The biggest question on everyone’s mind at Nashville’s “1 Night. 1 Place. 1 Time: A Heroes & Friends Tribute to Randy Travis” on Wednesday (Feb. 8) was this: Will he sing?
That he did, and it was miraculous.
The big moment happened in the finale after Garth Brooks’ handed him the microphone to sing the famous tagline to “Forever and Ever, Amen.” Travis then took his wife Mary’s hand, stood up from his chair on the side of the stage where he sat smiling from ear to ear the whole night and laid into four verses of “Amazing Grace” with the night’s all-star cast. His voice was clear and shook with emotion as he sang, like a gospel radio station coming in and out of the airwaves.
A spirited rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” closed the tribute, which lasted nearly four hours.
Every act who hugged Travis onstage during their set touched a miracle. In 2013, he suffered a massive stroke that nearly killed him and hospitalized him for more than five months. Since then, Travis has made truly impressive strides in his recovery.
A portion of the proceeds from the night’s ticket sales will support stroke research and rehabilitation through the country legend’s nonprofit Randy Travis Foundation. The event’s title comes from Travis’ 1990 duets album Heroes and Friends which features collaborations with Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Vern Gosdin, B.B. King, Loretta Lynn and George Jones.
The marathon tribute featured more than 30 acts performing several of Travis’ greatest hits live with his longtime band. Few performers, including Brooks, Kane Brown and Wynonna Judd, actually shared how nervous they were singing in front of one of country music’s most famous baritones.
“The thing I love most about country and the voice of Randy Travis is that he’s a stylist,” Judd said before performing a soulful version of “On the Other Hand” from Travis’ 1986 debut Storms of Life. “You know exactly who it is the first couple of seconds you hear the voice.”
“There isn’t anybody in country music today or in the last 20 years that doesn’t owe their career to Randy Travis,” Brooks said. “I’m one of those guys.
“You totally saved this music and this format,” he said to Travis. “Anything you ever need from me Hoss, it would be an honor to do. I just love you to pieces.”
The performances that came close to nailing Travis’ golden tones live were Brooks’ “Forever and Ever, Amen,” Josh Turner’s “Three Wooden Crosses,” Scotty McCreery’s “1982,” Chris Young’s “This Is Me,” and the Daryle Singletary and Mark Chesnutt cover of Heroes and Friends’ Jones duet “Few Old Country Boys.”
Alison Krauss, Jamey Johnson, Ben Haggard, Neal McCoy and Chris Janson were among the most musically dynamic performers onstage. Johnson helped back Krauss and her angelic voice on “Deeper Than the Holler” from 1988’s Old 8×10. Johnson stayed to deliver a haunting acoustic version of Old 8×10’s closer “Promises” with a seven-piece choir made up of musical friends from backstage.
Haggard closed the first act with “Are the Good Times Really Over” by his late father Merle Haggard. Travis recorded the Haggard classic for his 2014 collection Influence, Vol. 2: The Man I Am. McCoy’s longtime piano player played dramatically on a grand piano while he delivered a moving rendition of “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” — one of Travis’ favorite hymns.
Armed with just his harmonica and an acoustic guitar, Janson showed he could have played the whole concert with both hands tied behind his back when he laid into “Look Heart No Hands” from 1992’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2. His harp playing between the verses blew the arena away.
From Travis’ 1986 debut Storms of Life, Joe Nichols covered the title track, the Bellamy Brothers sang “Diggin’ Up Bones,” Rodney Atkins performed “Honky Tonk Moon,” and hit-maker Paul Overstreet sang his original “No Place Like Home.”
From 1987’s Always & Forever, Montgomery Gentry performed a swinging version of “Too Gone Too Long,” Tanya Tucker delivered a powerful version of “I Told You So” and Nashville’s Charles Esten performed “I Won’t Need You Anymore.”
Kenny Rogers and Alabama were among the acts who delivered moving performances covering Travis’ faith-based catalogue. After singing “Love Lifted Me” from 2003’s Worship & Faith, Rogers transitioned into his signature hit “The Gambler.” Alabama had one of the loudest standing ovations of the night as they took the stage to sing the title song from their 2014 compilation, Angels Among Us: Hymns & Gospel Favorites, with a full gospel choir in black cloaks.
Four songs into the night, his Travis’ older brother Ricky Traywick gave a fiery performance of “Before You Kill Us All” from 1994’s This Is Me.
Travis was also surprised with three plaque presentations throughout the night. Nashville Mayor Megan Barry kicked off the show by issuing a proclamation making Feb. 8, 2017 Randy Travis Day in the city. Peter Strickland, Warner Music Nashville’s vice president and general manager, surprised him with an oversized plaque commemorating 25 million in album sales.
During another point in the show, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and representatives from his office presented Travis with another plaque naming Feb. 8 as Stroke Awareness Day in the Volunteer state.