Travis Tritt on Taking a Decade Off Between Albums & Why His Legacy Is 'Set in Stone'

Travis Tritt
Jeremy Cowart

Travis Tritt

The country star returns Friday with his first album of new music in more than 10 years.

Though he’s never been the type to rest on his considerable laurels, Travis Tritt admits there was a time when recording new music was no longer a priority. Thankfully a conversation with his manager and a meeting with producer Dave Cobb changed his mind.

As a result, Set in Stone, his first album of new music in more than a decade, comes out Friday via Big Noise Music Group.

“I had come to a decision about 12 years ago that I just wanted to really focus on the live performance,” Tritt tells Billboard.  “I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have had enough hit songs to be able to very easily do a two-hour show or longer that is nothing but hits, so I really wanted to focus on that, and did for the last 10 or 12 years.”

Two years ago, Tritt's new manager, Mike “Cheez” Brown, began urging him to return to the studio, telling Tritt, “‘I still think you’ve got a lot of great music still left in you,’” Tritt recalls, and reminding him that older fans may appreciate new music, and fresh tunes could attract new fans. “The more I started thinking about that, the more I started warming up to the idea."

When Brown suggested Tritt work with Cobb, best known for his work with Chris Stapleton, The Oak Ridge Boys, Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell, that sealed the deal. “I just love the sound of his records,” Tritt says. “I was a little apprehensive about recording again because obviously a lot of things have changed in the last 10 or 12 years, but the first thing Dave did was sit me down and said, ‘I go into the studio with a live band. We all sit in the same room and we record live. Not only do I want you to play on the record, but I want to try to get as many of your live vocals while we are recording as possible.’”

That was music to Tritt’s ears. “That really put my mind at ease because that’s exactly the way that I’ve been doing my entire career, from the time I first started back in the late ’80s.”

As a member of country music’s famed Class of ’89, which also included Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Alan Jackson, Tritt burst on the charts that year with the Hot Country Songs top 10 tune “Country Club” and proceeded to dominate country radio in the '90s with such hits as “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares),” “I’m Gonna Be Somebody,” “Help Me Hold On,” “Anymore,” “Can I Trust You With My Heart” and “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive.” Over the years, Tritt has won two Grammy Awards and four CMA Awards and has been inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Among his 11 studio albums, seven have been certified platinum or higher.

“I’m just at that point right now where I’m extremely happy about the career that I’ve had and obviously the fact that it’s lasted this long,” he says, “but I’m also excited about the fact that I still have the opportunity to record new music, write new music. I still have things to say.”

Set in Stone combines the boisterous country rock Tritt has always been known for on such songs as “Stand Your Ground” and “Ghost Town Nation,” as well as tender love songs like “Leave This World” and the poignant title track, which Tritt wrote with Brent Cobb and Adam Hood. “Brent said, ‘I was thinking about your legacy and, as far as I’m concerned, you don’t have anything left to prove to anybody. … Your legacy is pretty much set in stone,’” Tritt recalls Cobb saying.

However, in writing the song, they wanted the lyric to be more universal. “We were thinking about it from the standpoint of everyday ordinary people, anybody that can look back over their life and find something that they did or created that they are proud of,” Tritt says. “It could be something as simple as raising [and providing for] a family to starting a business to keeping up the family farm or whatever it may be.”

Tritt also thought the song, like the rest of his music, would solidly appeal to his core: “Most of the people that I hang out with are blue-collar, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth type people. My music has always been primarily for those people because those are the ones that I have a relationship with. We make mistakes. We look for redemption. We look for forgiveness and we struggle with all those different things, the ups and downs of life. That’s what makes a great song and certainly what makes a great country song.”

Tritt co-wrote eight of the 11 songs on the new album, although current single, “Smoke in a Bar,” is an outside tune, penned by Jeremy Bussey, Derek George and Tim Montana.

When asked about his hopes for the nostalgic song at radio, Tritt is realistic. “We welcome any opportunities we get to have that music played on radio, but it doesn’t really make sense for me to try to chase that at this particular point in my career,” he says. “I basically am trying to do what I’ve always done, which is get my music out to as many people as I possibly can, and in these days, that seems to be done primarily through your streaming services. … The good news is if the streaming services are having success with it, that seems to effect a lot of radio people as well.”

Tritt admits his career long ago exceeded his expectations. “I was different. Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Clint Black, those guys had a very clean-cut image and they all wore cowboy hats,” he says. “I was dressed in leather like a biker and I had long hair. I looked like somebody that was playing Allman Brothers music or Lynyrd Skynyrd, which I was, in addition to straight-ahead country.”

Yet he was embraced by fans, country icons like Roy Acuff who championed his induction into the Grand Ole Opry and even legendary rockers like the Eagles, who reunited for the first time in more than a decade in 1994 to join Tritt in the video for “Take It Easy,” his contribution to the CMA Award-winning tribute album Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles.

Though Tritt often caught flak early in his career for being unconventional, Waylon Jennings gave him advice that served him well, especially after his first label tried to change him. “He said, ‘All those people that are saying these things to you, they get their music for free. The people that should really count are the people that work hard, 40, 50, 60 hours a week to put food on the table for their families and put a roof over their heads. Those people are willing to spend a little bit of that money to go out and buy your music and occasionally even splurge for a concert ticket when you come close to their town. Those are the people that matter.’”

That long-ago conversation provided inspiration for the opening track on the new album, “Stand Your Ground.” “Waylon said, ‘Your audience will tell you what they will and will not accept [and] that’s the only thing you should trust. If you will follow them and follow your heart,’ he said, ‘you’ll have a career in this business for as long as you want one,’” Tritt recalls. “Taking that advice was probably one of the most important lessons that I learned. I don’t know if I would be where I am today without that advice.”

Tritt is happy to pass along what he’s learned and enjoys collaborating with other acts. He recently appeared on Dierks Bentley’s Hot Country Knights single “Pick Her Up” and with The Cadillac Three on “Hard Out Here for a Country Boy.” He’s also featured on Cory Marks’ “Outlaws and Outsiders” along with Motley Crue’s Mick Mars and Five Finger Death Punch’s Ivan Moody.

“I just love the song and the win for me is, first of all, not only do I get to collaborate with other people and get to be a part of something that I might not have had the opportunity to do any other way, but I also get a chance to kind of tap into their audiences as well.”

Over the years, Tritt has collaborated with Ray Charles, Patti LaBelle, David Lee Roth, Buddy Guy, Charley Pride and George Jones, among others. “If it’s a great song, that’s the No. 1 thing for me, and then if you get an opportunity to work with somebody that is just one of your heroes or one of the people that you really admire, that’s just a win/win across the board.”