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High-Stakes Honky-Tonkin'

No matter what the American Express ads or the Nashville Network might tell you, there isn't really a person named Randy Travis.

Sure, there is something out there called Randy Travis. It's taking the country by storm, playing rootsy country music and bringing home the kind of figures that make Fortune 500 execs shake in their oxfords. And there actually is a folksy, congenial, well-built, swell-sounding singer who goes by the name of Randy Travis. But that person is really Randy Traywick, the unassuming North Carolinian who changed his last name to Travis several years ago.

So what is "Randy Travis"? A corporation, it turns out. A music/business venture that just may be country's most recent successful example of synergy. Randy Travis is actually a composite that's managed to achieve more than the sum of its parts--an unusual triumvirate of natural talent (the singer himself), cyclical phenomenon (the new-traditionalist country movement) and personal ambition (Lib Hatcher, Travis' manager).

That's not to say the former Randy Traywick is just the gleaming figurehead, the Ronald Reagan of the organization. He may be clean-cut, soft-spoken, and self-effacing, but he can sing. Travis' voice reflects his four great musical influences: Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams Sr., Merle Haggard, and George Jones.

"I tried to pick up vocal licks as a kid, and as a teenager I would learn songs by everybody singin' in the clubs, and I would learn to sing licks exactly like Lefty when I would do some of his, or exactly like Haggard," Travis explains in a recent phone interview from his Nashville office.

The effortless low range that's emerged as his trademark was apparently a gift. "It was pretty much there," he says. "It's always been there. Even when I was fifteen years old, I could drop down to like a low E note. And now it's gone a little farther down."

As unique as his voice is and as far along as it's driven the Travis machine, the singer is both acutely aware of its limitations and stunned by its popularity. "I cain't sing anything other than like a country singer to start with. To me, my voice just sounds like a country singer. It's just suited for that. . . . I thought that I had an ability to sing and that was about it. In the clubs, people come up and say, `We enjoyed that,' and whatever, and you didn't think too much about it. People in those clubs, they're drinkin', and you think, `Well, they don't really mean anything.'"

Travis was anything but optimistic about his future back then. "I'm a lot farther than I ever thought I'd be. You know, in the beginning I just wanted to make a livin' in the business. That's all I'd ever hoped for. That's all I ever thought that I would be able to achieve. If I'd never known any success, I'd still be glad to see people like [new-traditionalist] George Strait comin' along, doin' that kind of music and doin' it good, and seein' it become popular again."

People weren't supporting much traditional country music in the late Seventies when Randy Traywick was scrambling for a foothold in the music business. The progressive-country boom of the late Sixties and early Seventies, spearheaded by the likes of Gram Parsons and Jerry Jeff Walker, had succumbed to the power of the discotheque. Nashville was scrambling out of its own skin trying to regain a younger audience, resorting to pathetic attempts at a country-pop fusion. These were the darkest years in recent memory for country music. It had almost lost its identity (though veterans like Jones and Hag never really changed, and newcomers like Emmylou Harris helped keep the flame alive), and a good part of its audience with it.

But out of Nashville's darkest hour came today's new-traditionalist phenomenon, which can be traced back to Ricky Skaggs' and George Strait's debuts in the early Eighties. Suddenly it was cool to be country again, and acoustic-based, traditional-sounding recordings began to go gold and platinum. A legion of Tennessee hopefuls who had traded in their buckskins for polyester were caught completely by surprise, but not everybody was caught with his--or her--pants down. Right around the dawn of the new-traditionalist boom, a country fan named Lib Hatcher was unknowingly setting the stage for Randy Traywick to turn into Randy Travis.

Hatcher had bought into a club called Country City, USA in Charlotte, North Carolina, some twenty miles away from Randy Traywick's home in Marshville. In her thirties and frustrated by a series of nowhere jobs, Hatcher thought it was natural to get involved in the business, even if she didn't know much about it. But Lib Hatcher was not one to do a job halfway. Realizing that the big bucks weren't in Charlotte, she began to make inroads to Nashville. Hatcher went to work booking concerts on the midlevel Chicken-Fried Steak circuit and running weekly talent contests, keeping her eyes peeled for the one performer who had "grubstake" tattooed on his butt.

It wasn't long before seventeen-year-old Randy Traywick walked into Country City and won one of the weeklies. After Randy took the finals, Hatcher knew that this kid with the low voice was something special, even if he didn't.

At the time, Traywick couldn't have believed he was on his way to Randy Travisdom. The singer was awaiting sentencing on a breaking-and-entering charge; his brother Ricky, who had played with him for the weekly competition, went to prison before the finals. But Lib Hatcher wasn't about to let Randy get away.

"She set me down one night and just asked me if I had ever thought about takin' this serious and wantin' to make a career out of it. I said, `Well, no, I never have, but yeah, I think I'd be interested in that.' And we talked some more and then signed a management contract."

Hatcher was able to work out a custody deal with the judge and a couple of years and demo records later moved with the singer to Nashville. She began managing a Nashville nightspot, hired Randy on as a cook (and part-time singer) and went about making a name for her protege. "Both of us kind of learned as we went," Travis recalls. "Neither one knew that much about the business."

Hatcher went around to all the labels, and each said "no" at first ("too, uh, country," they would stammer), but the manager knew that success was just a matter of time.

Finally, in 1983, it happened. Warner Bros. exec Martha Sharpe (now part of the Randy Travis high council, along with Hatcher, producer Kyle Lehning, and the former Randy Traywick) caught the singer at Hatcher's place and was taken with his voice and presence. She knew that country music was getting ready for a roots revival, signed him immediately and airbrushed his last name. Sharpe's timing was perfect. The combination of Traywick's talent, Hatcher's grooming and schmoozing and the cycle of popular favor shot Travis straight onto the charts and into the country-music record books.

By now everybody seems to have gotten what they wanted out of Randy Travis. The singer gets to croon in the style he always has. Lib Hatcher is up there with Colonel Tom Parker in the stratosphere of music managers. And new-traditionalist country music just may have found someone to carry the torch into the Nineties. Even if that someone is a corporation.

Randy Travis will perform at the ASU Activity Center on Sunday, March 18. Show time is 7 p.m.

As unique as his voice is, the singer is both acutely aware of its limitations and stunned by its popularity.

Lib Hatcher began managing a Nashville nightspot, hired Randy on as a cook (and part-time singer) and went about making a name for her protege.

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Matt Cartsonis