September 14, 1994 12:00 PM

Gripping the reins of a fiery quarter horse, Randy Travis gallops across a rolling greensward on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Every muscle in his lean, middleweight body is focused on the ride. Afterward, glistening with sweat, he almost apologetically confides that he had the animal sent Federal Express from Nashville. “There’s some things,” says the singer in his deep, woody drawl, “you just can’t do without.”

Lib Hatcher Travis might agree, though not about horses. Watching her handsome 35-year-old husband through the tinted glass of her air-conditioned Mercedes, Lib, 54, shakes her platinum-blonde head and confesses riding bores her silly. And Randy’s newly announced plans to whisk her away to an isolated beach resort on the neighboring island of Lanai aren’t going over great either. “Usually I make all the decisions, so I had to act excited,” she tells a friend on her cellular phone. “There’s not a single store nearby where I can shop.” She sighs. “Oh, well, it’ll be very romantic.”

“I’m happiest when I’m riding a horse, shooting guns, lifting weights or doing something physical,” says Travis. “There’s not an athletic bone in Lib’s body.”

But after three years of marriage—and more than a decade as country music’s most incongruous couple—they must be doing something right. With Hatcher as his manager, Travis almost single-handed jump-started Nashville’s neo-traditionalist movement with his 1986 album Storms of Life, the first country debut to sell more than 1 million copies. Since then he has sold 17 million albums (his latest, This Is Me, has produced two Top 5 singles). “You only have to listen to that voice to know he’s the real thing,” says Tammy Wynette. “Randy’s responsible for bringing country back to its roots.”

Travis largely credits his success to Hatcher, whom he wed in 1991. Besides steering his music, Hatcher has guided his move into acting (he has a costarring role in the upcoming film Frank and Jesse, with Rob Lowe and Bill Paxton) and shrewdly overseen their multimillion dollar empire. (Investments range from song publishing to Nashville and Hawaii real estate to livestock.) She even cooks his meals and picks out the clothes he wears. “I don’t think there’s any mystery about them,” says Wynette, a close friend. “I believe Randy simply needed someone with her firm hand.”

That was certainly true in 1976, when Lib, who co-owned a Charlotte, N.C., nightclub with her husband, Frank, saved the 17-year-old Randy Traywick from a jail term. Randy, from nearby Marshville, was facing five years for theft when he auditioned at Hatcher’s club. After hearing him sing, Lib talked a judge into releasing the boy—who already had a lengthy record for car theft, DWI and fighting, among other offenses—into her custody. “The judge was going to send me away,” recalls Travis. “Fortunately Lib was there to stand up [for me].”

“I didn’t know anything about managing,” Hatcher admits, “but I realized he was good and that it would be a shame to see that talent go to waste.” Before long, the protégé moved in with Lib and Frank. “It was pretty awkward, living part-time with a woman and her husband who you weren’t sure how he felt about you,” Travis recalls. “Sometimes I wondered whether or not I’d wake up in the morning.” Hatcher’s marriage eventually dissolved, and in 1980 she and Travis moved to Nashville, where all the major labels turned him down. Although neither recalls a specific moment, both Lib and Randy say it was during those dark times that their romance first blossomed. “I think we discovered how much we needed each other,” says Travis. “Her marriage had been bad, and I was a total wreck. Plus, we shared an ambition to make it in the music business and worked night and day to make it happen. Our lives became inseparable.”

Ironically, when Randy finally did get a deal, the record company—which changed his name to Travis—advised him to keep the relationship secret to avoid a fan backlash. “It drove me nuts, especially as it went on,” he says. “I’ve always been truthful about everything—the drugs, the alcohol, the fights.” But Travis and Hatcher played along, telling everyone they were “just friends.” Because neither is given to public displays of affection (“I’m not comfortable with that.” says Travis, while Lib adds simply: “Oh, please”), their story seemed credible. Perhaps a little too much so. In March 1991 a tabloid ran an article claiming Travis was gay. “That’s one of the worst experiences I’ve ever been through in my life,” recalls Hatcher. “Mostly because of Randy’s anger. It was scary.” Today, Travis is philosophical. “I’ve heard the rumors and, you know, I am a lot of things, but gay isn’t one of them. Besides, if you ask me, that kind of stuff is no one else’s business.”

In any case, the experience prompted the couple to announce their relationship. Twelve weeks later they married. “We didn’t tell anybody about the wedding,” says Travis, “mostly because I saw no need for it to be a big event. But that’s just me.”

That love of privacy has also led the couple to spend most of their time since then on Maui, where they own both a ranch in the hills and a beach house. (They also have an 8,000-sq. ft. mansion on 200 acres outside Nashville.) In Hawaii their biggest worries are whether to bake banana bread or mango bread for breakfast and how to correctly program the VCR to tape favorites like Cheers and M*A*S*H. “Out here the big problems seem small and the small ones don’t matter,” says Travis. Hatcher regularly has beans and tomatoes Fed-Exed from their Nashville garden. “She’s a great cook, and I like to eat.” says Travis. The age gap, he says, hasn’t proved a problem. If she won’t join in his more athletic pursuits, “I just back off.”

And both are learning to compromise. With Travis set to return to the road full-time next year for his first major tour in two years (“I just burned out on waking up in a different town every day”), Lib has already begun planning the schedule. “I have a list of the various outlet stores I like,” she says. “I’m going to tell the promoter to book him in those cities with a day off before and after—for shopping.”

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