely an uphill battle, all the time, for me. I felt like I had to step in and prove myself, because there were so many skeptics out there.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.