June 19, 2008

Randy Travis Returns to His Country Roots

By Tony Sauro, The Record, Stockton, Calif.

Jun. 19--Randy Travis said it was worth the wait.

No one disagreed.

Just three songs into his 90-minute show at the San Joaquin County Fair Wednesday night, Travis -- the veteran country singer with the deeply burnished voice -- asked how many folks had never been to one of his concerts before.

The vast majority of those in a near-capacity crowd at the fair's 5,000-seat main stage raised their hands.

"Hmmmm," Travis rumbled in his big bass voice. "We've only toured for 23 years. I guess it's easy to see how you missed us."

They obviously didn't overlook his records, responding warmly and often singing along during a generous 25-song set packed with many of the 36 top-40 hits he's produced since 1986.

Backed by a slick-sounding seven-piece band of veteran Nashville cats, the 49-year-old from Marshville, N.C., was relaxed, friendly and funny, lacing the 2008 fair's opening-night show with corn-pone stories and wry parables.

"That was worth waiting for 23 years for," Travis said after one particularly enthusiastic response.

His richly burnished voice -- with its slightly nasal twang -- is one of modern country's most resonant. He could sing the phone book and it would sound pretty darn good.

Looking trim and natty in a gray sport coat, black jeans and white T-shirt, Travis accompanied himself for most of the show on an acoustic guitar.

He abandoned it during his two-song encore, though, demonstrating his appreciation and multi-tasking skills.

As he signed hats, caps, T-shirts and other paraphernalia with one hand, he held the microphone in the other, kneeling at the edge of the stage while singing "Is It Still We?" and his signature "Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart" (No. 1 in 1989).

Travis, a country traditionalist who has spent the past eight years recording gospel music, is returning to his roots.

He sang one new tune (the pretty "Dig Two Graves") from his first country album in eight years. A painted big rig -- parked strategically and very visibly to the right of the stage -- advertised "Around the Bend," which will be released on July 15.

Travis has had so many No. 1 country singles (17) that he bunches them into medleys. He also did that with four of the gospel -- but not churchy-sounding -- songs he popularized, including the touching "Three Wooden Crosses," gospel song of the year in 2002.

A mixture of pretty, fiddle-flecked ballads and easy-loping twangers, he included such readily reognized favorites as "This Is Me,""Look Heart, No Hands,""Whisper My Name,""Deeper Than the Holler,""On the Other Hand" (a classic country weeper) and "Forever and Ever, Amen."

Travis, also an accomplished actor, saved special spots for "Heroes and Friends" (inspired by singing cowboy and movie star Roy Rogers) and "He Walked on Water," a tender ode to the wisdom of a 90-year-old grandfather.

He revealed his roots during a finger-popping singalong to Roger Miller's 43-year-old "King of the Road" and a smoothly soulful version of Brook Benton's 49-year-old "It's Just a Matter of Time."

Travis has faded from contemporary country consciousness during his eight years in gospel music.

He demonstrated Wednesday, though, that he has the quality, quantity, country music credibility -- and the distinctive voice -- to overcome such an absence.

After 23 years, the San Joaquin County folks who finally got to see him perform Wednesday night weren't disputing that.

Contact reporter Tony Sauro at (209) 546-8267 or [email protected]


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