With his cello-resonant voice, sincere delivery and rural-inflected lyrics, Randy Travis became the overarching figure in the New Traditionalists movement of the mid-1980s. While he found his greatest commercial success in that era, by bringing the sounds of traditional country music back to radio and television, his indelible influence has been felt in all the decades that followed.
Randy Bruce Traywick was born May 4, 1959 in Marshville, North Carolina. Although he began singing publicly before he reached his teens — often with his brother Ricky — Travis soon evolved into an incorrigible youth who routinely skipped school, drank to excess and clashed with the law over various offenses, including auto theft and burglary.
When he was 16, he ran away from home to Charlotte, North Carolina. There he won a talent contest at a bar called Country City U.S.A. The bar’s owner was Elizabeth “Lib” Hatcher. It was Hatcher’s firm hand and good business sense that persuaded Travis that he had a brighter future in music than in carousing. Besides featuring him as a performer at her club, Hatcher also gave him a job there as a cook. And she assured a judge who was ready to throw the book at the young offender that she would henceforth vouch for his good behavior.
Still using his birth name, Travis recorded his first single, “She’s My Woman,” in 1978 on the Paula label. It charted in Billboard in January 1979 but peaked at an anemic No. 91.
Hatcher and Travis moved to Nashville in 1982. She took a job managing the Nashville Palace nightclub, a venue near the Grand Ole Opry, and again hired Travis as a resident singer and cook. There he performed as Randy Ray, the name he used on his first album, Live at the Nashville Palace, released in 1983.
Sold primarily at the club, the album revealed Travis to be a talented songwriter as well as a singer. One of the tracks on this collection was his majestically mournful “Reasons I Cheat,” a song he re-recorded for his breakthrough album, Storms of Life. After having been turned down by virtually every major country label in Nashville, Travis had finally caught the ear of Warner Bros. Records. The company signed him in 1985 and promptly dubbed him Randy Travis.
“On the Other Hand,” his first single for the new label, topped out at No. 67 in 1985. But noticing the success of his second single, “1982,” which went Top 10, Warner Bros. decided to re-release “On the Other Hand” in 1986. It became the first of Travis’ 16 No. 1s, with “Diggin’ Up Bones” marking his second later that year.
Between 1987 and 1989, Travis had an unbroken string of seven No. 1 singles: “Forever and Ever, Amen,” “I Won’t Need You Anymore,” “Too Gone Too Long,” “I Told You So” (another of his own compositions), “Honky Tonk Moon,” “Deeper Than the Holler” and “Is It Still Over?” He concluded the decade with a chart-topping cover of Brook Benton’s R&B gem, “It’s Just a Matter of Time.”
He was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1986 and won Grammys for best male country vocal performances in 1987 and ’88. Over the course of his career, his albums earned five gold, three platinum and eight multiplatinum certifications. His most popular collection, Always & Forever, released in 1987, sold more than five million copies.
Travis continued as a major force at country radio into the mid-1990s, even as the wildly successful “hat acts” of 1989 — Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Alan Jackson — eclipsed him in sales and media attention. However he did gain significant notice from the press in 1991 when he announced he had wed Hatcher, who was presumed to be 16 years his senior.
The ‘90s brought five No. 1 singles: “Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart” (which spent four weeks at the top), “Forever Together” (which he co-wrote with Alan Jackson), “If I Didn’t Have You,” “Look Heart, No Hands,” and “Whisper My Name.”
While some others missed the pinnacle, they remained highlights of his catalog, such as “He Walked on Water,” a vivid remembrance of a great-grandfather written by Allen Shamblin, and “Point of Light,” written by Don Schlitz and Thom Schuyler for then-President George H.W. Bush’s Thousand Points of Light volunteering initiative.
As his presence on the record charts waned, Travis turned to acting and was soon appearing regularly in such series as Matlock, Touched by an Angel and Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, and played minor roles in several B-movies. He also switched from Warner Bros. to DreamWorks Records, where he notched three Top 10 singles: “Out of My Bones,” “The Box,” and “Spirit of a Boy – Wisdom of a Man,” before being relegated to the bottom of the chart.
Yet in 2003, Travis scored a No. 1 comeback country single with “Three Wooden Crosses” on the Word-Curb-Warner label. That song’s heavily religious theme gave Travis traction as a gospel artist and eventually led to his winning seven Dove awards from the Gospel Music Association. It won Song of the Year honors from the ACM and CMA and received a Grammy nomination for best male country vocal performance.
In 2009, Travis shared his seventh Grammy award with Carrie Underwood for their recording of “I Told You So.” Two years later, to mark Travis’ significance in country music, Warner Bros. released Randy Travis: 25th Anniversary Celebration, a tribute package of duets with Brad Paisley, Zac Brown Band, Kenny Chesney, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood and others.
Travis’ decline was considerably more rapid than his rise and began with his 2010 divorce from Lib Hatcher, his first wife and his career-long manager until 2012. While living in Texas — following his move from his home with Hatcher in Santa Fe — Travis was, in quick succession, arrested and/or cited for public intoxication, driving while intoxicated, threatening the lives of law officers and assault.
For his legion of fans, it was like watching a tragic accident unfold. In 2013, he suffered – and somehow survived — a number of serious health setbacks, including brain surgery and a stroke that left him in a coma.
In 2015, Travis married Mary Davis, who was instrumental in helping him recover partially from his stroke and who took over management of his career. Still carrying a radiant smile but unable to speak at length, he continued to make public appearances. For his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016, Travis surprised the audience by leading an emotional sing-along of “Amazing Grace.” An all-star tribute concert in Bridgestone Arena followed in 2017.
Unquestionably a legend to a new generation of artists and fans, Travis told his remarkable life story in the 2019 memoir, Forever and Ever, Amen.