Randy Travis Recalls His Stormy Path from Catfish Cook to Country Music Hero
Randy Travis took the night off from cooking catfish at The Nashville Palace and hopped on stage to sing. It was the mid-'80s, and most of the record labels in Nashville had rejected him. In his downtime from the restaurant, Travis worked with fellow artist and producer Keith Stegall who grew frustrated with the town's lack of interest in his style. Travis was a neo-traditionalist trying to break through during the urban cowboy peak, and Stegall was out of ideas. Stegall passed Travis' cassette tape to his producer friend Kyle Lehning who was immediately intrigued. Lehning dropped in to see Travis perform and was captivated by his distinct baritone and southern twang.
Lehning heard Warner Bros. A&R executive Martha Sharp was interested in Travis, reached out, and the rest is country music history. In about two years, with their help, Travis evolved from an unknown cook in a restaurant near Opryland USA theme park to a platinum-selling singer who redirected country music from its pop-leaning path to its dirt road roots.
"Randy Travis saved country music, in my opinion," Garth Brooks told The Tennessean in 2019. "I don't know of any artist who took a format and turned it 180 [degrees] back to where it came from and made it bigger than it was then."
Travis' debut album Storms of Life dropped June 2, 1986, and is home to his hit songs "On the Other Hand," "Diggin' Up Bones" and "1982." Lehning produced the now triple-platinum album that was remastered and re-released in September in honor of its 35th anniversary. Storms Of Life (35th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) also includes previously unreleased songs — "Carryin' Fire," "Ain't No Use" and "The Wall."
The North Carolina native, now 62, originally recorded 20 songs for the 10-track album. The three new releases, which spent the last 35 years tucked in Warner Music Nashville's vault, were among the original batch of songs recorded for Storms of Life. Cris Lacy, Executive Vice President, A&R, at Warner Music Nashville, and Lehning dove into the unreleased tracks and "picked the ones that fit with the spirit of the album," Lacy said.
When Lehning and Travis started to record the album, they didn't have a plan. They had gathered the best songs Travis had written and that Lehning could find. Because traditional country music wasn't on-trend at the time, there was a plethora of compelling songs available that fit the format.
Travis, who has limited speech due to a massive stroke in 2013, said he remembers "a lot" about choosing the songs for Storms of Life. His wife, Mary Travis, who often speaks for him, said "Diggin' Up Bones" was one of her husband's early favorites. But Lehning said it was fans' reaction to a live performance of "On the Other Hand" that convinced him Travis would be a star.
"He started strumming the first few chords, and all 25,000 people stood up like somebody dropped the American flag behind him," Lehning said. "We looked at each other like, 'Whoa, something is going on here."
"On the Other Hand" was Travis' debut single on country radio. He heard his voice through the car speakers for the first time as he was on tour in a Cadillac, and a huge smile spread across his face as he recalled the memory. However, Travis' record label wasn't thrilled with the song's commercial performance. They pulled it from the air and replaced it with "1982," which became the singer's first Top 10 hit. Label executives gave "On the Other Hand" another try after that, and this time it worked. The ballad about resisting temptation became the singer's first No. 1 song and went on to win the writers, Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz, a song of the year trophy from the Country Music Association.
Travis and Lehning recorded Storms of Life for a little more $60,000. Lehning calculated that if they sold 40,000 copies, he thought Warner Bros. would let them make a second album. Storms of Life sold more than 3 million copies — and inspired generations of country music singers.
"The whole industry was inspired because here was a kid from North Carolina with an interesting past who showed up in Nashville and for 10 years knocked on doors and was turned down," Mary Travis said. "Then all of a sudden, everything aligned at the right time and they turned him up on the radio for the next 35 years. His voice and music resonated. The reason people loved Randy Travis is because he left a little piece of himself in every one of his songs. Whatever it was you were going through in life, he had a song for you. He made it believable."
Throughout his career, Travis released more than 20 albums, won seven Grammy Awards, sold more than 25 million albums and charted 23 No. 1 hits. He's a member of the Grand Ole Opry and The Country Music Hall of Fame.
Following Travis' acceptance on country radio, neo-traditionalists became the new hot commodity, and Lehning said trends shifted from the slick pop-country sounds of artists like Gary Morris and Ronnie Milsap to Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt, who offered dancehall two-steps and authentic country music storytelling.
"The public never really knows what it wants," Lehning said. "But when it gets it, it knows it. And the public was ready for a real young traditional country singer to bring a new spark to country music. He woke everybody up."
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