Randy celebrates 25th anniversary with disc of star-studded duets!
Randy performs with Zac Brown at LP Field on June 9 during the CMA Music Festival.
Randy Travis laughs with disbelief at the notion that he inspired a generation of country singers or that his first album, Storms of Life, altered the path of country music when it was released in 1986.
But you could say a few people disagree. Among them: Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood and James Otto, who count the North Carolina singer among their greatest influences. And that’s just for starters.
“Garth Brooks has said that if there wasn’t a Randy Travis, there wouldn’t have been a Garth Brooks,” says Wade Jessen, senior chart manager for Billboard Magazine in Nashville.
Storms, marked by Travis’ rich baritone and simple arrangements, veered away from the pop-leaning music of the day and was a clear return to a more classic sound. The album helped lead the way to country music’s huge commercial growth in the late ’80s and ’90s.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Storms of Life, and in honor of the album, which Jessen called “the beginning of country’s neotraditionalist movement,” Travis has released Anniversary Celebration — a 17-song duets project that features past Travis hits and new songs and pairs him with a contemporary who’s who, including Chesney, Underwood, Otto, Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson, Zac Brown Band and Tim McGraw. (On June 14, he’ll appear on The Tonight Show singing one of the album’s duets, “T.I.M.E.,” with Josh Turner.)
“I look at this album, and I’m very, very proud,” Travis said in a departure from his usual aw-shucks manner.
Anniversary Celebration was two years in the making. Travis compiled a wish list of people he wanted to record with. Then he and producer Kyle Lehning found a balance between classic songs and new material and hashed out which guest artist would appear on what track. The last part, Travis said, was fairly easy. In many cases, he let his collaborators choose the song they wanted to sing. And, more often than not, he says, he was surprised by their decision.
“With Carrie, she said ‘Is It Still Over,’ and to be honest, I was thinking, ‘Are you sure?’ ” Travis said, laughing. “But doggone it, she can sing anything, I think. It doesn’t matter what she decided to do, she can sing anything and do it well.”
Travis says he was immediately impressed by Zac Brown, who pitched him the idea of adding elements of bluegrass to his hit “Forever and Ever, Amen.”
“He had this clear-cut vision of how to redo and change the arrangement,” Travis said. “He wanted to add a back-porch feel to it. I sat there and just kind of laughed as we were starting. He had some great ideas and, man, what a gentleman.”
Travis says Chesney has deep ties to his song “He Walked on Water” because he used to cover it before he was successful.
“That song meant a lot to him,” Travis said. “I’m so happy he did it.”
But it’s the new material that has the singer most excited. He says the Mike Reid-penned song “More Life,” featuring Don Henley, “is the best piece of writing I’ve been able to find and record in a long time.”
“At this age in life, I guess I can relate to the lyrics easily,” said Travis, who is 52. “At times, I find myself running to the point that working is all that I have done. At a certain point, you have to wonder, ‘Why do I work? Is it to continue getting more or am I working for the enjoyment of this?’ ”
Paisley is featured on the up-tempo new song “Everything and All,” which Travis says “fans get a kick out of at shows,” and Otto joined Travis for the bluesy new track “Too Much.”
Recording with Travis was an experience Otto holds dear.
“My young singing life started with me trying to mimic Randy Travis,” Otto says. “When it came time to go into the studio, I was happy to see that we were actually singing side by side and the performance that is on that record is the performance that we sang together in the studio. It gave me one more thing to be in awe of a guy like that. What a voice. Just standing next to him raised the hair on my arms.”
With 25 successful years under his career belt, Travis says he still loves the business today as much as he did in the beginning and jokes that by the time he retires, maybe he will have been able to sing duets with as many people as Willie Nelson.
“He has recorded with pretty much any and everybody he ever thought about, I think,” Travis said. “Maybe I’ll get to do that.”
Maybe he will, but Jessen predicts another milestone in Travis’ future: induction into the Country Music Fall of Fame.
“Every year when they announce the nominees, I expect to hear his name,” Jessen says. “I think that’s just around the corner.”