The recovery road’s been a rocky one for Randy Travis, who had a stroke in 2013, making for one of the more gripping real-life dramas country music has ever offered.
The cliffhanger began taking an upward turn in recent months, as Travis appeared on the CMA Awards and accepted induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, singing as much as his post-stroke limitations would allow. Those few notes have brought hope for more to come, and for now, that’s enough.
If anyone needed proof of the legions who’ve been faithfully watching, praying, and cheering the modern-day country legend on during his lengthy convalescence, it arrived Wednesday night (Feb. 8) at A Heroes and Friends Tribute to Randy Travis. Roughly three dozen of Travis’ country colleagues honored him in front of the capacity crowd at the Bridgestone Arena.
While the evening was in every way a mass celebration of the star’s odds-beating survival and return to public life, it was just as much a testament to the near-incalculable impact Travis and his body of work have left on the country music industry.
After a pre-show press conference with Travis and his wife/spokesperson, Mary, the two were the first notables to take their places on the Bridgestone stage, where Travis’ longtime touring band was primed and ready for more than three hours’ worth of music spanning the deep-voiced singer’s influential and award-winning career. With a lineup of talent representing 40 years of country music, highlights were plentiful.
But no one who stepped out onto the Bridgestone boards was there for his/her glory. The point is that the country music community is a family (as guest performer Collin Raye so correctly put it backstage before showtime), and members of a family turn up when the occasion calls them to, as both Randy Travis’ illness and reemergence have done.
Travis’ familiar square jaw was frequently elevated by wide grins, his eyes gleaming and his knees moving to and fro almost continuously in enthusiastic response to the smorgasbord of song, love and respect being served onstage. The reason for the evening’s event resulted in a level playing field on which newcomers, superstars and everyone in between played as a team. This cross-section nicely suited the all-ages crowd, which was hardly laden with the older set. Indeed, the audience was as deafening and quick to its feet for Chris Janson as for Kenny Rogers, pointing to Travis’ multi-generational effect on the whole of country music.
Rogers was one of few who departed from covering past Travis hits and the only performer allowed two numbers, the second of which was his career-revving “The Gambler.” The other, “Love Lifted Me,” symbolized the collective concern and affection of fans and stars alike, knit into a giant net of support that Travis would likely agree aided him through the darker times.
Travis’ own hit “Point of Light,” performed by Raye, served a similar function, as did Alabama’s “Angels Among Us.” When Jamey Johnson stepped into the spotlight assisted only by a small vocal group for an otherwise solo guitar/vocal rendition of “Promises,” he was in fact reprising the role he had played at a still-comatose Travis’ bedside, as Mary Travis explained to media backstage.
Fittingly, given Travis’ well-publicized Christian faith, a three-song gospel music segment formed a centerpiece that bridged the show’s first and second halves, with a Grand Ole Opry contingent on hand to congratulate one of their own. Jeannie Seely, John Conlee, Jan Howard, Riders in the Sky, Dailey & Vincent and Rudy Gatlin gathered to lead the crowd in “I’ll Fly Away,” while the second half’s music recommenced with devotional songs from Michael W. Smith and Neal McCoy.
“I’m looking at you, and I’m looking at a miracle,” Smith told Travis as he explained his choice of a contemporary worship song (“Sovereign Over Us”) carrying appropriate sentiments such as “Even in the valley, You are faithful.” Seated at a grand piano, Smith began his short time slot by admitting “there’s no way I’m going to sound like Randy Travis.” Perhaps he pointed it out because there were so many singers in the lineup who did evoke the guest of honor.
A handful of distinctive originals―the Bellamy Brothers, Alabama, Ben Haggard (sounding almost eerily like father Merle), Kenny Rogers, Travis Tritt and Garth Brooks, who sang the legend’s biggest hit, “Forever and Ever Amen,” (with Travis himself singing the last “amen”) among them―sidestepped the obvious Travis-isms, as of course did female guests Alison Krauss, Tanya Tucker and Wynonna. Elsewhere, though, among the cavalcade of memorable Travis hits it became increasingly obvious how many of the night’s younger acts had in some way emulated Randy Travis―whether in vocal style, demeanor, traditional-leaning song preferences or stylistic integrity.
Co-host Storme Warren noted it to the crowd after Joe Nichols’ particularly resonant reading of “Storms of Life,” but his comment would have been just as fitting for Kane Brown, Travis disciple Josh Turner and protégé Shane Owens, Scotty McCreery, Chris Young or William Michael Morgan, who knocked one out of the park with “Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart.”
Video greetings popped up from the likes of Carrie Underwood and Charlie Daniels, while Jeff Foxworthy riffed hilariously on his battle with kidney stones. Travis’ older brother Ricky did him proud with a tune and local government notables and a Warner Bros. Records representative stepped onstage to dispense various honors and keepsakes. However, the under-sung heroes of the show must be singled out.
While stage announcers and a couple of performers did introduce and call attention to The Randy Travis Band, the group deserves special mention as the musical force that powered the celebrity-studded concert from start to finish. This handful of musicians made themselves known in the most exemplary way, playing not only adeptly but often brilliantly, sending out sparks and spirit that solidified the joy of the occasion.
The musical muscle and unity transmitted by The Randy Travis Band was an inspiration―not least of all to Travis himself, who had to be as pleased to hear these men playing together again as the musicians themselves were pleased to supply the beating heart for an arena-sized love-fest dedicated to their longtime chief.
In fact, it would be impossible to determine whether it was the special guests, the band, the audience or Randy and Mary Travis who enjoyed the night the most. As country family reunions go, this was one for the books―and one that turned a stroke into a stroke of inspiration.