Travis’ debut would prove to have an indelible influence on those who quickly followed him and contemporary artists who fly their own flag today.
At the 2019 ASCAP Country Music Awards, Garth Brooks was given the opportunity to honor fellow Country Music Hall of Famer, Randy Travis. Before handing him his ASCAP Founders award, Brooks exclaimed, “It is 100 percent my belief that this man single-handedly saved country music; I wouldn’t be standing here if it wasn’t for Randy Travis”.
Thirty-five years ago, the songs on country radio still carried the pop residue left behind from the influence of the 1980 John Travolta movie Urban Cowboy and the pop production of Johnny Lee’s ‘Looking For Love in All The Wrong Places’. Artists such as Ronnie Milsap, Kenny Rogers, and Anne Murray were lobbing hit after hit at the charts with their amalgams of pop and country.
While some artists and groups like Hank Williams, Jr. and Alabama were notching up hits by blending elements of rock, pop and soul, others represented the rumblings of what would become the New Traditionalist movement. George Strait released his debut album Strait Country, a project steeped in the influence of honky-tonk country with touches of Western Swing, in 1981. Reba McEntire topped the charts with the traditional-minded fare of ‘How Blue’ and ‘Somebody Should Leave’, while Ricky Skaggs was writing bluegrass-inflected hits such as ‘Country Boy’ and covering the Bill Monroe-penned ‘Uncle Pen’.
Nevertheless, by 1985, country music sales were in a steep decline. According to a New York Times article from September that year, country artists were seeing half the numbers they were making 10 years earlier. The NYT report stated that a chart-topping country single earned an average of 100,000 in sales units, as opposed to approximately 350,000 in years prior.
In the July of that year, Warner Nashville released ‘On The Other Hand’, the first single from newcomer and North Carolina native Randy Travis. Travis - real name Randy Bruce Traywick - moved to Nashville with his then-manager Lib Hatcher in 1982. He took a job working as a cook, dishwasher and performer at Nashville supper club The Nashville Palace, while also recording music and seeking a label deal. He was turned down by virtually every record label in town, before finally inking his deal with Warner.
The single was far from an immediate success in its first chart outing, peaking at no. 67 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart in the fall of 1985. When Travis’ second single, ‘1982’ rose to No. 6, he handed in his apron at the Palace. The label jumped on his rising success by re-releasing ‘On the Other Hand’, which soon became his first no. 1.
On June 2, 1986, Travis released his debut album, Storms of Life. It proved, first and foremost, that he was a solid songwriter in his own right, featuring his tracks ‘Send My Body’ and the mournful ‘Reasons I Cheat’, which he'd previously included on his independent album Live at the Nashville Palace, released under the name Randy Ray in 1983.
The title track, penned by Max D. Barnes and Troy Seals, details a man emotionally worn down by life’s turmoil. “On that song, as on every cut on the album, I threw myself into the lyrics, living the stories vicariously and singing with as much feeling as I could,” Travis said in his 2019 memoir Forever and Ever, Amen: A Memoir of Music, Faith, and Braving the Storms of Life.
“Country music is basically about the stories of life. I’d already lived a lot of life and wasn’t yet thirty years of age, and I could relate to the emotion in the songs, so I sang them as though they had happened to me - because most of them had! I think that’s what made many of our songs so believable to the listeners.”
Though Travis’ music drew upon classic country structures akin to those from some of his musical heroes such as Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard, many of his hits were more palatable. Largely eschewing themes of drinking and adultery, or even the sexual suggestiveness of Conway Twitty songs that had topped country charts a few years prior, Travis favored more wholesome themes. On the aforementioned ‘On the Other Hand’, the song’s protagonist - a married man - wrestles with temptation, before ultimately choosing to stay faithful. Within ‘Reasons I Cheat’, the protagonist delves into the reasons his life is a mess, in an attempt to rationalize his choices – Travis once again delving wholeheartedly into the narrative of his authentic songs.
Within months of the album’s release, Travis became a bona fide star and a towering figure in country music’s New Traditionalist movement. Storms of Life became the first debut country album to sell one million copies within a year of its release. By December 1986, Travis was named a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
Alan Jackson would later say in interviews that part of the reason he began working with Keith Stegall was because of the producer’s early involvement in Travis’ career (Stegall co-produced two tracks on Storms of Life). Interestingly, many of the artists in the Class of ’89, such as Jackson, Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Travis Tritt would self-pen a substantial portion (if not the majority) of their own hits throughout the ‘90s.
Travis’ debut would also prove to have an indelible influence on contemporary musicians who fly their own flag today. More recently, artists including Kane Brown, Chris Young and Carrie Underwood (who earned a Grammy with Travis for their collaboration of a version of 'I Told You So') have been among the stars who have embraced and displayed the enduring influence of Travis’ music.
On September 24, to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Storms of Life, Randy Travis will release a remastered deluxe edition of the album, including three previously-unreleased tracks, via Warner Records Inc.