Thirty-five years ago, Randy Travis was five years past moving to a country music community in Nashville that was deep in the throes of its love affair with pop music’s cosmopolitan appeal. Dusty, rhinestone-desiring cowboys were long past being compromised by the allure of the star-spangled rodeo. Instead, worldwide TV stardom, MTV glamour, and extraordinary revenue defined the genre. However, a roughhousing juvenile delinquent from a small North Carolina town with a sound called “too country” by record executives looking for the “next big thing” stayed the course and proved that everything old is ultimately timeless via singles like 1986’s “Diggin’ Up Bones.”
Regarding Travis’ breakout as a neo-traditionalist superstar, the vocalist’s prelude to increased acclaim arrived via the 1985-released single “1982,” which, true to the idea that Travis was an old soul in new times, was originally entitled “1962.” However, according to a 1986-aired edition of the radio program American Country Countdown, Travis noted that he was uncomfortable “singing about a love that he [would’ve] lost when he was only a little over two years old.” Thus, he and producer Kyle Lehning updated the lyrics by two decades, feeling the song would be “more believable” as time-stamped three years before the recording.
“1982” reached the sixth position on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart, marking his first Top 10 hit. For the follow-up, the level of success he’d achieved — and how well his being branded as “too country for country” — became well apparent in the crafting of “Diggin’ Up Bones.”
When “Diggin’ Up Bones” was written in 1983, the song’s co-writers Paul Overstreet, Nat Stuckey, and Al Gore had a combined 50 years of experience. Gore’s roots dated back to being a production engineer and session musician at iconic Texas honky-tonk label Starday Records — responsible for the stardom of early 60s performers like Red Sovine, plus releasing debut records for the likes of George Jones, Willie Nelson, and more. Nat Stuckey was a country music veteran in all facets of the industry as a Texas native who had success as a Louisiana-based radio announcer, songwriter with Buck Owens, and 15 years of Top 40 Hot Country Charts singles through 1980. Overstreet was the youngest in the group; the then 27-year old was an aspiring singer-songwriter who had just signed major-label recording and publishing contracts with RCA Nashville.
According to an interview with Al Gore, “Diggin’ Up Bones” was a song that initially was just a title that “[wasn’t connected] to any specific meaning, but that once the trio decided a concept upon, “the lyrics fell into place fairly easily.” The ballad chronicles the story of a man yearning for his ex-wife, whose items he kept and pulled out of storage. Kyle Lehning, the song’s producer, has often joked regarding the song’s lyrics, “How can you not record a song that’s figured out how to use the word ‘exhuming’? You gotta cut that!”
Initially, the song was written for Overstreet, but he relinquished it when Warner Bros. — upon noting Travis’ rising acclaim — commissioned the creation of the album that became the Carolina crooner’s June 1986-released solo debut Storms of Life, which — on the back of the success of singles including “Diggin’ Up Bones,” plus Keith Whitley cover “On the Other Hand,” “1982,” and “No Place Like Home” — achieved triple-platinum certification.
“Diggin’ Up Bones” achieved the number one position on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart three months after its release, on Nov. 8, 1986. The song’s traditional rooting established a standard for Travis’ career that songs including his 1987 follow-up — and gold-selling crossover classic — “Forever and Ever, Amen,” would cement. Travis’ appeal laying in stripping back country’s ersatz pop production to find the power that a rich voice can use to propel the impact of three chords ultimately required veteran tunesmiths employing a timeless way with words to ensure the development of Randy Travis’ forever appeal.