August 31, 1985: If you looked at the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart that week, you would see the first appearance of the name 'Randy Travis' with "On The Other Hand."
A traditional country ballad in the style of George Jones and Merle Haggard, the song went very much against what was in vogue on the airwaves at that point – a more polished, pop-focused sound. The odds were stacked against the single making it – and indeed, the song only hit No. 67. However, his next release, "1982," hit the charts the final week of the year – and became a top 10 hit, paving the way for the re-release of that initial Warner Brothers single, which topped the chart. The performance netted a CMA Song of the Year prize for writers Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet. The song also sent Travis' career into the stratosphere. Not bad for an artist who had the odds stacked against him.
In late 2002, it had been a few years since the singer had entered the Billboard Hot Country Songs top 10. By this time, the Grand Ole Opry member was concentrating on recording Gospel-oriented music, so the chances of his just-released inspirational track "Three Wooden Crosses" making it in the secular field were not very good. However, Travis hit the promotional trail with the zest and tenacity of a newcomer, and on May 24, 2003 he was rewarded with his first Hot Country Songs No. 1 in close to a decade. And, once again, his performance helped to win a CMA Song of the Year prize for composers Kim Williams and Doug Johnson. Again, it was a success that nobody thought possible.
However, the singer's biggest battle lay ahead of him. In July 2013, the singer found himself lying in a Texas hospital room fighting for his life as a result of a stroke. Doctors advised the singer's then-fiancee Mary Davis that things looked dire, and his chances of survival – let alone any type of recovery – were not good. Once again, the deck of cards was stacked against the North Carolina native. Once again, he would defy them.
Four years ago this month, the singer returned to his home after being in the hospital for several months. Billboard caught up with Travis and his wife Mary to talk about the road the couple have traveled together and what they continue to face. The singer's speech is still extremely limited, but there have been significant inroads – with his appearance at the 2016 Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony (where he performed a portion of "Amazing Grace") and at the 50th Annual Country Music Association Awards the next week, where he participated by performing the last line from "Forever and Ever, Amen."
His wife Mary says that it has been a long road – with many emotional twists and turns, but they are grateful for the prayers and support they have received. "We're blessed. We're happy to be where we are. We don't know what God has in store for us at the end of this recovery. Right now, we're just thankful to be where we are, and we're singing a different song. We're happy to serve a purpose wherever there is a purpose for us to serve. Of course, one day he would love to be back up on that stage. Right now, we're just enjoying life, and are very blessed to be where we are."
When asked about his memories of the hospital, Mary says she has tried to keep jogging his memory – however, she adds that perhaps some things are better left forgotten. "I asked him that throughout the five and a half months that we were in the hospital. I'll ask him things like if he remembers when Merle Haggard came to visit him," to which Travis simply replied "No." Mary adds that was very understandable, considering Travis was in a coma or semi-coma much of that time. "There were numerous surgeries – at one point, he had 38 different IVs hanging out of him. I think it's actually God's grace that keeps you from remembering things like that," she reflected.
"He did remember leaving the hospital in November of 2013, and we were leaving Baylor-Dallas, and it was the first day they let me take him by myself in a wheelchair, and we were headed home. It was a few days before Thanksgiving. It was just the two of us, and he had a bag of clothes in his lap. We were about to leave the hospital, and he throws his hands up in the air, and goes 'Ooh Wee,'" she says with a smile. While Mary shares this, Travis chuckles at the story.
Though he was out of the hospital, the Travis family still faced a difficult path. "There were so many functions of the body that were devastated by the Viral Cardiomyopathy that took his heart down to five percent. The memory was affected. The vision was affected, as well as his mobility and his appetite. Little by little, all of that kept coming back. Every time it did, it was monumental. There are just so many incredible things to be thankful for," she says gratefully.
Once again, the odds weren't in the couple's favor for recovery, but their faith never wavered. "I never did give up," she said. "I prayed 'God, just give him to me one more day. I don't care how you give him back to me. Just give him back to me.' With Randy's faith, I don't think he ever felt like he couldn't make some kind of recuperation. I can only imagine the thoughts, the prayers, the conversations, he must have had while lying there with God. I don't believe he ever felt like he couldn't make some sort of a comeback. He's so strong in his mindset. There was never another option. We weren't ever ready – and we're still not ready to give up. The doctors' reports were very bleak, and they wanted us to pull the plug. They said that he needed a heart transplant, and all of these other things. It's hard to believe that any one human being could live through it, but if there's anybody who can, Randy Travis can. He's tough as a boot, and as sweet as an angel."
His 2016 re-appearances on the stage in Nashville at the Hall of Fame ceremony and the CMA Awards were both moments the couple worked hard to make happen, a further testament to his strength. "At the Medallion Ceremony, nobody but the two of us knew that he was going to sing 'Amazing Grace.' He hadn't told anyone, and it was something that we had worked on in therapy, in the car, and at the house. That was a very special moment in time. Putting that microphone in his hand, it was just like he came full circle. He knew exactly what to do. He knew what key it was in, where to start – it had all been so ingrained in him. At the CMAs the next week, with the direction and the creativity the CMA had put in place for the 50th Anniversary, honoring Randy like that meant so much to him." How did Travis feel about those moments? He softly -- though swiftly -- replied, "I felt love, and it was good."
Last year, Travis returned to the recording studio, helping to produce Where I'm Comin' From, an album from newcomer Shane Owens. Mary says that seeing her husband in his natural creative element was a feeling she will never forget.
"Just seeing him sit down at that board, to listen, and to know everything that was going on was amazing. If there is one chord missed, or one note flat or sharp, he perks up and tilts his head – he gets it. He knows everything that is going on in the studio. His ear is so fine-tuned, and I enjoy getting to watch him respond to all of that. We just adore Shane, and enjoyed going into the studio. He's such a fine young man, and so much of an upstanding Christian person. He's also very much traditional country, and it was an honor to be asked to come in and serve a purpose. That's something that Randy enjoys doing, and he certainly has an ear for it. If anyone has anything for someone to do with a fine-tuned ear, he's here." Randy agreed with her words, adding that, "I enjoyed that a lot. It was a lot of fun."
Travis is currently working with Ken Abraham on a book about his life and career, which Mary has found to be an experience that he has thrown himself into. "I've seen Randy become very intrigued while going back in his life, and re-living everything from his early childhood and music in his house to moving to Nashville. There's also the heroes and friends that he met along the way. I told Ken that Randy had already written his life story, though not on paper. Everyone who knows Randy knows he has had a colorful life. He's had a tough life at times, but also a beautiful life." And, thankfully, that life continues – spitting in the face of all the odds. "We're just thankful for life," says Mary, before pausing to say, "it could have been so different."