HERE COMES TROUBLE
He's the most bodacious rebel to come out of Music City's narrow corridors since David Allan Coe, but Travis Tritt has done one thing Coe hasn't: sell millions of records, real quick. See, those folks in Tennessee don't suffer independent insolents or musical infidels--and they certainly don't cotton to those who cause internal commotion or pick on fastidiously manufactured superstars.
Unless, of course, they sell millions of records.
And this Travis Tritt has done. Three albums, three hunks of platinum hanging in his Dallas, Georgia, den. Clearly, with all the tumult charged to Tritt's tab these past few years, the proprietors of the primrose plantation they call Nashville would normally have cast this noisy nonconformist out until he learned to hoe a row like the rest of its humble servants.
But this son of Marietta, Georgia, has been able to dodge the whip of Music City's overseers with a bushel of big hits that began with 1989's clever "Country Club" and has continued through his most recent chartmaker, "Lord Have Mercy on the Workin' Man."
"I can't help but speak my mind," the country-rock star says during an on-the-road telephone conversation from his bus. "Once I can't, I'm gone."
It's hard to believe Tritt can do anything more to tick off the leisure-suited lumps along Music Row. Just since the new decade dawned, Tritt has managed to get a high-powered television producer canned, insult a certain butt-wigglin' contemporary and thoroughly piss off the legions out of Nashville. He's not trying to be mean, he says. Just honest.
Tritt's primary allegiance has always been directed toward those who don blue collars--not as a marketing gimmick, but because it's his own personal pedigree. In the classic country tradition, he began as a soloist for a children's choir at his church and taught himself to play the guitar at 8. At 14, he wrote his first song. Tritt graduated from high school in Marietta in 1981, got married and took a job loading trucks for an air-conditioning and heating company. While he grew to manage the business, his marriage failed. And the grind of working by day and playing the bars at night got old. Decision: Quit the real gig and see just how far the music would take him. He worked area clubs, trying to wedge his way into the business in the toughest possible fashion: playing solo and performing his own songs.
"It didn't really occur to me to do it any other way," Tritt admits.
Those local shows were lively and rockin', showing both his earliest influences, including George Jones, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, and that of teenage heroes like Bob Seger, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Poco, Marshall Tucker and the Allman Brothers. Although the regional Warner Bros. representative who first noticed Tritt was attracted primarily by his writing abilities, the performance side of Tritt's talents finally clinched the deal. His subsequent demos were so impressive that famed manager Ken Kragen took on Tritt's account--his first rookie in decades.
After "Country Club," the title track of his inaugural album, reached the Top 10, the follow-up single, "Help Me Hold On," made it all the way up, as did "I'm Gonna Be Somebody" and "Drift Off to Dream," cementing his stature as a bona fide country star. Tritt's second album, It's All About to Change, spawned another slew of hits, including "The Whiskey Ain't Workin'" and "Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)," the latter written upon his second divorce.
Then the real fun began.
When a reporter asked him what he thought of Billy Ray Cyrus and his monster hit, "Achy Breaky Heart," Tritt responded that, while he'd never met Cyrus, he had seen the video and heard the song.
"I don't care for either one," Tritt answered frankly. "It sounded kinda goofy to me. And the video of him getting out of a limo and people trying to tear his clothes off--for his very first video--it didn't seem very realistic to me."
By the next day, Cyrus fans were vilifying Tritt, and the ponytailed Cyrus eventually responded, holding up a coin on the nationally televised American Music Awards last January, cleverly mumbling something along the lines of ". . . to my critics: Here's a quarter--call someone who cares." In addition to raising the hackles of Cyrus' fans, Tritt caught holy heck from the powers that be behind the Pine Curtain. He'd not only violated a sacred Nashville cow by speaking out--however deservedly--against a fellow twangster, but especially against the fellow who was bringing so much moola into Music Row. "I don't buy that," Tritt says now. "I can't have an opinion? Rock groups trash each other all the time--who cares? Besides, the whole thing's been blown meteorically out of proportion." Sure, but does he feel vindicated by the fact that, while Tritt continues to gather hits and accolades, Cyrus is well on his way to becoming one of the most magnificent one-hit wonders of all time?
"It all comes back to the song and the artist," Tritt answers. He pauses, sighs, and says, "Man, this is never gonna die, is it?"
At the same time the Cyrus caper was unfolding, Tritt was involved in the "Great Tonight Show Flap." In September 1992, Jay Leno's longtime manager and rookie Tonight Show executive producer Helen Kushnick demanded that Tritt (and fellow Kragenite Trisha Yearwood) cancel a scheduled gig on The Arsenio Hall Show or forever be banned from Jay Leno's guest chair. After Tritt and company refused, Kushnick dumped Kragen's clients from slated appearances on Leno. Kragen battled Kushnick's heavy-handed tactics in a well-publicized media melee and, eventually, NBC jettisoned Kushnick in favor of Tritt.
"It was pretty ugly," Tritt comments reluctantly. "I'm glad it's over."
Those two controversies put, more or less, to bed, Tritt and fellow nontraditionalist, hillbilly rocker Marty Stuart conceived of and embarked upon their famed "No Hats Tour." Designed merely to draw a tad of attention away from hot hats Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson and their ilk, the pair played to raucous houses around the country. Reportedly, however, Brooks took the "No Hats" thing personally and Tritt was forced to soothe Brooks' hurt feelings. Tritt asserts that there was absolutely no malice aforethought.
"I don't wear a hat because I've never worn one," he explains. "I don't have anything against hats. Horses, either, but I'd rather ride my Harley." Still, the big-brimmed boys of Nashville must have swallowed mighty hard as the duo garnered the Country Music Association's 1992 honors as Vocal Event of the Year and a 1993 Grammy for Best Country Vocal Collaboration.
Straight shooter Tritt hasn't tempered his tone following two years of controversy, either. In fact, his last album, t-r-o-u-b-l-e, celebrates his blue-collar, rock-hard attitude with the gritty, anthemic "Lord Have Mercy on the Workin' Man," the title track (yes, it was originally recorded by Elvis), and a hollerin', moanin', nine-minute ride through blues legend Buddy Guy's "Leave My Girl Alone." With each collection, Tritt's fine Georgia growl gets a bit edgier and the tunes more electric. He likes it when folks think "Tritt" and "rock" in the same thought. But he doesn't like pretenders.
"Clint Black and Garth Brooks don't show their rock edges--I do," he states. "They talk about it, I do it. I'm very proud that a lot of young people have come to country because of my music. In the 70s, we had watered-down, rootless music coming out of Nashville. The Outlaw movement then brought it back to its roots--the blues."
While Tritt discounts any neo-Outlaw inclinations--To create an outlaw movement, you need more than one person"--he stresses his, and Nashville's, need to explore.
"I think you gotta have variety," he says. "I'm not really a home-run hitter, but I'm in the game because I can play any position on the field--blues, rock, country. I love to play stuff like Buddy Guy's. Next week, I'll be playing with David Lee Roth on his new album."
Not that Tritt has eschewed the country-fried aspects of his roots. He considers George Jones his idol--along with Porter Waggoner and Tanya Tucker, Jones performs on t-r-o-u-b-l-e. But he's concerned about the shelf life of contemporary country musicians, as well as the forgotten heroes of country's past.
"Six, seven years ago, Randy Travis was today's Garth Brooks," Tritt declares, the rebel rising in his Georgia drawl. "Now, where do you see him? Everybody in this business owes tons to Randy Travis. We ought to all send him a royalty check every month. And what they've done to the old stars is terrible. You should judge the individual song, not consider the age of the artist. It's bullshit what they've done to George Jones. His last album was his greatest ever--but where do you hear it? Radio is definitely part of the problem. It's getting very political. The almighty dollar rules all." Reminded that he recently stated that he himself didn't expect to be around more than a half-dozen years playing music--the high end of today's country stardom--Tritt says with a laugh.
"Well," he says, "I've decided that, 20 years from now, I'd like to be known as a George Jones or a Merle Haggard. But really, every time you do an album, you wonder if it will stand the test of time. Even better, will one of my songs become a standard on the playlists of American garage bands? I mean, look at all the great, relatable George, Merle and Johnny Cash songs. Heck, look at Dolly Parton's 'I Will Always Love You.' It's simply a great song that can withstand any treatment. Even Run-D.M.C. could do it and not screw it up.
"The bottom line is," states Travis Tritt, "getting the opportunity to reach out and touch people. Man, you can't buy that.
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