NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Hard Times for Randy Travis

What Kind of Country Music Can Survive the Corporate Onslaught?

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

It’s nice that corporate America has now completely absorbed the essence of country music and is trying to assimilate it and bring it down to roughly the level of the so-called music competition shows on network TV.

That’s what years ago completely defanged what used to be rock music, with its victims running gladly to the chopping block with visions of enormous corporate payoffs dancing before them. Once their immediate commercial potential was used up, they were cast aside. They became commercially worthless.

Time was, you couldn’t hope to find a country singer on mainstream TV. Now, you can’t turn on the TV and not see one. But they’re not singing the kind of country music that you grew up hearing.

The corporate image that the industry wants to present of country? Look! Country music is just like everything else. It won’t offend you. It’s safe, and it has the same values that we all embrace.

The vision of a tortured soul such as Randy Travis, sitting alone with his bottle of wine in front of a small Baptist church in a Dallas suburb should be haunting country music lovers. One of the purest country music voices that ever existed has been pushed so far to the fringe that he seems totally adrift.

He just wasn’t made for this modern world of cutthroat TV music competitions. Instead, he’s seen as the very epitome of a dangerous aberration in this new TSA world, where any deviance is smacked down or tasered and locked up. Randy Travis was arrested for sitting and drinking alone in his car at church.

Maybe he was haunted by thoughts of what used to be, by memories of a glorious country music career that is long since disappeared. That world is forever gone, vanished along the visions of a world that once embraced Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Maybe he sought communion at that little Baptist church and brought his own wine to the ceremony. “This is my body and this is my blood … .”

He was once one of the brightest voices in country music. His success with the so-called new traditionalist movement opened the door for country’s vaunted Class of ’89 that included the likes of Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson. Garth went on to take country music to a takeover of the pop music and market and audience. Now? Brooks is a Las Vegas star and may well be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this year. And Randy Travis? He’s sitting, conquered in a car seat, with just his wine to keep him company.

A pure voice such as Randy Travis has no place in a world of Super Bowl extravaganzas and TV competition excess. His life represents what little is left of what once was considered a true country song. How many country singers are today living in what could be considered a true country song? Most of them, if you consider today’s country music life in song to be a vision of safe songs suitable for corporate sponsorship.

If it won’t sell on mainstream TV, it must not be very good. It certainly can’t get a big sponsor. So, why do we need it?

Mainstream acceptance results in a neutered music that is totally compromised. Being co-opted killed rock music, just as mainstream country radio forces country music’s creators and artists to fit into its parameters — or, else, broad commercial absorption further narrows the music into a certain mold.

Maybe Randy Travis just wasn’t made for these times. But his voice will never lose its appeal. May he return to musical prominence — on his own terms.