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The Boston Phoenix Nashville Slugger

Randy Travis soldiers on.

By Franklin Soults

MAY 11, 1998:  It makes sense that the first country artist signed to DreamWorks, the mega-entertainment corporation put together with much fanfare by Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg, and David Geffen, would be none other than longtime country institution Randy Travis. DreamWorks, after all, is about the power of name-brand cross-promotion, and Travis has about as much name recognition as any country artist under 40, not counting, of course, the untouchable Garth Brooks -- a phenomenon who walks an Olympian Hall of Fame known to few mortals. Travis has also done quite a bit of cross-promotion, having worked hard at an acting career since 1994, an effort that culminates this month in a co-starring role with his pal Patrick Swayze in the Universal picture Black Dog (see "Trailers," on page 9). In a small bid to tie it all together, he even kicked off the release of his DreamWorks debut, You and You Alone, by recording a live acoustic showcase for radio at the Universal Studios Theme Park in Hollywood.

At first glance, then, the whole deal might seem just another instance of rich and powerful players accruing more power and riches for themselves. But look closer at this picture and you may detect a surprising hint of unsightly need. Travis was available in the first place because he'd left Warner Bros. last year, after his fruitful, 11-year relationship with the company had mired in sagging sales: his last Warner's album, Full Circle (1996), didn't score a single Top 10 hit. True, his acting ventures had taken a toll on his music revenues, but there was a definite sense in the air that he and Nashville had had enough of each other. The "new country" represented by Brooks and a slew of lesser pop-and-rock-minded performers had left neo-traditionalists like Travis sounding staid if not stale -- an ironic position when you consider how much they did in the late '80s to reinvigorate country.

And yet -- another irony -- it now seems that Nashville needs stalwart stars like Travis to save new country from itself. After years of incredible growth, the genre's sales have plateau'd while its biggest stars have betrayed the fold by bleeding dry the distinction between country and pop to advance their careers beyond the limited reach of the Grand Ole Opry. If Travis needs to save his career, country needs to save its center. And DreamWorks, true to its name, has the capital to help both wishes come true.

The company certainly invested it in the right place first: the music. The album is far from Randy's best -- it falters midway through with the power ballad to home and hearth, "I Did My Part" ("Build a family! Build a city! Build a country!"), a Spielbergian embarrassment from which the set never fully recovers. But by and large the material is carefully chosen and crafted to join Randy's neo-trad image with the larger pop-rock whomp of new country. Despite his purebred image, Travis has actually been moving in this direction for years, and I don't hear any radical change in the new disc's full-bodied attack. I just feel relief at hearing a familiar and friendly voice being given the support to sing out as strongly as he can.

That's exactly what I'm supposed to hear, of course, but it's a bit of a surprise nonetheless. Although I loved Randy's late-'80s peers, from the self-effacing Clint Black to the self-made Dwight Yoakam, I found it hard to get excited about the warm and sleepy drawl of a stolid, unprepossessing pro whose notion of "traditionalism" jibed so easily with the Reagan/Bush program of Family Über Alles. I even took a perverse pleasure in seeing his handsome mug finally stomped under the invading boot heel of Garth the Barbarian back in '91.

Yet seven years later the slow stream of hits finally makes Travis sound like the worthy descendant of stolid, unprepossessing pros like the great Lefty Frizzell, the honorable Ray Price, and even creaky ol' Ernest Tubb -- pros who might spend half an hour just lowering your defenses only to knock you over with a perfectly turned phrase or unexpected melodic twist somewhere deep in their set. First there was the solid, winning weight of Travis's double Greatest Hits volumes in '92. Then there was his stunning performance of "King of the Road" on The Tonight Show some months back, as memorable a moment in TV music as I've seen in ages. Now there's the slamming weeper "Out of My Bones" (his highest-placing single in years), the grand hyperbole of "Only Worse" ("It's like clinging to the bottom of the bottom when the bottom drops out"), the simple truisms of "I'm Still Here, You're Still Gone." Bet he hopes to sing that one to Garth some day. Why not? He's already rounded up the posse.

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