It has been 30 years since Randy Travis released his groundbreaking debut album, Storms of Life, sparking a new traditionalist movement in the format and, according to the radio programmers who spun its singles, profoundly influencing country not just at the time but for decades to come.
Released by Warner Bros. in June 1986, Storms spawned four hits on Hot Country Songs: the No. 1s “On the Other Hand” and “Diggin’ Up Bones,” the No. 2-peaking “No Place Like Home” and the No. 6 “1982.” Its success positioned Travis to scoop up the Country Music Assn.’s Horizon Award that fall. In total, he has enjoyed 16 No. 1s in his career and 14 additional top 10s.
And the songs from Storms are still being spun three decades later. “Diggin’ Up Bones” got 36 spins across all the country stations monitored by Nielsen Music for the week ending June 26. “On the Other Hand” got 31.
In June, Travis was honored with the Country Radio Broadcasters’ Career Achievement Award in Nashville, just a few months before he’s scheduled to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. At the CRB event, fellow country star Josh Turner paid tribute with a medley of five Travis songs, including “Diggin’ Up Bones,” and called Travis a “hero.”
Travis is still fighting his way back from a 2013 stroke that affected his voice and mobility, so his wife, Mary, spoke for him at the CRB event. Calling her spouse a “fighter” and a “warrior” she said, “He lived the songs that he sang … [and] left us a beautiful body of work that will live on forever and ever.”
Country radio programmers heartily agree. “I wouldn’t just say [Storms of Life] changed country music: I’d say it saved country music,” says KRTY San Jose, Calif., PD Julie Stevens.
CBS Radio Detroit vp music programming Tim Roberts calls it “one of the most -important and impactful country albums of all time.
“There’s no question that Storms and those smash singles completely changed country music forever and in a massive, positive way,” says Roberts. “Randy was an international superstar overnight and influenced so many other acts to come afterward, including the class of ’89 with Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Garth [Brooks] and Travis Tritt.”
Programmers who were working in radio at the time clearly remember Travis’ impact and how listeners immediately responded to him. As Stevens recalls, “We were mired in the crap-tastic sound that was Urban Cowboy. That [Travis] album landed on my desk and I couldn’t get it on the air fast enough. George Strait was booked to play the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. The promoter added Randy Travis to that show, and it sold out fast. When he walked out onstage that night, he got a standing ovation. It wasn’t just us programmers who recognized what a godsend this kid was. It was the audience that saw it as well.”
Roberts was working at WPCM Greensboro, N.C., when “On the Other Hand” was climbing the chart and remembers heading to a club gig only to find it so packed he had to park a mile away. When he finally arrived, he discovered to his surprise the overflow crowd was there to see Travis.
“Randy connected immediately with the listener,” says now semi-retired WXBQ Johnson City, Tenn., operations manager Bill Hagy. “People could not get enough of Randy Travis. [But] the interesting thing to me is how well that sound has stood the test of time.”
Scripps Media vp programming Beverlee Brannigan says, “Randy showed up on the music scene at a time when the post-Urban Cowboy phase had swung toward a pop sensibility … Randy’s baritone popped out of the radio speakers with his more traditional approach. He got listeners’ attention because he sounded different … and was fresh, young, handsome and magnetic performing live. It’s no wonder those first singles tested into our gold libraries for years and years.”
“Right in the heart of the mid-’80s down cycle, the country format began to re-energize again on the success of Storms and a fresh, new look,” says WBEE Rochester, N.Y., operations manager Bob Barnett. “An unknown 27-year-old, hatless, clean-shaven, good-looking country singer helped kick the format out of its pop-country love affair down a more organic, pure, traditional path.” Competing labels “redirected A&R efforts to find more artists like Travis,” he says, calling the singer “a game-changer” since his success “reset the path that resulted in the format’s ratings and sales surge of the ’90s.”
“Randy created a tsunami in our country world that every programmer in America benefited from,” agrees WKSJ Mobile, Ala., PD Bill Black. “I vividly remember the first time I sat at my desk and listened to Randy’s first single. After too many years of the Urban Cowboy tunes and homogenized country sound, it was incredibly refreshing to hear honest, from-the-heart country music filled with poignant, clever lyrics.”
“When Randy came along, country music and country radio were in a down period,” recalls radio consultant Joel Raab. “His success with a new traditional sound made what was old new again. Remarkably though, it had a fresh sound that crossed generational appeal.” Fellow radio consultant Alan Sledge says Travis “helped the country music industry — and radio — pivot to what became an explosion of a new country dynasty that began in the early ’90s.”
“There was something new, fresh and exciting about Randy Travis,” says WKLB Boston PD Mike Brophey. “I hadn’t been in country radio too long when Storms came out, but still for me … it represented a break from old-school, household-name country artists and provided a look to the future. Randy’s voice and the strength of the lyrics put very traditional songs on the charts that were new — but belonged.
“I can remember being on the air in Philadelphia singing ‘Diggin’ Up Bones’ at the top of my lungs,” adds Brophey. “It was one of the songs that really allowed me to participate in traditional country music and not feel like I was looking back to the ’60s … He drew attention to the format and appealed to both upper and lower demos.”
But Cumulus Media vp country Charlie Cook remembers that Travis’ success “did not come without a hiccup.” First single “On the Other Hand” famously peaked initially at an inauspicious No. 67. After the success of “1982,” however, it was rereleased and topped the chart. “It might have been because Randy was a 180-degree change from what was on the radio at that time,” says Cook of the initial stiff. “Randy was traditional, and that deep voice was country with a capital C.” But, he adds, once Travis hit his stride, “there was no stopping him, and I believe that he opened so many eyes and ears.”
Three decades later, the legacy of Travis and his debut album live on in the country format, something Brophey says the singer should be very proud of. Adds Barnett, “As a wise man once told me, ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.’ Storms of Life was the road map.”
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.