While Others Sing His Songs, Randy Travis Still Owns the Stage at Tribute Concert
Brooks was the final singer among more than 30 who came to honor the country legend on Wednesday night with a tribute concert at Bridgestone Arena.
“The hardest thing I believe I’ve ever done is sing one of your songs with you sitting right there,” Brooks announced to Travis, who was perched stage right with his wife, Mary, for the entire three-hour concert.
“So it’s gonna suck, but it’s all love,” Brooks said before launching into Travis’ signature hit, “Forever and Ever, Amen.”
In the final chorus, Brooks sidled his way over to Travis, drew out his last “forever and ever,” then thrust the microphone at the guest of honor.
Virtually silenced by a stroke in 2013, Travis was still ready for the moment, and he gave out a lusty “Amen!” to deafening cheers. Granted, it was a repeat performance of the 2016 CMA Awards when Travis appeared on stage to also sing the song’s final notes.
But on Wednesday night, he wasn’t done yet. On Mary’s arm, he gingerly made his way to center stage to sing four verses of “Amazing Grace.” Though quickly joined by all the stars who had come to honor him, Travis still owned the stage — as he had all evening.
Travis’ heyday was in the 1980s and 1990s, yet star after star reminded the audience how many songs the Country Music Hall of Famer turned into timeless classics. And nobody enjoyed hearing them more than Travis, who spent the evening with a near-constant smile, keeping rhythm with his foot, punctuating familiar notes with a pointed finger, and even occasionally mouthing the words. Often he motioned to his beloved band, fully reassembled for the first time since his stroke.
Jamey Johnson earned the first standing ovation of several with a haunting rendition of “Promises,” one of the songs Travis co-wrote. At a press conference before the show, Mary Travis explained its special meaning to Johnson: “When Randy was … still in a coma, Jamey would come to the hospital and stand at the foot of his bed and sing this song.”
Artists mostly got to pick and choose what they would perform, she said, but with so many to pick from, there weren’t any tugs of war. The evening’s lineup was a mixture of older artists, today’s hit-makers and up-and-comers, with baritones in the Travis mold well represented. Josh Turner thrilled with “Three Wooden Crosses,” Scotty McCreery twanged his way through “1982,” and Chris Young delivered with “This Is Me.”
“I’m so glad I get to do this song — it’s one of my favorites,” Young said after offering a small genuflection in Travis’ direction.
Wynonna changed a few words in “On the Other Hand” to make the almost-cheating song work for a woman, and Alison Krauss brought her bluegrass vibe to “Deeper Than the Holler.” Chris Janson picked “Look Heart, No Hands,” a song co-written by Trey Bruce, one of Janson’s go-to collaborators.
In keeping with the inspirational spirit of the evening, a few artists ventured beyond Travis’ library. Kenny Rogers performed “Love Lifted Me,” an early release after he crossed over to country, Neal McCoy went gospel with “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and Alabama’s heart-tugging hit “Angels Among Us” evoked a stifled sob from Travis.
In one way or another, all the performers reminded the crowd of Travis’ significance to their careers and to country music.
During her introduction, Wynonna identified “the thing I love the most about country and about Randy Travis.”
“He’s a stylist,” she said. “You know what I’m saying? You know exactly who it is the first couple of seconds you hear the voice.”
Before singing “He Walked on Water,” Michael Ray simply offered gratitude. “Randy Travis, we are all here because of you,” he said. “Thank you for what you’ve done for country music. Thank you for what you’ve done for us artists. Thank you for paving the way for us young artists to be able to drive our careers on.”
Brooks was no less grateful for Travis’ contributions to his Hall of Fame success. “There isn’t anybody in country music today or the last 20 years that doesn’t owe their career to Randy Travis,” he said. “I’m one of those guys.”
The concert was a benefit, and net proceeds will go to the Randy Travis Foundation, which is dedicated to three of the singer’s causes: music appreciation for children, early detection of viral cardiomyopathy and stroke rehabilitation.