Randy Travis’ Switch To Gospel

Celebrities, People
on December 11, 2005

Singing superstar Randy Travis can’t remember how many times he was arrested as a teenager. He wracks his brain for a moment. “Uh . . . ooh, I’m not sure,” he says hesitantly, then smiles. “There was a bunch, though.”

Travis was nabbed for breaking and entering, stealing cars and other offenses during his wayward-teen years in his hometown of Marshville, N.C. (pop. 2,360). He totaled two motorcycles and got into dozens of fights. “Trying to outrun policemen, just insane things,” says Travis, now 46. “It’s hard to imagine it’s the same person when I think back now.”

Nor could trouble-making teenage Travis have imagined the man he would become: a musical icon and a long-settled husband whose 14-year marriage is as strong as ever.

Travis’ accomplishments in country music are numerous: five Grammy awards, five Country Music Association awards, nine Academy of Country Music awards and 15 No. 1 hits, more than 17 million albums sold. But more importantly, his deep, distinctive baritone has become a dominant influence on up-and-coming country artists who were just kids when Travis’ debut album, 1986’s quadruple-platinum Storms of Life, helped usher in country music’s “New Traditionalist” return to its roots in previous eras.

“The first time anybody said, ‘I grew up with your music,’ I thought, ‘No you didn’t! I’m not that old!’” laughs Travis, relaxing between concerts in Chicago. “But it’s a wonderful thing to think that the stuff you recorded influenced someone.”

From country to gospel

In the last five years, Travis has made his influence felt in a new field: gospel music. He has earned six Dove Awards from the Gospel Music Association, and his song “Three Wooden Crosses,” a story of sin and salvation that returned him to the top of the charts in 2002 after several years away, ushered in a trend toward spiritual themes on country radio.

Surprisingly, Travis’ switch from country to gospel isn’t exactly a return to his roots. “I spent a very, very small amount of time in church as a kid,” admits Travis, born Randy Bruce Traywick, the second of six children of Harold and Bobby Traywick. “And as they say in the South, ‘It didn’t take.’ I had to grow up a lot more and go through the insane teenage years before I ever considered having a relationship with God. I had a long way to go.”

Fueling his bad behavior during that time was chemical abuse. “It was all kinds of drugs and alcohol,” he says. “I’m not just talking about smoking some marijuana. It was taking hallucinogenics, uppers, downers, drinking everything I could find. That led to a lot of the other things that were going on.”

Travis attributes the beginning of his wayward ways to imitating his hard-partying father. “That’s how it started,” he recalls. “My mom was a very sweet lady, and if I’d been smart, I’d have learned from her instead. But I didn’t.” Still, Travis accepts responsibility for his dangerous youth. “You make your own choices,” he says, “and I made a lot of bad ones.”

He might not have been the best example, but Travis’ father inadvertently set his son on the path to both stardom and redemption. He entered teenage Randy in a talent competition at the Country City USA nightclub in Charlotte, N.C., 35 miles from Marshville. Travis won the contest and caught the attention of club owner Mary Elizabeth “Lib” Hatcher, who gave him a job singing there. By 1981, she was his manager, and the two had migrated to Nashville, Tenn., in search of greener professional pastures.

Being around his new manager, watching her focused professionalism balanced with nurturing support, had a profound effect on Travis’ own behavior. “In her, I saw somebody who was at peace with everything and everybody around her, somebody who had lived as clean a life as anybody I had ever seen,” he remembers. “That in itself made me want to clean up my act and be a better person.”

Travis’ head, if by then not quite clear, was at least not as cloudy as it had been—a good thing, as he was about to rocket to fame with the release of Storms of Life and chart-topping songs like “On the Other Hand,” “Diggin’ Up Bones” and “Forever and Ever, Amen.” The quick ride to the top took him by surprise. “I never considered how fast and how big things would grow once they started,” he admits.

Filling a spiritual void

The music business is rife with tales of young performers who find themselves falling deeper into debauchery and degradation as their stars rise. But as Travis ascended, he found himself drawn instead to fill the spiritual void in his life. He began reading the Bible. “I began to realize that I was about as lost as I could be,” he says. “I needed to make some big changes.”

Travis didn’t just straighten up, he also fell in love—he and Hatcher married in 1991. Fourteen years later, his devotion to her has only grown. “We’ve been together so long, I couldn’t imagine not being with her,” he says. “I would be lost. I love her more than anybody in the world.”

Hatcher guided her husband through years of continuing chart success, but by the late 1990s the hits had stopped coming. Travis decided the moment was right to follow his heart, and in 2000 he released his first gospel album, Inspirational Journey. Two years later he brought the gospel and country worlds together with “Three Wooden Crosses,” a compelling, religious-themed tune that wound up unexpectedly returning him to the top of the country charts.

“I think that sort of surprised everybody,” Travis says. The song arrived at a moment, following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when many Americans were re-evaluating their spiritual lives.

“I think it’s something that listeners were looking for at the time,” says Jason Blevins, music director at radio station WBRF in Galax, Va. “A lot of other songs came out afterward that wouldn’t have been a hit without ‘Three Wooden Crosses’ coming first.”

Indeed, the chart-topping status of “Three Wooden Crosses” in 2002 initiated a wave of spiritually tinged country hits such as Buddy Jewell’s “Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey’s Song)” and Sherrié Austin’s “Streets of Heaven.” Just as he had done with Storms of Life a decade and a half earlier, Travis had altered the course of country music—and brought new fans to gospel music as well.

“People might have tuned into the Dove Awards to see him, and been exposed to some [gospel] artists they didn’t know about,” figures Gospel Music Association President John Styll. “I think he’s done nothing but good for the gospel music business.”

Musical ministry

Travis has just released his fifth gospel album, Glory Train. He says he is happily surprised to find himself at the head of what he calls a “musical ministry,” and eager to continue it. “It’s the right thing to do,” he says.

He’s also pleased to find himself still happily married to Lib, with whom he shares homes in New Mexico, Nashville, Los Angeles and Hawaii—although they’ve been spending most of their time lately on a tour bus, keeping up with his busy touring schedule.

“Try living together within a 45-foot-long bus for 50 days at a time,” he says with a chuckle. “There’s no way around it—you’re gonna get in each other’s way once in a while. But for the most part, it’s wonderful. I just couldn’t imagine life any other way.” And so Randy Travis’ musical ministry keeps rolling down the highway, spreading the good word.

“I don’t see any reason to stop,” says the man whose rich, timeless voice has already reached into so many hearts, bringing with it humanity, hope and faith. “I’ll keep right on doing it until I die.”

Found in: Celebrities, People