Saturday, August 11, 2012

"...Just A Comfy Little Glass House In The Country..."

The latest from the feet of clay folder...

(CNN) By Phil Gast, CNN -- Country music fans are loyal and they don't like to see their legends fall.

Randy Travis, one of the genre's most revered traditional singer-songwriters, was arrested this week after being found naked, smelling apparently of alcohol and lying on a remote roadway in northern Texas, authorities said.

In a genre largely led by artists who can achieve chart-topping tunes and high-grossing concert tours, industry consultants and radio station personalities say Travis, 53, faces significant challenges ahead and should first address whatever issues may have led to this incident.

Country's unique "cradle to the grave" fan base will likely stick with Travis, one industry expert told CNN.

Travis was considered a breath of fresh air for country music when he made his debut during the mid-80s.

"Country music fans are notorious for their loyalty," said Wade Jessen, senior chart manager for Billboard in Nashville. "They tend to live the artist's lives with them -- good, or bad, (but) only up to a point."

Some say Travis may have reached that point Tuesday evening.

Travis was driving his black 1998 Pontiac Trans Am, which went off the north side of a highway just west of Tioga, Texas, where he resides, and struck several barricades in a construction zone, said Texas Highway Patrol Trooper Mark Tackett.

Travis was found naked, Tackett said. When the singer was brought to Grayson County jail at 3 a.m., after a hospital visit, he still didn't have clothes, Sgt. Rickey Wheeler said.

"He was given a paper suit, which is a jail uniform made out of paper," Wheeler told CNN.

Travis was charged with driving while intoxicated and felony retaliation, after allegedly threatening to fatally shoot highway patrol troopers who responded to a concerned caller who notified authorities of "a man lying in the roadway" Tuesday. The incident happened just six months after he pleaded no contest to public intoxication in another case.

Travis, of course, isn't the first country star to run into problems.

Hank Williams and George Jones were known for their tumultuous lifestyles and drinking. Jones even earned the moniker "No Show Jones" because he missed so many performances.

"The difference is George Jones had his clothes on," said country radio consultant Joel Raab.

And it's certainly not the first time a celebrity from any genre has found himself in the middle of a personal and public relations challenge. R&B star Chris Brown worked his way back up the charts after he was convicted three years ago of assaulting ex-girlfriend Rihanna. Former "Two and a Half Men" star Charlie Sheen is back on television after a very public firing and meltdown.

Susan Keel, a Nashville-based publicist who has represented country singers, said Travis should postpone his current tour and issue a statement indicating he is getting help.

"He should apologize to the officer, the public, friends and fans to indicate he will get his life back on track," said Keel.

Travis burst onto the country music scene in 1986 with "Storms of Life." The North Carolina-born singer's debut album sold nearly 4 million copies and made him a star of the "new traditional" scene.

Travis was in his heyday from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, recording such classics as "Diggin' Up Bones" and "Forever and Ever, Amen." His baritone voice and songs and even his retro wardrobe harkened to a traditional country style.

Julie Stevens, now program director at KRTY in San Jose, California, said Travis and George Strait came in like a breath of fresh air during the mid-1980s, when country radio stations were suffering low ratings.

"It was horrible," said Stevens. "We were just coming out of John Travolta and the whole 'Urban Cowboy' thing."

Travis ran out a string of successful songs and albums.

"The two of them together saved the format," Stevens said. "I don't know why George endured and Randy didn't."

Travis eventually moved toward gospel music and today he largely plays smaller venues, including casinos.

Strait, meanwhile, is still bringing large crowds to arenas. While he has a predictable sound, according to Billboard's Jessen, Strait "is very adept at making it sound fresh from album to album."

"I don't think we can blame Randy Travis' decline on the format," Jessen said.

Observers point out that Travis hasn't had a top-selling record for a decade. Finding one now could give him a needed boost.

"He has to make a hit record that will work on country radio with today's country fans," said Raab. "You would be hard-pressed to find a Randy Travis song on a contemporary country radio station today."

An estimated 2,000 stations, most of them "contemporary," are considered the primary marketing vehicle for country music, Jessen told CNN.

Listeners ages 25 to 54 are the key demographic, and successful musicians keep the songs coming.

"If you take it in general terms, Randy Travis is considered a veteran artist," said Jessen. "Randy doesn't have singles on the radio all the time. Current artists have a new single on the radio all the time. They tour and record. They tour and record. They tour and record."

Still, Travis has won seven Grammy Awards, five Country Music Association awards, 10 Academy of Country Music statuettes, 10 American Music Awards, seven Music City News awards, and eight Dove Awards from the Gospel Music Association, according to his website.

He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and has been a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1986, according to his website.

Travis' last major hit came in 2002 with "Three Wooden Crosses," a song about faith and redemption.

There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway,

Why there's not four of them, Heaven only knows.

I guess it's not what you take when you leave this world behind you,

It's what you leave behind you when you go.

Travis "was able to tell it with sincerity and it was a hit," Jessen said.

Jess Wright, program director and on-air personality at WFRE in Frederick, Maryland, said her station plays some traditional country songs favored by the likes of Travis. "If it is not the right song, it is hard to find the right place to play it," Wright told CNN.

Raab provides consultant services to 27 stations, a few of which are "classic" -- meaning they play songs from the 1950s to the 1990s.

He spoke Thursday with an individual at one such station. While they discussed Travis' most recent incident, they never discussed whether his songs should be taken off the air.

"I don't think the legacy of his music is necessarily tarnished by what he did," said Raab.

The past two years have been difficult ones for Travis.

He divorced his longtime wife in 2010. According to a lawsuit filed earlier this year, Elizabeth Travis remained his personal manager until she terminated the agreement in 2011 -- without proper notice, the suit alleges.

Randy Travis countersued in May, contending Elizabeth Travis divulged confidential information about him in order to damage his reputation and career. He did not provide specifics.

In February, the legendary performer was arrested for public intoxication while sitting in his car in front of a church in Sanger, Texas.

"I apologize for what resulted following an evening of celebrating the Super Bowl," Travis told CNN in a statement after that arrest. "I'm committed to being responsible and accountable, and apologize for my actions."

With fewer songs on radio, Travis primarily reaches his fan base by touring, said Jessen. "An old rule in country music, men like to be sung about and women like to be sung to. Randy has done both."

"His diehard fans are going to stay with him through this," Jessen said. "They will wish him well and stay tuned to the news."

"Country music fans don't like to see their legends fall."

Keel said the country music industry still considers Travis a legend.

"This is a very supportive community and a forgiving community," she said.

Not that anybody has asked, but, for my money, the preceding piece pretty much hit the nail on the head.

The conventional wisdom in Nashville during my own years of writing and studio work was that country music fans, as opposed to rock, etc, fans, were loyal to the singer as much as, if not more than, the song.

In the 70's, the prevailing attitude was that Kenny Rogers could have sung the phone book and the CD would have gone double platinum.

Randy enjoyed much of that same fan fervor during his time in the high wattage spotlight.

That blind loyalty, as a matter of fact, was something that a lot of my friends/peers on Music Row, in the day, pointed to as an explanation for the smashing success of a song Randy recorded that included the lyric, "honey I don't care / I'm not in love with your hair..."

Oscar Hammerstein, come home, all is forgiven.

Without intending to either counterpoint or split hairs with Mr. Gast's take on it, here's what my own instincts, down home honed after thirty five plus years of both Nashville songwriting industry membership and/or country radio show producing and hosting, tell me about the Randy ruckus.

Country music fans, at least the more traditionalist fans who think that country music could do with a lot less Pickler and a whole lot more Patsy, a whole lot less Paisley and a whole lot more Possum, will quietly tsk tsk amongst themselves as to Randy's raw and raunchy behavior, but, in the end, forgive, if not forget, his Trans Am transgressions, pray for his recovery from the demon rum and get back to bitchin' about how country music has gone to hell in a handbasket..

After all, they will reason, who amongst us hasn't come just this close to gettin bare ass naked, certifiably shit faced and headed on down to the local Suds and Sack for a pack of Marlboro Lights?

Those willing to live and let live will just add this story to the legendary saga of Geroge Jones, drunk and denied keys to the family wheel by Tammy, using his own pickled smarts to ride his lawn mower miles down Franklin Road to the nearest liquor store.

Of course, Possum wasn't naked. But the envelope gets a little more of a push with each passing generation, right, ya'll?

And, yes, he threatened to shoot and kill the police officers that arrested him, but, hey, there's not a good old boy in the crowd that hasn't offered to have us "wonder where the Loosiana sheriff went to" now and again.

Bottom line is, Randy did break the law, but it's not like he's Jerry Sandusky.

Randy's "problem", in the end, won't be about acceptance or rejection by his loyal fans.

And it won't be that his obvious issues with drinking, driving and disrobing have made a big splash in the news.

His problem will be that he, unlike George Strait, as Gast mentions, for example, has been unable, to keep his music relevant and important to this generation of country music fans.

And the only thing worse for somebody in the song business than being in the being old news.

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