NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Randy Travis Serves Up a Musical Primer

And There's a Reason Will and Caitlin Resonate With an Audience

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

There is a reason why Can You Duet has a much better reputation with music fans than any other TV music talent show in recent history: It told good stories. Not to mention the fact that it was musically credible.

The drama of Caitlin and Will probably spawned more favorable — and even excited — e-mails and message board posts than any TV talent show event in recent memory. Many posts said, in fact and in essence, “Justice finally triumphs!” To put it bluntly, hottie chicks and pretty boys with marginal talent shouldn’t and wouldn’t automatically win all talent shows. As I recall, the story of Rory and Joey, also from Can You Duet, was a close runner-up in the volume of viewer and reader response to the saga of Caitlin and Will. Deservedly so.

What so attracted audiences to the stories of those two duet couples? Because people loved the drama, cared about the characters and identified with the people involved.

We’ve long known, although it’s not always an axiom that is followed by practitioners of the music, that country music is most prized for its storytelling qualities. Not for its hot bods or booty action or jiggling or car chases or barroom fights — although all of those have their rightful place, too — but for its timeless ability to tell a story. That’s what has attracted such great artists as Ray Charles and Solomon Burke and fans as diverse as the poet Maya Angelou and the horrormeister, author Stephen King, to country music for decades.

There’s a reason why children of all ages love tales that begin with “once upon a time.”

As pop culture critic Bob Lefsetz wrote recently about movies, people don’t really want stars and explosions, as the movie tycoons think. (Well, they want explosions if they’re teenaged boys.) But what they really want is a story. That’s why Sex and the City is a hit. That movie is not so much about sex in the city as it is about stories in the city. And characters. Similarly, great storytelling and character development turned an obscure, rejected-by-HBO program into the best show on television. That’s Mad Men, and it’s well worth your time and attention. It’s all about people and the drama of their lives. About their stories.

That’s also why Randy Travis’ upcoming album, Around the Bend (due July 15), has been monopolizing so much of my time lately. It’s also a big reason why Travis has enjoyed a long career, although, like many no-longer young artists, he went through his fallow periods. But Travis has always had an eye and an ear for great stories. He’s recorded many of them, but I’ll cite a fairly recent one, because it still elicits listener curiosity. “Three Wooden Crosses” was a graphic and gripping tale of life and death and the intertwined fates of people. Travis says people still ask him, “What happened to the driver from the song, Randy? “I don’t know,” he has to reply. That might well engender a sequel to the original song.

His Around the Bend is already locked in as one of my favorite country albums so far this year. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I can wholeheartedly recommend it. Travis can use his warm, laconic baritone to wrap itself around story songs as few singers can. Here, he can make you re-examine a vintage Bob Dylan song, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” and conclude that it’s not only a country song, it’s a song for all genres and all people.

Just to cite one more performance from the album, “From Your Knees” (written by Leslie Winn, also known as Leslie Satcher) is a song I’ve loved ever since the fine singer Matt King released a stone country version of it on his album Hard Country in 1999, when Atlantic Records still had a country division. The song is timeless. It’s the tale of a man who comes home to find no home left, due to his wastrel ways.

Taking you inside that wrecked house and wrecked life, as the man surveys the wreckage his wronged wife left behind, Travis sings, “He waited too late to say he was wrong/His house was still standing, but his home was gone/Brother, you would not believe/What you can see from your knees.” Travis wrings his voice out here and delivers a total master lesson in how a singer should and can present a complete country song. It’s cathartic and emotional for the listener. I can only imagine Travis in the studio, so intense he’s about to burst some blood vessels in his neck.

Country music, just like life itself, is not all beer and bling. There’s some grit and stone and growing up involved.

Tell me a story, grandpa or grandma, or mom or dad, or uncle or aunt. That’s how to write a song.