Randy Travis need never worry about dreaming up stories to put into song: He’s lived quite a few of them already. Take that night two years ago, when he was deep-frying catfish in the kitchen of the Nashville Palace nightclub, where he was earning a living as dishwasher, cook and sometime singer. Summoned to the stage by the club’s emcee, he found himself doffing his apron in order to dish up a few songs out front. Sitting in the audience was Martha Sharp, a Warner Bros. Records exec whose label had turned down Travis, 27, on three different occasions. What she and the crowd heard that night was a classic hard-times-and-heartache country voice, smooth as whiskey aged in oak. Despite his youth, Travis’ voice carried the kind of careworn, hard-luck savvy that made country music statesmen out of singers George Jones and the late Lefty Frizzell.
Travis took his bows that night and the contract that Sharp offered soon after. Recognition of his voice as one of the finest in modern country music has been pouring in ever since. His debut album, Storms of Life, released last June, is now the No. 1 country album in the nation and one of the hottest gold records (500,000 sold) on the country charts. Storms includes the current hit single Diggin’ Up Bones and Travis’ own amusing twist on a classic country theme, Reasons I Cheat. Annointed last spring by the Academy of Country Music as the Top New Male Vocalist of the Year, he was also nominated for four Country Music Awards and last month walked off with their Horizon Award, honoring new rising stars.
Born Randy Traywick in Marshville, N.C., Travis and his older brother were weaned on the music of Hank Williams, Jones, Ernest Tubb and other family favorites. Singing and playing guitar at 8, he began performing at VFW halls and church socials while still in grade school. “My folks pushed me to do it,” he says. “It has always been in Daddy’s mind especially.”
Travis was not a reluctant showbiz baby. Certain that his destiny was onstage, he quit high school in 9th grade to work for his father’s construction business and help out on the family turkey farm, a form of servitude he despised. “Turkeys,” he says, “are the dumbest animals I’ve ever seen.” How dumb? “They’ll go out when it’s raining and drown.”
There were other, bigger problems early on. By the time he turned 16, Travis was performing in clubs full-time and learning all about the night life’s dark side. Drink and drugs got him “acting crazy. Some people do a lot and get by,” he says. “It seems like I got caught with everything I was doing.” The big pinch came when Travis led police on a 135-mph joy ride, lost control on a curve and slid his brother’s car into a cornfield. “They took me down and locked me up,” he says. “It’s hard to outrun police. I ain’t never had much luck doing it.”
Enter Lib Hatcher, a Charlotte, N.C. club owner who met Travis when he won a $100 talent contest at her club. She offered him a job. “If it hadn’t been for her and having a steady job,” Travis says, “I was going to get sentenced to five years. The judge was getting tired of seeing me. He told me if I came back to bring my toothbrush.” Released into Hatcher’s custody and placed on probation, Travis eventually moved with Hatcher to Nashville, where she managed the Palace and gave Travis his long-running gig as full-time kitchen worker and part-time singer. The job meant KP duty and performing until 2 a.m., then returning to work three hours later to start cooking for the breakfast crowd. “I don’t know why I didn’t get discouraged,” he says. “Lack of sense or something.”
Single, Travis still shares a three-bedroom Nashville apartment with Hatcher. He spends most of his time on the road, traveling in a modest caravan made up of a van, a converted bread truck and a horse trailer. The truck carries bunks for his six-man band; the trailer packs the group’s equipment—and a couple of hundred pounds of barbells. His dissolute days now behind him, Travis pumps iron daily, jogs several times a week and eschews all smoke and booze.
Though he’s now got a gold record and shiny awards instead of stained aprons to show for his labors, Travis isn’t blinded yet by Stardust. Success, he says, “is very unstable. That’s why I spend so much time really working at this business. It could all be gone a lot quicker than it came.” Chances are better that country music fans will be hearing a few more firsthand songs about hard-time traveling before that comes to pass.