Long road traveled: Randy Travis looks back on 25 years
Shooting Star Casino, Hotel & Event Center in Mahnomen will be wrapping up its star-studded, month-long 20th anniversary celebration this weekend with a concert by Grammy Award-winning country superstar Randy Travis.
Travis, who is celebrating a special anniversary of his own next month -- his 25th year in the music business -- will be performing live at the Shooting Star this Friday at 8 p.m.
As he prepared to take the stage in Mahnomen this weekend, Travis waxed nostalgic about his early years as a musician.
"Twenty-five years ago, I signed with Warner Brothers," Travis said in a telephone interview on Monday.
Signing that first recording contract was a watershed moment for Travis, who began playing guitar when he was just eight years old.
"My mom and dad had six children, and every one of them learned to sing and play (an instrument)," he said. "My dad loved music -- my gosh, he loved music so much, it really wasn't like it was a question.
"He just handed me a guitar and said, 'You start taking music lessons.' It was more like an order (than a question)," he added.
Fortunately, the young Randy Travis took to singing and playing guitar like a duck to water. By the time he was 10 years old, he and his brother Ricky had formed a musical duo and were playing gigs in VFW halls, at square dances and anywhere else they could find near their North Carolina home.
"I was playing in nightclubs by the time I was 14," Travis said. "I decided early on that I wanted to make a living in this business."
But after Travis left home at a young age to do just that, he found the life of a working musician to be a struggle at times. He spent several years in Charlotte, N.C., working and singing at bars, and even won a talent contest there, at Country City, U.S.A. -- a popular bar owned by Lib Hatcher, who would later become his manager.
He continued to work at bars owned by Hatcher, first in Charlotte, and later in Nashville, until eventually landing the contract with Warner Brothers in 1985. But not without a few rejections along the way.
"I got turned down by every (record) label there was, for about 10 years," he said. "They said I was too country."
Travis entered the music business in what he referred to as the 'Urban Cowboy' era, when country artists were moving toward a more pop music-oriented sound.
But by the time he signed with Warner Brothers, there had been another shift, back toward more traditional country. His debut album, "Storms of Life," was released on June 6, 1986, and went on to sell more than 3 million copies, earning triple platinum status.
In the quarter century since that album's release, Travis has charted an astounding 18 No. 1 singles and a total of 29 songs that charted in the top 10. He has also earned seven Grammy Awards, 10 American Music Awards and 10 Academy of Country Music statues.
He has recorded a total of 20 albums, eight of which have achieved platinum status, two double platinum, one triple platinum and another quintuple platinum (5 million units sold). His lifetime album sales exceed 20 million.
When he started in the music business, Travis says, selling 250,000 albums was considered a success.
"Today, they'll drop you (for selling such a low number)," Travis said.
But these days, physical CDs are becoming an obsolete method of distributing music -- today, it's all about the downloads, which Travis says can be a double-edged sword.
"There are still stores carrying CDs, obviously, but the downloads outweigh that by quite a bit now," he said. "I think it's a good thing -- when you don't have illegal downloads to contend with.
"You can move a lot of product (by offering music downloads online), but there has been quite a bit of illegal downloading, and the people who are getting hurt by that are the songwriters," he added.
Travis has a special affection for songwriters, because he has been one himself -- having worked with collaborators including fellow country superstar Alan Jackson.
"I'm a sporadic writer," he said. "I do enjoy doing it though. I have a group of guys I've written with over the years, and there's a chemistry you have with one person that for some reason just won't be there with someone else."
His collaboration with Jackson was one of those successful partnerships.
"We wrote 11 songs together, including three number ones," Travis said. "We just had that chemistry together when we were writing. Alan's a traditionalist, right down to the core."
Much like Travis himself, who says he was just one of those "people who grew up loving country music."
When it came to putting together his 25th anniversary music compilation, Travis naturally asked Jackson to sing on a couple of tracks with him -- but he also brought together a pretty eclectic group of musicians and singers to work with him on the retrospective.
The list of artists appearing on Travis's "Anniversary Celebration" CD reads like a "who's who" of country music, including not only Jackson but Shelby Lynne, John Anderson, Gene Watson, Joe Stampley, Lorrie Morgan, Connie Smith, Brad Paisley, Kenney Chesney, Tim McGraw, Josh Turner, James Otto, Jamey Johnson, Carrie Underwood and the Zac Brown Band.
But there are also a few enjoyable surprises, including Eagles' front man Don Henley; Broadway superstar Kristin Chenoweth; and Irish tenor Eamonn McCrystal.
"There were a lot of wonderful guests on this album," Travis said.
Aside from Henley and Paisley, who had to record their tracks separately, "We were all in the studio, recording it together, and we just had so much fun."
In addition to his singing career, Travis has made more than 40 appearances in feature films and television shows, earning him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
After his 25th anniversary tour concludes -- "we have dates booked until the second week of December," he says -- one of Travis's possible upcoming projects includes another movie, to be filmed in Canada.
So what does he enjoy the most? It's all fun, Travis says -- although some days are more fun than others. Songwriting, in particular, can have its ups and downs.
"Some days, it seems like it's a gift that's been given to you, and some days, nothing comes at all," he said. "But I love writing, and the studio work is always fun."
Ultimately, however, "what we do on stage before a live audience is the most fun I'll ever have," Travis said.
Fans at the Shooting Star this Friday won't be disappointed in what they hear -- Travis believes in giving the audience what it wants, which is to hear the hits that have made him a household name.
"Through most of the show, I stick to playing those things that people are going to expect to hear," he said. "And we'll do a few things that maybe aren't quite hits yet."
Songs like "More Life," which is Travis's latest single -- recorded with the aforementioned Don Henley singing harmony.
Though he collaborated with a lot of different artists on his 25th anniversary CD, Travis said that the musicians he travels with on his tours haven't changed much at all over the years.
"I travel with seven musicians -- lead guitar, two rhythm guitars, a bass, piano and drums," he said. "I'm number eight."
One of them he's been working with for "34 years and counting," and even the "short timer" in the group has been with him for 10 years, Travis said.
"We're pretty comfortable working together on stage," he added. "They're all good people. It truly is like a family. When you look at that many people traveling together on the road, and you get along as well as we do, it's pretty wonderful."
Tickets for Friday's show at the Shooting Star start at $20, and can be ordered online at www.starcasino.com, by telephone at 800-313-7469, or at the casino box office, 777 Casino Road, Mahnomen.
After the show, concert attendees will have a chance to win one of ten $100 cash drawings, or a guitar autographed by Travis himself. Call the casino for more information.