It's a wonder Travis Tritt's new CD, The Calm After ..., doesn't open with him emitting an audible sigh of relief. That's because he's been in legal and artistic limbo for the past six years, during which time he was suing to gain ownership of the master recordings that yielded the current edition of the album.
Here's what happened: In 2007, Tritt was signed to Category 5 Records, an independent label. Under the auspices of that label, he recorded an album which he co-produced with American Idol judge Randy Jackson. It was released under the title The Storm. But the album had hardly hit the market before Category 5 went out of business.
This left Tritt with the dilemma of whether to abandon the album -- which he considered one of his best -- and seek out another label or else sue Category 5 to get the masters and perhaps release an updated version of the album on his own. He opted for the latter.
"All I basically wanted to do was get those masters back," he says, "because I had put so much of my blood, sweat and tears into getting that album off the ground."
Sitting relaxed at a conference table at CMT's Nashville headquarters, Tritt shows the same eagerness to talk about his music that he did in 1989 when he made his debut with the frolicsome single, "Country Club."
"So I figured if I could get my masters back," he continues, "I could have the opportunity to not only let the album see the light of day and put some kind of [marketing] plan behind it, but also to do something else that I'd been dreaming about doing for about 10 years, which was to start my own label."
That he's now accomplished. The Calm After ... is on his own Post Oak Recordings imprint.
Having to spend all those years -- and all that money -- in litigation was a big gamble for Tritt, one he knew that might diminish or even end his career. As long as there was a chance the court would find in his favor, he didn't want to sign with another label and have the immediate obligation of recording and releasing new music. But if the court ruled against him, he would be out a lot of money and pretty much back to starting over.
So for six years, Tritt had no new music to offer.
"It kind of put me in a position of Never Never Land," he says.
Fortunately, he had a fan base that sustained itself on his live shows.
"Our audience never went anywhere," he asserts. "They still responded to every single live performance we've ever done. I thank God for that. It's been a blessing I never would have expected. Traditional thinking says when you stop releasing records, you stop having audiences come to your shows. Not in our case. Our audience has never let us down. They have enabled me to go out and keep a very, very busy tour schedule."
The Calm After ... is ample proof that Tritt was wise in taking the gamble. It is a vocal tour de force in which the singer demonstrates his mastery of the blues, ballad and soul idioms. He growls, croons, rocks and purrs with utter emotional conviction.
In one of the album's most moving selections -- a cover of Patty Smyth and Don Henley's 1982 pop hit, "Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough" -- Tritt harmonizes with his 15-year-old daughter, Tyler Reese, in what is clearly a duet-of-the-year caliber performance. The song is also the album's first single.
Covered as well are Faces' 1972 single, "Stay With Me," and Hank Williams Jr.'s somber 1981 album cut, "The Pressure Is On."
Tritt wrote or co-wrote four of the album's 14 songs, including the original title cut, "The Storm," and the sagely romantic "What if Love Hangs On," a collaboration with Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas.
He is effusive about Jackson's production savvy.
"When we started working together and collecting the songs, I realized right off the bat that he had access to some of the greatest songwriters and some of the greatest musicians that the business had to offer," Tritt says. "When I went to L.A. and met with him the first time to start looking for material outside my own songwriting, the first place he took me was over to Diane Warren's office. He introduced me to Diane, and I had the opportunity to pull from her catalog."
There are two Warren songs on the album.
"He also gave me the opportunity to hook up and co-write with Richard Marx and Rob Thomas. ... I found in him a tremendous ear, not only for one style of music but for just about any style," Tritt said. "He had a tremendous ability to come in and sort of adapt to whatever environment he happened to be in at that moment. It's a rare thing. You don't see it in too many people."
Now that he has his own label, Tritt says he can think "down the road" about other musical projects he's envisioned or which fans have asked him to do.
"The first things that came to mind," he muses, "were that I'd never done a live album, never done an acoustic album, never done a bluegrass album, never done a gospel album -- never had the chance to do a blues album."
He's already embarked on a project with Marty Stuart, who worked the road with him in 1992 on the fabled No Hats tour. Their 1991 single, "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'," from Tritt's It's All About to Change album, won a Grammy for best country vocal collaboration.
"I was talking to Marty one day," Tritt recalls, "and he said, 'You know, that album you did with Randy was really a great album, but it had a lot of 'information,' a lot of music, a lot of instrumentation on it. I would love to go in the opposite direction and do something that had very little production to it. I wouldn't call it unplugged, but I'd call it very, very sparse instrumentation that would focus on your voice again.'
"So we went in and recorded four tracks. It's Marty on guitar and mandolin, me on acoustic guitar, and there's an upright acoustic bass, light keyboards and light percussion. ... So far, I've written two of the four things we've recorded, one of them being an instrumental."
He and Stuart plan to return to the studio at the end of this year and have the album ready for release "sometime in 2014."
There's one more thing Tritt has in mind. Tyler, his daughter, has shown such a flair for music, she's going on tour with him. And it looks like she's ripe for getting her own label deal. In fact, dad practically guarantees it.
Watch CMT Hot 20 Countdown's interview with Travis Tritt during the new episode premiering Saturday (Aug. 3) at 11:30 a.m. ET/PT on CMT.