Randy Travis in Freefall

Friday, 10 August 2012 06:09 AM Written by 

Anyone who's read anything, or sees one of those rehab-oriented TV shows like A&E's Intervention has heard the comment that a substance abuser, be their choice alcohol, drugs or both, has to hit bottom before they can be helped.   Well, if Randy Travis hasn't hit bottom, he's damn well on the way. Two years ago, he split with longtime wife and manager Lib Hatcher, who actually discovered him and got his career going.  Things seem to have gone sour for him ever since.

These two episodes prove it: the recent arrest in Texas

And the one earlier this year.

In all this it's easy to forget just who Travis (real name: Randall Bruce Traywick) is. Some know him for the gospel material he's emphasized in recent years but maybe aren't aware what made him famous.

In the mid 80's, country fans got sick of the frothy, overproduced, overarranged country-pop of Kenny Rogers and others,  music known at the time as "Urban Cowboy" fare in honor of the John Travolta movie that featured such music.  It was bland, sound-alike crap.

As record sales dropped dramatically (enough to generate a 1985 front-page New York Times story by the late music critic Robert Palmer), a group of performers who took their cues from earlier country acts emerged.  John Anderson, George Strait, Reba McEntire and Ricky Skaggs had been around since the early 1980s.

Travis was part of a newer wave that included Dwight Yoakam, Keith Whitley, Vince Gill, Ricky Van Shelton, the Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Highway 101 and the Desert Rose band.   What struck fans about him was his proud vocal twang, clearly inspired by the vocal styles of Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard.  It was all over his first big hits including "On The Other Hand" (1985).

A 1987 performance of "Diggin Up Bones," a time when he was as hot as Chesney or Zac Brown.

Travis's success has made him a hero to younger traditional singers, proven on this more recent performance of Roger Miller's hit "King of the Road" with Josh Turner.

As a North Carolina teenager, Travis had scrapes with the law, but this recent Epic Fail is more ominous.  And it happened with other singers of that generation and before. The late Keith Whitley, who started out as a teenager singing bluegrass with Ricky Skaggs, was riding high on the charts in the late 1980s when worsening alcoholism sent him into a tailspin. One colossal binge too many killed him in 1989.

Yes, George Jones was in worse shape in the late 1970's when he was boozing, doing cocaine and missing shows.  Busted in Tennessee for DUI, a TV news crew captured his arrest and combative behavior (he never was cited for threatening a cop as Travis is accused of doing). Over time, except for one lapse in 2000, Jones turned things around.  This clip comes from a documentary on his life.

A lot of singers love the idea of going down the mythic Hank Williams Sr. "Lost Highway" of sorrow, booze and drugs. It's a romantic, even melodramatic, illusion. It's also pure BS. Gram Parsons, the idol of the so-called "alt country" crowd, eagerly bought into it and died in 1973; then there was Whitley.

Even Frizzell, the honkytonk icon who inspired Randy and Whitley (and before that, Haggard and Willie Nelson) fell to booze.  Lefty casually drank it by the water glass rather than take his prescribed blood pressure meds.  As his recording career seemed on a rebound, a fatal 1975 cerebral hemorrhage did him in.  And we all know how Hank Senior's story ended.

Clearly, Travis is in deep trouble.  Whatever is eating him, he needs major help. Now.

Forget the Lost Highway.  It's an illusion that stops at the cemetery gate.


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