Randy Travis sang.
Once, those three words were a given. But on Sunday night they were a miracle, considering the country legend has been virtually unable to speak since suffering a massive stroke three years ago.
And no, his singing voice no longer soars like the music on his beloved albums. But at the Nashville ceremony that ushered him into the Country Music Hall of Fame, he held the audience in his palm with one brief, ragged verse of “Amazing Grace.”
It was a heroic gift of gratitude, offered in response to the tender tribute that the country music community had just extended to him. The annual event, held in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s 800-seat CMA Theater, also honored singer and multi-instrumentalist Charlie Daniels and producer Fred Foster.
Three of country’s giants were tapped to give voice to the long list of hits that Travis, 57, has accumulated in his decades-long career. First came Alan Jackson, who sang “On the Other Hand,” after telling of coming to Nashville in 1985 to try to carry on “real country music.”
“When I got here [Travis’] “1982” was smoking up the charts, and you opened the door for a lot of guys and girls … and made it easier for us,” Jackson said.
Later, the “Chattahoochee” singer opened on tour for Travis, and he recalled, the headliner “was like Elvis … When he sang, man, the women were screaming and fainting. And it was crazy! I loved it. I mean, someone singing real country music and having that effect and selling all those records? It made me so happy.”
Then came Brad Paisley, who explained what Travis meant to him: “For an early generation there’s guys that wanted to be Roy Acuff, then there were guys that wanted to be Lefty [Frizzell], and then there were guys that wanted to be Merle [Haggard] and George [Jones] and Buck [Owens]. And then there’s Randy for mine … To this day you are still one of the greatest singers we’ve had, and I’m honored to do this for you today, pal.”
Before breaking into a solo acoustic version of Travis’ “Forever and Ever, Amen,” Paisley simply asked: “What took the Hall of Fame so long?”
Finally Hall of Famer Garth Brooks emerged – first to sing Travis’ 2002 No. 1 hit “Three Wooden Crosses” and then to formally induct him into the Hall of Fame. Brooks began his tribute with the simplest declaration: “Randy Travis, I love you.”
Then he put Travis’ work in perspective: “Name me any artist from any genre in the history of all music that took a format, turned it 180 degrees back to where it came from and made it bigger than it has ever been before,” Brooks said. “Randy Travis, I wouldn’t be standing here as a human being, I wouldn’t be married to Ms. [Trisha] Yearwood, and I sure as hell wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame if it wasn’t for you. … Nothing in life makes sense as you get older. It just doesn’t. Randy, tonight the world makes a little more sense to me. This is long overdue.”
Paisley and Travis’ wife, Mary Davis-Travis, then helped the newest inductee gingerly take the steps to the stage, where Brooks draped the medallion around his neck and presented him with the bronze plaque that will hang in the museum’s rotunda.
Davis-Travis recounted the long road to “the greatest day of Randy’s celebrated career” in an acceptance speech the two had obviously worked on. She recalled how Travis’ father, Harold Traywick, who died on Saturday, first introduced his son to music. She recalled how, in 1982, the then-unknown would do a daily jog up and back to the Hall of Fame (then located on Music Row). “It was his goal that he wasn’t even ready to articulate at that time,” she said.
Davis-Travis encapsulated her husband’s lengthy career as one that would “change the face and the fate of country music.” She also told of the dark days that Travis had to overcome after more than five months of hospitalization in 2013 – double pneumonia, collapsed lungs, comas, brain surgeries, transfusions, tracheotomies.
“Randy stared death in the face, but death blinked,” she said. “Today God’s proof of a miracle stands before you.”
Davis-Travis told how she and and her husband still sing to each other every day. “It’s a special thing to hear Randy Travis sing, I think – don’t you agree?” The audience greeted her words with bittersweet applause, hardly anticipating what she would say next: “Ladies and gentlemen, heroes and friends, today I want to give back to you the voice of Randy Travis.”
An audible gasp filled the room as Travis moved toward the microphone with a broad smile, and he began to sing. Brooks, still on stage, steadied himself and tipped back his head, surely to keep tears from rolling down his cheeks.
The lyrics weren’t crisp. The melody was unsteady. But the sound was clearly, unmistakably Randy Travis. When he finished the final note, one more precious time, a deafening ovation greeted one of country music’s greatest voices.