Randy Travis is a steadfast neo-traditionalist who came up through the ranks with a stinging honesty in his voice and an absolute inability to do anything other than pour out his Honky Tonk soul. Now, on his first studio album since 2008, Randy pays tribute to the musical greats that came before him with a collection of covers ranging from Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb on through to Johnny Cash and George Jones.
Influence Vol. 1: The Man I Am, available now, is about the artists and music Randy counts as his own personal influences. With traditional arrangements full of acoustic guitars, pedal steel, dobro and fiddle, Randy takes on a series of classics that are at times charming and at other times heartbroken. The oft-covered standard “Trouble In Mind,” burns slow with a jazz-driven backdrop and a nasally drawl steeped in cold self-destruction while the sharp-tongued “Thanks A Lot,” from Ernest Tubb’s 1964 album by the same name, provides an unforgiving account of the wrongs. Randy’s voice can be calculating and pointed, as they are in these two, or optimistic and easy as on the great countrypolitan track “Pennies From Heaven.” Here it’s a silver lining as Randy sings, make sure your umbrella is upside down, when the rain starts.
Randy picks lyrical gems for this project that showcase the great power of wordplay. “Pennies From Heaven” is a fine example, but so too are songs like the Western Swing “Big Butter and Egg Man” or the Merle Haggard-penned “I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall.” The former comes off as initially playful but is really about a lonely woman who doesn’t want her new man to leave her in the morning. “What Have You Got Planned For Us Tonight Diana” mixes spoken word verses into a story song set in the unrelenting Alaskan frontier while Lefty Frizzell’s 1963 hit “Saginaw, Michigan” uses that same frontier to dupe a father into letting his daughter marry. Entertaining rhymes that come by way of fisherman and Michigan allow him a chance to show off excellent timing and a quick sense of humor.
Randy’s bass-baritone carries an authentic, lived-in quality throughout the set. He strolls through the piano-laced “My Mary,” hinting at the underlying blues as fiddles echo his melodies. His voice is strong and steady on “Ever-Changing Woman” even as his complicated woman changes like the seasons. So I always wear a t-shirt and a jacket/just in case that woman’s running hot or cold, he sings with gentle acceptance. And on the Waylon Jennings/Billy Joe Shaver tune “You Asked Me To,” Randy defiantly struts to an outlaw thump.
Influence Vol. 1 carries a special tribute to the late George Jones. Not only does Randy include George’s iconic 1955 hit “Why Baby Why,” but he also delivers “Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum” (written by Texan Keith Gattis) with guest Joe Nichols. The direct intention of this hard country tune makes for a solid finale as Randy lets fans in on the music that made him want to stand up and sing.
Key Tracks – “What Have You Got Planned For Us Diana,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Trouble In Mind,” “You Asked Me To”