Randy Travis’ new record, High Lonesome, should do for his career what Travis did for the country music industry five years ago. In 1985, a year before Travis’ debut album, country music was more than just sick and ailing — it was down on its side and gasping for breath, a death rattle poised in its throat. The pop-influenced ”urban cowboy” boom of 1980 had moved on, leaving a trail of dreadful country-pop schlock and plummeting record sales. So the cry went out for a new traditionalist — someone who would revive the no-frills, hard country sound. And it was Randy Travis, with his glass- rattling baritone, his gift for emotional resonance, and his big three signature songs (”Forever and Ever, Amen,” ”Diggin’ Up Bones,” and ”On the Other Hand”), who, in 1986, caught the public’s fancy as the man who would carry on the traditional styles of George Jones and Merle Haggard and become the new standard-bearer.
Trouble is, Travis also made room for a host of competitors, among them Garth Brooks and Clint Black, who emerged in the last two years and immediately began to surpass Travis at the awards shows and in record stores. Travis wasn’t even nominated for the Country Music Association’s Best Male Vocalist award last year, and his last two albums, 1989’s No Holdin’ Back and last year’s Heroes and Friends — a shoddy collection of duets — showed him to be short on striking songs and confused about what move to make next.
High Lonesome should recoup some of his stature. The album even seems like a second debut, since it reveals a singer who is also a fine country songwriter, something Travis only hinted at on his earlier records. Yet Travis and the rest of the songwriters who contribute here (including Alan Jackson, whose flair for juke-joint melody and self-parodying wit makes him a perfect complement to Travis’ earnest intensity) know that as much as their sound is rooted in the age-old honky-tonk, where drinking, cheating, and carousing once ruled the day, the heroes of their songs must live in the abstinent 1990s, with a heightened sense of political correctness. There are no get-down-and-get-drunk tunes here, and not many signs of other vices, either. In the age of AIDS, ”Forever Together” celebrates two lovers’ eternal pledge of faithfulness, while ”Heart of Hearts” puts the kibosh on unsanctioned pleasures of the flesh ”’cuz it don’t feel right.” Heck, country music — once the nearly exclusive claim of the Democratic workingman — even goes Republican on ”Point of Light,” a deliberate promotion of President Bush and his rhetoric of, in the words of the song, a ”dedicated army of quiet volunteers.”
Still, even if his songs relate more to a shopping mall society than they do to generations of farmers and factory workers, Travis’ repertoire of Western swing, bluegrass, ballads, gospel, and rhythm numbers is still reverently laced with guitars and fiddles, not synthesizers and strings. And Travis — who never sounded so relaxed or so confident — wraps a proper twang around the lyrics. Country may have moseyed out to the suburbs, but Travis, even better than his fresh-faced competitors, correctly surmises that heartbreak is just as real there as anywhere else. High lonesome knows no boundaries, after all. A-