Randy Travis: An Old Recording Invites a New Examination Of a Classic Country Voice

Randy Travis
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Randy Travis attends Jesus Calling Presents Conversations with Randy and Mary Travis and Ken Abraham at Music City Center during 2019 CMA Music Festival on June 7, 2019 in Nashville, Tenn.

The tone is rich and reedy, the delivery is steady and understated, and the emotion is convincingly resigned.

The voice of Country Music Hall of Fame member Randy Travis was cruelly silenced by a stroke in July 2013, but his trademark, full-bodied sound has resurfaced on a previously unreleased performance. "Fool's Love Affair," a demo that was seemingly lost to the dustbins of history, is expected to receive wide media attention on July 29 as the business honors the 35th anniversary of his debut single, "On the Other Hand," released in July 1985. Radio heavyweights Cumulus, Townsquare, iHeartMedia, Entercom and SiriusXM are expected to play the new song, along with Apple Music and Spotify. (Find it here at midnight Tuesday.) A range of media outlets have stories planned, and several acts — including Garth Brooks, Midland and Craig Morgan — will spotlight Travis on social media.

A first listen to the newly unearthed track is jarring. Arriving in an era when country productions are much more layered and complicated, "Fool's Love Affair" is simple, almost regal in its presentation, appropriately reminding the listener of the full depth of Travis' expressive baritone. It's familiar through a litany of existing classics — including "Forever and Ever, Amen," "Deeper Than the Holler" and, of course, "On the Other Hand" — though hearing Travis in the context of a newly unveiled song brings fresh perspective to his singular voice.

"Thank you to Charlie Monk," says Travis' wife, Mary Travis, in a Zoom conversation with her husband by her side. He frequently nods, affirming that she is speaking correctly on his behalf. Monk's "perseverance has been beautiful," she adds.

Monk, a SiriusXM host who is often referred to as the "mayor of Music Row," was a music publisher during much of his career, and he signed Travis to a songwriting deal with his independent publishing company, Monk Family Music, during the early 1980s.

Monk cowrote "Fool's Love Affair" with Keith Stegall ("Don't Rock the Jukebox," "We're in This Love Together") and Milton Brown ("Every Which Way but Loose," "Bar Room Buddies"), and enlisted Travis to sing on the demo. Travis remembers the song, but has no recollection of the session, which likely occurred in '83 or '84, just months before he signed with Warner Bros. and recorded "On the Other Hand." His recording of "Fool's Love Affair" always stood out to Monk among the other hastily recorded demos.

"When you hear it, it's that authentic Randy Travis singing an authentic country song," says Monk. "Everything about it is exactly what everybody loved about his sound."

Monk periodically played a hissy cassette version of "Fool's Love Affair" on his SiriusXM show through the years, though that copy was unsuitable for recording purposes. When Monk was cleaning his offices in 2019, he found the original multitrack master tape in a box, and Travis' original producer, Kyle Lehning (Dan Seals, Bryan White), agreed to isolate Travis' voice and record new tracks around it. The presentation is eerily similar to the sound they achieved on "I Told You So" and "Diggin' Up Bones."

"My secret to Randy's voice was that I always made his vocal the loudest thing on the record," says Lehning. "I figured that's why they were going to buy the record. They weren't going to buy it because I had come up with some great electric guitar sound in the background, you know? It was his voice that was the attractive quality and what he was saying."

Travis said it differently in that era. Following a country spike led by the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy, the industry lasered in on songs with crossover potential, so much so that The New York Times declared in a front-page September 1985 story that traditional country was dead. "On the Other Hand" had not, at that point, gained commercial traction. In fact, it was another song, the midtempo "1982," that broke Travis before a reissue of "On the Other Hand" climbed to No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart in 1986.

Subsequently, four of his albums went multiplatinum, defying a belief that artists rooted in classic country would not sell. Travis suddenly became the leader of a New Traditionalist movement that also included the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Keith Whitley and Patty Loveless.

Part of Travis' charm was the decency of the music. "Fool's Love Affair," a ballad about weekly infidelity, contrasts with the bulk of the songs that brought him to an industry peak. "Forever and Ever, Amen," "He Walked on Water," "Three Wooden Crosses" and "Spirit of a Boy, Wisdom of a Man" invariably celebrated love, family and/or faith. Even "On the Other Hand," which finds the singer at the crossroads of temptation, ends with the man staying true to his vows. Travis essentially adapted the sound of traditional country while playing down the cheatin' and drinkin' themes that dominated previous incarnations.

"That's what he enjoyed," says Mary, with Travis nodding in agreement. "The good in life, the right in life, the way things should be, that's Randy's heart. And that's what he sang about, for the most part: good, positive love songs."

Many of the genre's current acts cite 1990s country as a key part of their inspiration, including Chris Young, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Justin Moore. And some of those '90s acts — particularly Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Ricky Van Shelton — owe at least a partial debt to Travis' demonstration that country could be big business.

"There were a lot of records being sold at that time," recalls Lehning. "And then here comes Garth, and good Lord, you know how he blew up. It was a pretty exciting time through there. Everybody that came in the '90s was standing on the shoulders of that collective success."

"Fool's Love Affair" reminds us, for a moment at least, of how Travis' honest, unassuming voice served as a key catalyst for country's growth.

"One night when we got him on the Grand Ole Opry, I watched him, and I thought, ‘You know, if he never gets any farther, this will thrill him to death,' " recalls Monk. "If Randy Travis had never become a star, he'd still be at the Nashville Palace singing country songs. 'Cause that's it. He liked those people that liked that sound."

"Fool's Love Affair" will give the country business, and its fans, a refreshing reminder on July 29.

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.

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