Forever and Ever Amen
By: Bill Lord
In the 1980’s Country music was really trying to go the way of Pop largely driven by a substantial influx of musicians and producers from the west coast. The main stream music industry had looked to Tennessee and realized that there was “gold in them there hills”. Country Music, which had until then been largely a rural southern and southwestern art form, had reached the city, yes New York City and Los Angles. A great deal of the energy of this migration was created by the 1980 release of a movie called Urban Cowboy. Suddenly the sight of boots, hats and large belt buckles common to the country and “western” singers of the south were everywhere from Wall Street to streets of Hollywood.
The huge crossover success of artists like Kenny Rogers, Eddie Rabbitt and country bands like Exile and Alabama prompted radio stations in even the most urban areas of the nation to change their formats to the “new” sound of country. It was during this time that it seemed almost inevitable that the traditional sound of country music would die. The new sound was more electric and a lot more “produced”, and of course great music, but it was a long way from the very raw and natural sounds of the Grand Ole Opry and the rural and roots music that had preceded it.
It was 1985 and I was managing a large 600 seat country nightclub in Macon, Georgia called ‘The Golden Spur”. The “Spur” was affixed to a Family Inn and sat right on Interstate I-475 which placed it on the main route between Nashville and everything south. The location put us in a remarkable place to benefit by booking “tie in dates” with artists who were heading south for lucrative weekend concert dates in Florida. The artist’s managers and booking agents would regularly look for Thursday night dates that would help offset the cost of the trip. You could typically book these artists, generally solo, to play with your house band for a fraction of their regular booking fee. The artists available for these types of bookings would have a known name and adequate drawing power for a 600 seat room but would typically be either very early in their success or on the tail end.
In late summer or early fall of 1985 I was making a trip to Florida listening to country radio as usual. The very large country station out of Macon, GA, WDEN, was a powerhouse and could be heard almost all the way to the Florida line. Something caught my ear that I hadn’t heard in a while. A sound coming from the radio that burst through the speakers like a warm ray of sunshine pushing its way through the clouds on a rainy day. It was different and seemed almost foreign but in a familiar kind of way. It was country! The singer was stoic and solid. The production was clean with a traditional country feel. There was a steel guitar! Trust me, in 1985 it was very surprising to hear a country song even on country radio. I turned it up and listened intently to hear who the artist was. The DJ’s would actually tell you who you were listening to in those days. Then the announcer said the name, one I had never heard before, Randy Travis. I couldn’t wait to stop and call Tom Dean, the owner of the Golden Spur and tell him about what I had heard. Please note, I had to stop and call from a pay phone because this was in the days before cell phones. We agreed that we would book this young troubadour as soon as we could get Nashville on the line.
Randy Travis made his first of two booked appearances at the “Golden Spur” playing to a sold out house. We had booked him for two engagements about 6 months apart paying him $1200 for each appearance. When he arrived we were taken aback by his quiet nature and politeness. He was gentle and humble. His manager, who would eventually become his wife, Lib Hatcher was clearly in charge and not quite as easy to work with. She was strong and demanding but of course it’s a tough business and those are the qualities necessary for a manager to be successful. At the time Randy only had the one hit record, “1982” but it had blazed up the charts and it was apparent that his star was rising fast. His show was a great success and Randy was appreciative and gracious to the people who had bought tickets to see him. He sang several songs from his then brand new album “Storms of Life” as well as an assortment of country classics. We had not seen an artist like him in some time. He just stood there and sang with that great traditional voice. No dramatics or stage tricks, he just sang and it was more than clear that’s all he needed to do.
By the time Randy made his second appearance he had won the CMA “Horizon Award” and his 2nd single “On the Other Hand”, a cover of an earlier Keith Whitley cut, had made a meteoric climb up Billboards country top 100 chart. Oddly enough this song had been Randy’s 1st and 3rd release. The song was actually the 1st to be released from the new album but had only made it to #67 on the charts. After the huge success of “1982” the label decided to re-release the single in April of 1986. This time with more notoriety behind the artist it received much more airplay and became Randy Travis’ first #1 hit. Randy played to a standing room only house that Thursday night and was just as humble and gracious this time as he had been for the first of his appearances. It was obvious that success had not changed the boy from North Carolina.
An interesting footnote is that Randy was booked just across town at the Macon Coliseum on Friday night as the opening act for George Jones. Although he was being paid the handsome sum of $10,000 for that engagement, he had honored his booking with us for $1200. Randy did not shorten his show one minute and interacted with the fans showing as much appreciation for them as he had when he was virtually unknown.
Much has been written about Randy Travis over the years, mostly good but some not so good. I can only say that having had the opportunity to interact with Randy several times over the years I can honestly tell you each time I found him to be the same man I met in 1985, humble, gracious and sincere with a boyish charm. At the time of this writing Randy Travis is fighting for his life in a Texas hospital. Much of the media has been fast to point out any human flaws they can find in this great icon of country music and like the title of Randy’s own song are just digging up bones. There may be a lot of things you can say about Randy Travis but all I will say about him is this. Randy Travis, may be more than any other contemporary country artist is the real deal. A country artist with the credentials both personal and professional to represent in song the lives of those who love his music, country music, and who live common American lives. He is not a product of a public relations team or staff of image consultants. Like country music itself he is a product of a way of life that many of us long to return to. This world could use a lot more Country Music and a few more artists like Randy Travis.