At age 11, he started drinking and using drugs. Three years later, he drank alcohol daily and continued doing drugs. By age 16, he had been arrested “a lot,” he says, for breaking and entering as well as trying to outrun police officers.
Before his last court appearance, the 17-year-old had “totaled” four cars, and his lawyer told him during the hearing: “I don’t believe I’m going to be able to do something this time.”
Then the judge took pity on young Randy Travis.
Still shy of voting age, Travis had been performing five nights a week at a North Carolina nightspot called Country City USA. With Travis holding a steady job, the judge opted to release him rather than place the lanky youngster in a juvenile detention center.
”(The judge) said, `If you come back before me, son, bring your toothbrush, because you’re staying,′ ” says Travis, now 30. Reflecting on those troubled teen days, Travis pauses and says matter-of-factly: “I don’t know why I’m living.”
Whoa – this is the story of Randy Travis, the aw-shucks, golden-voiced, handsome country crooner?
The singer who has sparked a renewal in traditional country music since 1986, selling more 10 million albums and earning favorable comparisons to George Jones and Merle Haggard?
“I’ve cleaned it up a lot,” Travis says. “I’ve become about as much of a fanatic about health, exercise and eating right as I was about using drugs and alcohol as a kid.
“In the long run, I know that (drugs and alcohol use) makes things worse. Oh, it helps for a few hours, then it wears off and you have to face every problem again. I found that out at an early age, so I know I won’t get into that situation again. I won’t say that I don’t drink a glass of wine every once in awhile, but I also know that I can’t drink too much. I got tough when I drank and that got me into a lot of trouble, too. I know that I can’t handle it.”
With that background, Travis’ virtual overnight rise to superstardom seems like a Nashville fairytale.
In 1985, he cooked catfish, washed dishes and sang tender ballads at one of the Music City’s numerous restaurant/clubs. A year later, the soft-spoken singer’s debut release, “Storms of Life,” a back-to-country’s-roots album, was on its way to selling 2 million copies.
Travis’ second LP, “Always and Forever,” topped its predecessor’s sales figures and spawned the hit, “Forever and Ever, Amen.”
“It seems amazing that it happened so quickly,” says Travis, speaking by phone last week from his home in tiny Ashland City, Tenn., 25 miles outside of Nashville. “It seems like no time ago that we started working the road. Now, we have 50 people working for us. That’s hard for me to imagine. That’s incredible.”
Before you think that Travis has developed a tractor-sized ego, consider that his home contains none of the more than 40 awards, including a handful of Grammys, that he won in the late ’80s.
“They’re all at my office,” he says. “Truthfully, I don’t have one in the house.”
Travis’ star shines bright enough for him to recruit a who’s who of country performers (from Roy Rogers to Loretta Lynn) to perform duets on his upcoming LP, “Heroes and Friends.” Others who appear on the album include Dolly Parton, Chet Atkins, Willie Nelson, B.B. King and Clint Eastwood.
The LP’s first single, “A Few Old Country Boys,” featuring George Jones, was released Wednesday.
After four straight million-selling albums, Travis realizes his albums can’t maintain such lofty results at the cash register.
“There’s not a lot of pressure to continue (selling a million copies each outing), because I know that nobody can. I can’t think of anyone who has done it. Sooner or later, it’s going to fall off a little bit.”
But Travis knows country fans never forget, and he acknowledges that concertgoers will remain faithful for many years. “People like Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette and Haggard and Jones have been (touring) for 20 or 30 years,” he says.
Fame has its down side, too. Travis, a bachelor, has been fodder for supermarket tabloids, which have linked him romantically with his manager Lib Hatcher, who’s more than 20 years his senior. (“They’re just making things up,” he says.) While eating dinner in a small city recently, a local television news camera crew arrived to film Travis munching on his meal.
Though few things remain unconquered by Travis, he would like to act – his lone appearance to date has been a brief role in the film “Young Guns” – and he hasn’t won the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award, despite the fact that he’s been the favored nominee several times.
Still, he’s performed for President Bush, an unabashed country music buff, on two occasions and received a personal tour of the White House by the president last April.
During the tour, Travis said, “President Bush said, `Let me show you this desk back here. This is where I keep my music collection.′ He opened a drawer, and there was myself, the Oak Ridge Boys, Patsy Cline and all kinds of country music.”