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POP MUSIC : Randy Travis--A Nice New Country Breeze

From the corners of the country From the cities and the farms With years and years of livin’ Tucked up underneath their arms.

They walk away from everything Just to see a dream come true. So, God bless the boys Who make the noise On 16th Avenue. --"16th Avenue” by Tom Schuyler

Randy Travis is the most dramatic success story in country music in a decade. When people around town are asked to suggest someone with a similar impact on audiences, they whisper such names as Elvis and Patsy Cline.

Not bad for a singer who just two years ago doubled as a catfish cook and dishwasher between sets in a local nightclub.

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With such a colorful story, you’d think Travis would be eager to tell his story. Why then is he sitting in an office on 16th Avenue, responding to a reporter’s questions with all the enthusiasm of a commuter stuck in traffic?

Another arrogant overnight sensation?

Hardly.

Travis’ fans prize his deep, sexy voice--a pure country approach that is a throwback to the fiddle ‘n’ twang days of country giants like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. In fact, his music is so pure country that pop stations don’t play it. Most pop fans probably know him better from his appearances on TV awards shows than for his string of country hits.

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Travis is the shy young man from North Carolina who keeps stepping to the podium to say, “Thank you . . . I really can’t believe all this” when accepting the latest honor at ceremonies of the American Music Awards, the Country Music Assn. Awards and the Academy of Country Music Awards.

He added a Grammy Award to his string Wednesday night, when he was named the year’s best male country singer.

Besides his music, country fans are drawn to the sincerity and charm of Travis’ down-to-earth, aw-shucks manner. Ronna Rubin, a publicist for Warner Bros. Records, swears that she’s not exaggerating when she tells a story typical of Travis'--well-- niceness .

“You have to be careful what you say to Randy,” she said sitting in her office on Music City Row. “If he came into the office one morning and you said, ‘Boy, my car’s sure dirty and I’ve got an important luncheon,’ the next thing you know, he’d be out back with a hose.”

After a couple days of hearing tales like that, it doesn’t even sound like a joke--which it isn’t--when Travis’ manager, Lib Hatcher, mentions that this new American hero lives in a converted log cabin.

Travis, 28, is not a Gomer Pyle--but he certainly is a man of few words. There is no sense of pretense or false intimacy about him.

Reporters sense when someone doesn’t enjoy being interviewed and often conclude a marathon session by mentioning what a drag interviews must be for performers.

Invariably, the interview subject will respond by saying something along the lines of, “Yeah, they usually are, but it was a pleasure talking to you .”

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In this same circumstance, Travis, however, simply told the reporter, “Yeah, they sure are. . . .”

Where Dreams Come True

Country music dreams do come true on 16th Avenue. But the street here isn’t lined with clubs that showcase new singers and songwriters--clubs like the Roxy in West Hollywood or the Bottom Line in New York.

The places where the hopefuls from the cities and the farms assemble with their guitars and dreams here are the rooms across town--the Nashville Palace, just down the Briley Parkway from the legendary Grand Ole Opry, or the Bluebird Cafe, next to a beauty parlor in a mini mall on Hillsboro Road. (See article on Page 62.)

The noise on 16th Avenue comes mostly from the cars of the more than 5 million tourists who flock here every year--the commercial center of country music.

You don’t have to read the out-of-state license plates to spot the tourists. They’re the ones who drive slowly past the one- and two-story office buildings, checking their guide books to figure where next to direct their cameras.

If you’re a Kris Kristofferson fan, you’ll want to stop at the corner of Hawkins Street for a shot of Combine Music. That’s where Kristofferson’s songs are published. Then you walk across 16th to CBS Records. That’s where Kristofferson worked as a janitor.

You might want to walk south for a photo of the Buddy Lee Agency. Buddy’s the former professional wrestler who books Willie and Waylon. You then can turn right for Ronnie Milsap Enterprises. If you’re low on film, Barbara Mandrell’s One Hour Photo Center is just two blocks away.

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The country music Establishment--the record companies and publishers who got fat on the pop-conscious “Urban Cowboy” craze of the early ‘80s--dominates the three-block stretch at the north end of 16th Avenue so fully that the area is dubbed Music City Row. The old 16th Avenue street signposts have even been changed to Music Square East.

Thanks to Travis, however, tourists are rediscovering the old, mostly residential south section of 16th Avenue. That’s where he and manager Hatcher have made their home base in town for seven years.

Until recently, Travis could sit on the front steps of the three-story stone residence (now primarily an office building) and play the guitar without being bothered. No longer. Fans now camp outside the house when he is known to be in town.

It was early afternoon and Travis sat in second-floor of Lib Hatcher’s office. He was on a tight schedule. He was supposed to be enjoying a rare vacation, but when your album stays at No. 1 on the country charts for nine straight months things keep coming up--like a cameo appearance in the upcoming Western feature “Young Guns.” Total sales of his two albums: more than 4 million.

Travis--who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 150 pounds--was able to sneak into the gym that morning for his usual hour’s workout, but there was a photo session after lunch and now an interview.

From the office window, you could see a car with Ohio plates parked in front his own customized $400,000 bus. A woman on the passenger side of the car is pointing a camera at the house.

Travis, whose understated good looks and and soft, seductive brown eyes invariably draw shrieks from female fans at concerts, is used to such sights and he doesn’t grumble about the attention.

Still, Travis wishes he had more time for himself. It’s the only hint of complaint.

He talks about owning a farm someday--nothing lavish, he says, just 100 acres or so with some horses and cattle. But that is a ways off. For now, his life will mainly be spent on the road.

That evening Travis would fly to Los Angeles to appear on the Johnny Carson show--but first he had to stop by the Grand Ole Opry to do a few songs at a benefit for battered children.

The Next Randy Travis

The tourists by the curb aren’t the only ones drawn to Nashville by country music. As the 1988 Nashville Chamber of Commerce Travel Guide points out, the new arrivals include thousands of “hopefuls with stars in their eyes, yearning to become the next . . . Randy Travis.”

Many of them end up at the Nashville Palace because that’s where Travis got his start. There’s an “open mike” talent show at the supper club on Monday and Tuesday nights, and it’s not unusual to hear singers attempt Travis’ songs like “On the Other Hand” and “Forever and Ever, Amen.”

A photo of Travis is prominently displayed on a wall of the club--right beneath a plaque that reads: “RANDY TRAVIS: Former Palace Cook, Dishwasher and Now Famous Star. We are proud of his success!”

The sign doesn’t mention that Travis worked for 10 years in clubs like the Palace before he got a record deal. It also doesn’t mention the times manager Lib Hatcher heard the snickers around the Palace that she was wasting her time with this young singer . . . that he would never amount to anything . . . and that she was even hurting business by not booking someone else.

“I don’t know why I didn’t get discouraged,” Travis said in a rare moment of reflection. “Lib probably told you, we got turned down by every label in this town more than once, but I never really quit believing that something would happen. I guess I’m just a pretty patient person.”

Others Speak for Him

If Travis doesn’t say a lot, it’s easy to find others in country music to speak for him.

George and Sue Morelock were among the 5,500 fans at the first of Travis’ two sold-out concerts last month at Viking Hall in Bristol, Tenn.

People take country music seriously in Bristol, which prides itself in being the “birthplace” of country music. A plaque on the lobby wall of the hall notes that the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers made the first commercial country recordings in Bristol in 1922.

Lots of big-name country stars--Conway Twitty, Alabama, Loretta Lynn--have played the hall (a combination basketball gym and convention center on the local high school campus) since it was opened six years ago, but Travis shattered all box-office records.

The Morelocks, from Fall Branch, Tenn., were seeing Travis for the 14th time in less than 18 months. They once drove five hours after work to Nashville to see him, returning after the show so they could be at work the next morning. On this night, Sue Morelock, a grade school teacher, had bought a $65 Travis tour jacket.

“Someone like Randy comes along only once in a generation . . . someone so gifted,” said George Morelock, 40. “A lot of your country music artists change as soon as they become more successful. But Randy’s different. He’s someone who loves the music, not just the stardom. He’s so sincere.”

Paying customers aren’t the only ones in his corner.

Bill Ivey, the respected chairman of the Country Music Foundation and a former president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, said: “To me country music has its greatest impact on pop culture when someone comes along who is true to the music’s historical integrity in a way that would make you think he’d only appeal to hard-core fans, but also has the personal magnetism to reach out and hit (non-country fans) emotionally.

“Travis is certainly not the first person in recent years to revitalize traditional country, but I think he is first one with that kind of potential pop charisma.”

So how did every record label in Nashville turn down Travis when he was living three years on 16th Avenue and singing at a club right next door to the Grand Ole Opry?

Mused manager Lib Hatcher, “That’s something I thought about every time he went on stage. . . .”

Story Behind the Story

Some people around Nashville say that Lib Hatcher is a better story than Randy Travis; that it was her drive that brought him to town and her encouragement that kept him going despite all the record company turndowns.

“It’s my guess that if it weren’t for Lib, Randy would still be back in Charlotte, singing at a club and enjoying it,” said one record company executive who asked not to be identified. “Lib was the one who was driven, the one who wanted the whole world to hear this singer that she found.”

Hatcher, a petite blond-haired woman in her 40s, recalls the night 12 years ago when she first heard Travis’ voice--in a talent contest at a club in Charlotte, N.C., that she owned.

He was Randy Traywick back then, a 16-year-old high school dropout who, encouraged by his father, had been singing country music in public since he was 9--at fiddlers’ conventions, Moose Halls, local square dances.

About that talent contest, Hatcher recalled, “I’ll never forget it. There was a little table near the stage where I’d sit a lot and work on some papers. When I heard Randy, I just sort of dropped the papers and thought, ‘This is something special.’ ”

Traywick (the name was changed, for simplicity’s sake, first to Randy Ray and then to Travis) won the contest that night and so impressed Hatcher that she hired him as the club’s regular singer.

“He was so shy that he wouldn’t talk to anybody,” said Hatcher, who speaks with a soft, nasal voice that suggests little of the bulldog determination that guided Travis’ career.

“He’d sing his song, then hang his head and sort of get down from the stage. He wouldn’t even say thank you. But he would talk to me and after we closed at night, he’d get the guitar and he’d sing while we were waiting for the girls to clean up the place.”

One night, however, Traywick had more than music on his mind. The shy teen-ager told Hatcher about facing a jail term.

“It seems strange now,” Travis said of his delinquent days around Marshville, about 25 miles from Charlotte. He’s still sitting in Hatcher’s office, wearing a T-shirt and jeans. “I’m not sure exactly why I did those things.” With the detachment of a court stenographer, he went through a series of problems: drinking, messing with drugs, trying to outrun policemen, fighting, breaking and entering.

Travis doesn’t try to glamorize the activity. Asked if he thought he was just trying to mirror the wild life outlined in some of the early songs by one of his heroes, Merle Haggard, he replied, “Naw, nothing like that. I think I just got in with the wrong crowd.”

He does, however, know what snapped him out of the behavior: the fear of jail and the chance to sing full-time at Hatcher’s club.

“Had I not had a job, I would probably have gotten sentenced to five years,” Travis said. “At least, that’s what my lawyer told me. Because of the job and some people standing up for me, I got off on probation.”

Travis was released by the court to Hatcher’s custody and moved in with Hatcher and her husband, who owned a construction company. The arrangement didn’t last long. Hatcher says her husband got tired of all the time she was spending at the club and gave her an ultimatum: get rid of the club and stop handling Travis’ career.

That night, Lib Hatcher moved out--and, she says, never talked to her husband again, except in divorce court.

Recalling the decision during a separate interview in her office, she said, “I don’t think there was any way at that point in my life I could have sent Randy back to what he was involved in before. I didn’t know about the future then. It was a matter of taking it one day at a time.”

The relationship has raised questions over the years about whether it is strictly business or also romantic.

About the whispers about romance, she said, “Sure I hear them. Tammy Wynette even called me to congratulate me on us getting married. . . . But I don’t worry about it. People don’t understand how people can be this close . . . how we can be best friends.”

Anything more she wants to say to clarify the relationship?

She paused briefly, then said, “Not really.”

The First Record

Though the club in Charlotte didn’t draw enough customers to justify the talent fees, Hatcher booked “name” singers from Nashville just so she could showcase Travis between sets. She hoped the visiting singers would be impressed enough to help her get the teen-ager a record contract.

And sure enough, Joe Stampley, a veteran country singer, introduced Hatcher to a contact at Paula Records, which eventually released two singles by Travis. With the records in hand, Hatcher and Travis drove from radio station to radio station in the South, trying to get air play--just like the scenes in the movie “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” One of the singles did reach the lower rungs of Billboard magazine’s country sales list, but not enough to build career momentum.

Though the foiled promotion campaign had cost an estimated $10,000, Hatcher wasn’t discouraged. But she realized that she needed to move closer to the action in Nashville. And where better in Nashville than 16th Avenue?

They found a run-down house --"This place was so full of fleas that the real estate lady didn’t want to walk in here,” Hatcher recalled--and set up headquarters. She soon got a job managing the Palace and quickly installed Travis as the house singer. Then she sent tapes around, hoping someone would hear in Travis’ voice the potential she felt was there.

The woman who finally did was Martha Sharp.

Pure Country

As senior vice president of A&R; for Warner Bros. Records, Sharp, 50, is in charge of signing new talent and the box of tapes behind her desk shows the volume of material that comes her way. The stack has grown considerably higher since the word got out that she was the one who signed Travis.

“We get h-u-n-d-r-e-d-s of tapes every month,” said Sharp, a former songwriter herself. “That box is just a day’s worth, maybe a day and a half. Because Randy got so big so quickly after his first record, it looks like another overnight success story.”

One reason most people in Nashville passed on Travis, she believes, is that his traditional country style was out of fashion in an age when Nashville musicians and executives were obsessed with finding someone who could sell to country fans, but also have pop appeal. The arithmetic is easy: there are a lot more pop fans than country fans, so the potential sales of a “crossover” act is much higher.

The trouble, however, was that many country fans were losing interest in all these pop-oriented acts.

This point was driven home to Sharp during a marketing meeting sponsored by the Country Music Assn.

“Everyone was talking about how country music was in the doldrums, how we had to start attracting younger demographics,” Sharp recalled. “Then, this record retailer got up and said something that stuck with me. He said, ‘My customers don’t think what they are hearing on the radio any more is country music.’ He was talking about all the artists, in the years after ‘Urban Cowboy,’ trying for a pop sound.”

Sharp began toying around with what seemed a novel idea: Why not find a young singer who was just pure country . . . someone who had no interest in pop, who only wanted to sing country music?

When she mentioned the idea to a friend a few nights later, the friend brought up the name Randy Ray--that singer down at the Palace. Sharp went to see Randy Ray/Travis and decided to sign him the same night. “I loved his voice,” she recalled. “But I knew I was going to get a lot of guff. The prevailing opinion at that time was that he was too country, nothing that country would work. Still, my gut told me to go ahead.”

Travis’ first single was 1985’s “On the Other Hand,” a traditional country song about romantic temptation written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz. It got strong support from some radio programmers, but not enough to push it into the Top 10 country charts. (See article on Page 69.)

Warner Bros. then put out a second single, “1982,” a deeply sentimental tale of lost love, and it made believers out of country radio programmers. The record company, which had not even committed itself at this point to making an album with Travis, then re-released “On the Other Hand.”

The single was a smash the second time around and Warners rushed Travis into the studio with producer Kyle Lehning to record an LP. “Storms of Life,” sold more than 1.8-million copies, making it one of only three debut albums in country music to go platinum (1 million units sold). His second album, 1987’s “Always & Forever,” has already passed the 2.2-million figure.

It’s no wonder that last year he became the youngest singer ever invited to become a regular on the Grand Old Opry’s weekly radio and TV show, country music’s most exclusive club. Travis’ manager Hatcher points with pride to the Opry membership: “When they asked us to join, they didn’t just say, ‘We want you, Randy.’ They said, ‘We need you, Randy.’ ”

Traditional Values

Grand Ole Opry audiences are used to seeing all the stars of country music, but there was almost hysteria in the auditorium when Travis walked on stage with his band for the benefit concert. Dozens of fans raced to the edge of the stage, carrying flowers or cameras. Teen-age girls--a rare sight at country music shows--raced down front just to be near Travis.

As a singer, Travis exhibits remarkable character, but his vocal timbre and phrasing so closely resemble other great country singers, notably Merle Haggard and Lefty Frizzell, that he appears at times to just be imitating them.

On stage, however, he infuses his extraordinary material with an endearing honesty and warmth that seems to stir an audience in ways that few country singers have. Travis writes some of his own songs, but relies on Nashville’s army of songwriters for most of his material. There’s both a seductiveness and a reassurance in Travis’ music--all of which is capsuled in “On the Other Hand.” The tune’s opening lyrics set the listener up for yet another “cheatin’ song"--and some Travis’ female fans shriek at the suggestive lines.

On one hand, I count the reasons I can stay with you.

And hold you close to me all night long.

(“HOLD ME, RANDY,” screamed someone from near the front of the stage.)

So many lovers games I’d love to play with you.

(“PLAY WITH ME, RANDY!” someone else shouted.)

On that hand, there’s no reason why it’s wrong.

Then the song, shifts to its more reassuring tone.

But on the other hand, there’s a golden band.

To remind me of someone who would not understand.

The shrieks turn to sighs at this expression of traditional values. Couples hug each other--and the young fans down front make another charge at the stage.

Backstage, feeling more comfortable talking about his music than himself, Travis--away from the fans--reflected on his remarkable success.

“What we are doing is definitely rooted in the past,” he said. “Most of the songs on my album would have been cut 15 or 20 years ago by Hank or Lefty or George Jones, and I wondered for a while if that kind of music was going to disappear.”

He paused and then, for one of the few times in a series of conversations, offered a thought without waiting for a question. “Sometimes when I sit and think about it, it really seems hard to believe. . . ,” he said. “None of this was ever a (strategy). It was what I was singing from the first day I was singing. I can honestly say I never tried to make believe that I am something I am not.”


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