By Alicia Dennis
March 17, 2014 12:00 PM

On a quiet evening in December, Randy Travis was watching Forrest Gump when he noticed some activity coming up the hill of his Tioga, Texas, ranch. His fiancée Mary Davis rolled his wheelchair to the front porch, and what Travis saw brought tears to his eyes: about 20 of his neighbors, including his local firefighter friends and their kids, enthusiastically singing off-key renditions of “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” “None of us can actually sing – we butchered three songs for him,” says firefighter Billy Longo. Nevertheless, “he was bobbing his head to help us out. He gave us all hugs. He treated us like family.” As the group said their goodbyes, Travis rose from his wheelchair to wave farewell. “He wanted us to see that he could stand up,” says Longo. “We all turned and clapped. It was very emotional. He’s got a lot of fight in him.”

Travis, 54, has needed a lot of grit to survive the past year. In July he suffered a stroke while hospitalized for viral cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure, then underwent brain surgery and contracted pneumonia. After a stint at a rehabilitation center in Nashville, he returned to his ranch to continue recuperating. “I asked Mary how things were going,” says a waitress at Clark’s Outpost BBQ, where Travis has always been a welcome regular, “and she said, ‘It’s slow, but it’s going.'”

Travis’s road to recovery has been mostly shrouded in mystery for months. As speculation grew regarding his condition – could the country legend sing or even speak? – those in his inner circle began sharing updates on his condition. “He’s up and walking around with a little help,” his father, Harold Traywick, told PEOPLE in February. Clark’s owner James Hilliard, who has been close to Travis for years, adds, “He has a little problem with his vocabulary, and sometimes it’s hard to understand him, but he gets better every time he comes in.” But it remains to be seen whether Travis will ever be able to pick up a guitar again. “He looks great but is still struggling with using both of his hands,” says singer Neal McCoy, who visited Travis in rehab and saw him at a charity concert in Dallas Jan. 30. “I don’t know if he’ll ever fully recover, but he’s a tough guy with a work ethic.”

That hardy determination has always defined Travis, who has had his share of hard times since he was a troubled teen growing up in Marshville, N.C. After a childhood spent helping raise horses and cattle, he headed down a destructive path worthy of an entire country album. He dropped out of school, drank and did drugs, which led to arrests for breaking and entering, assault and other misdemeanors. But he continued to play music around North Carolina, and it was at a nightclub in Charlotte that manager Lib Hatcher first heard him when he was 17. Before long she had persuaded a judge to let her become his legal guardian and oversee his career. Almost a decade later, after the two had moved to Nashville, Travis got a recording contract and blasted into the country scene with his classic baritone sound. “I’ve always been truthful about everything – the drugs, the alcohol, the fights,” he told PEOPLE in 1994.

Unfortunately, in 2012 those demons resurfaced. Two years after splitting from Hatcher, 72, following 19 years of marriage – and after starting a relationship with Davis, 54, the former wife of his dentist – he was arrested on Feb. 6, 2012, for public intoxication. He was arrested again on Aug. 7, when he allegedly walked into a convenience store naked. (He received a suspended 180-day jail sentence after pleading guilty to drunk driving and was given two years’ probation.)

But by the latter part of that year he seemed to be putting his troubles with the law behind him. Three months after his arrests, he was back onstage and performing with the Avett Brothers. “He was in a great mood. The turmoil was a nonfactor in Randy,” remembers musician Scott Avett. “He said to me, ‘I’m not always the man I want to be.’ And that was it.” By all accounts, 2013 was shaping up to be the year of his comeback. He was completing his 21st studio album, Influence Vol. 1: The Man I Am, and filming the TV movie Christmas on the Bayou. “The guy made it to the gym every day,” says the film’s producer Daniel Lewis. Adds Travis’s costar Griff Furst: “Whoever that guy was in that mug shot, there was no trace of that in the real Randy Travis.”

And then tragedy struck. Now Travis’s loved ones and neighbors in the tight-knit town of Tioga are watching over and rooting for him. “We try not to make a big deal about it, but it’s nice to see him out and about,” says Hilliard. “He’s working on walking every day; that’s the kind of guy he is. I can’t see anything but improvement for him. He has that tenacity to not limit himself.” As for what the singer hopes for in the future? Says Travis’s dad: “I’m sure he would just like to get back to work.”

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