This meet-and-greet would be like none of the dozens of others this week at Nashville’s CMA Music Festival. No autographs from this artist, and no more than a tentative “hello” or “thanks.” A handshake? Yes, but only from the left hand, not the right.
None of that mattered to the overflow crowd that lined up Friday afternoon at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The thrill was simply getting to be in the presence of Randy Travis.
A near-fatal stroke in July 2013 has robbed the 58-year-old country legend of many things – including his singular voice. But it has done nothing to diminish his connection to his legions of fans, and just in the past year, he and his wife, Mary Davis-Travis, have been making concerted efforts to reinforce it with public appearances.
For more than two-and-a-half years, Travis stayed singularly focused on the hours of rehabilitation he underwent daily at his Texas home base. But the seclusion took its toll, his wife says.
The need to be among the people who love him “was so much of his fiber, of what he was made of,” she told PEOPLE before the Friday event. “That’s what energized him, and I started seeing he wasn’t real happy not being in touch with people. That’s why coming to Nashville … is so important.”
The day before, Travis stirred a roar from the crowd when he appeared on stage during Michael Ray’s outdoor performance at the festival. Ray, who has recently become friends with Travis, then covered his signature song, “Forever and Ever, Amen,” leaving the final “Amen” to its originator – and the audience went wild.
On such occasions, Davis-Travis said, her husband is always hesitant beforehand, knowing “he’s not what he used to be, but when he gets out there he just turns into Randy. It’s his home, that stage, and you can tell it because … once he gets out there he just lights up.”
At the meet and greet, Travis was beaming again as he entered the room to the applause of the 200 or so fans gathered in the museum’s Hall of Fame rotunda. Everyone, it seemed, had been touched by Travis and his music in one way or another.
Scot England had met Travis at the height of his career in the 1980s, and now he had waited hours to do so again.
“I’m a bigger fan today just to see the way he’s lived his life as far as overcoming everything that he did,” the 52-year-old Henderson, Tennessee, man told PEOPLE. “He’s a survivor. To come through everything he’s come through, I don’t mind waiting four hours to meet him.”
Nicole Caroen, 38, of Linden, Michigan, put meeting Travis at the very top of her festival to-do list. Vicki Lewis, 62, of Augusta, Georgia, loved Travis because her parents did. His music, she said as she worked to hold back tears, “helped me through losing them.”
For almost an hour, Travis greeted them all while seated in the shadow of the plaque that signifies his membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the genre’s highest honor.
Every fan earned the Travis charisma, the warm smile that was made for the stage, the eyes that are still lit from within. Mary Davis Travis offered strong assurances that her husband’s mental faculties are exactly as they were before the stroke.
“The memory is as sharp as it ever was,” she says. “Everything’s up there, it’s just the aphasia [loss of speech] and getting it out that’s the frustrating part.”
One by one, the fans took a seat next to Travis for a quick photo, a few heartfelt words (Lewis, for one, simply said, “God bless you”) and then were on their way.
That was more than enough for Amanda Bridges, 45, of Marion, Illinois. “There are so many memories of him,” she said, then she paused. “I met him.” Her voice caught on the words. “I can’t believe it.”