It’s accurate to say that Randy Travis helped save music in the mid-1980s; defining what that actually means is where things get complicated.
And in order to do so, we need to rewind even further to the early half of the decade, a time in which country music culture received massive film exposure through everything from artistic autobiographies set to film, like Coal Miner’s Daughter, to films starring prominent country legends like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, and also to a little film known as Urban Cowboy that starred John Travolta and led to a commercial boom for the genre.
Notice, however, that I said country music “culture” received massive exposure, because the boom affected the actual music for maybe five years (at best) before fading out, enough to where record sales plummeted and The New York Times was ready to declare country music dead by 1985. And because record labels increased budgets in preparation for what they thought would be a larger boom … well, something had to give, and if you’ve ever wondered why certain legends like the aforementioned Loretta Lynn or Johnny Cash struggled commercially later during this decade, that’s largely why. George Jones’ 1985 hit “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” wasn’t just a nod to tradition – it was a literal cry of help for the country music genre.
Now, if you’re a familiar reader of this website and this all sounds familiar … well, it should. I’ve written about it elsewhere multiple times in much more detailed terms (here, here, and here, and that’s just off the top of my head). For our purposes today, let’s just say that by 1986, country music was in need of a change, but that the truth surrounding that change was also far more complicated than the press it’s received would suggest throughout history. First of all, while record sales for established artists were down around the middle of the decade, outlets like the New York Times ignored the fact that there was a rising class of new and versatile acts ready to take the genre by storm. And they did, enough to where they inspired another new crop of acts a few years later as it headed into the ‘90s and the genre received its biggest commercial boom ever.
But the thing with the Urban Cowboy boom is that the success really did live and by the movie, because while there was a wave of easy-listening, pop crossover ready material made by pleasantly boring acts dominating the format at the time, it’s not a sound that stuck around for long, and it’s not a time period remembered fondly. And like with any trend in country music, there’s always a counter in some form, which is how Randy Travis came in to save the genre with his brand of hard-edged neotraditional country music, right?
Well, kind of. But in truth, neotraditional acts existed and thrived within the format even during the Urban Cowboy boom. Between George Strait, The Judds, John Anderson, Ricky Skaggs, and Reba McEntire’s artistic breakthrough in 1984’s My Kind of Country, the traditional country sound wasn’t dead. Far from it, really.
And yet after cuing up the 35th anniversary edition of Randy Travis’ Storms of Life album in preparation for this review and hearing that opener, “On the Other Hand,” I remembered why I loved the original album so much, and I understand why newer listeners of the time went crazy over it. What I think surprises me is that a sound this pure and earnest led to a real breakthrough for Travis, even if it took until “1982” to get there. Even after going back through it, though, “neotraditional” just doesn’t seem like the right word for this classic. To me it’s just … pure country, representative of why I love the genre to begin with – music drenched in heartache that forces us to walk the line between good and evil.
Yes, I just said about Randy Travis. Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam may have been flashier and arguably “cooler” on their debut projects than Travis’ clean-cut image and straightforward presentation would suggest for what his project might sound like, but The Storms of Life is a surprisingly raw album filled with a lot more darker subtext than it’s ever gotten credit for, especially now that it’s got three new bonus tracks that all make for new highlights here.
Yet I also see how an album like this has grabbed people for 35 years now on just what’s presented at the forefront alone. It may not be cool, and it may not be music you play in a honky tonk when you want to get good and drunk and want copious amounts of pedal steel and fiddle to accompany the soundtrack to your misery, but it is a ramshackle album that will get you thinking about why you’re there in the first place. That’s not to say that those elements aren’t there, but the thing I’ve always loved about this album is its mostly acoustical foundation, where if anything’s going to added, it’s some extra bits of dobro to flesh out the melodies and give the album some playful rollick and balance out its darker moments. With that said, I do appreciate how much one of the new tracks, “Carryin’ Fire,” is reliant on its gorgeous fiddle work to carry its impressive chorus, and how “The Wall” plays to something lusher entirely with the slight string accents and more atmospheric-sounding pedal steel – it’s actually not that surprising to see that it was cut in 1985; what’s amazing is how pure it comes across in the mix.
Indeed, that purely rich tone has always been a huge selling point of The Storms of Life, especially when it’s carried by a lead singer whose tone is also clear-cut and lends a lot of natural gravitas in capturing the struggle behind being a well-meaning person caught within a bad situation. For as much as some have labeled “On the Other Hand” as virtue signaling, in which the narrator inadvertently asks for sympathy from the audience for his temptations to possibly cheat on his significant other, when you pull back the curtain to reveal why he could be there in the first place due to feeling forgotten by a neglectful, possibly abusive significant other on “Reasons I Cheat,” it creates some heady framing that’s always gone underlooked next to its otherwise simplistic presentation.
And sure, along the way you’ll get some goofier cuts to balance out that heartache on the ode to resilience in the cutesy western-swing-inspired “My Heart Cracked” or finding love again on the jaunty “Messin’ With My Mind” that features a clarinet solo, of all things. But there’s also “Send My Body,” which is a surprisingly punchy and upbeat tale of an innocent outsider framed for a crime and found guilty, with his final request being that he be returned home upon his death so he can find some vestige of justice and peace. When balanced out with a title track that’s just as ramshackle and warm yet still just as dark in its battle to fight the storms of life – oddly enough making for my favorite song here – you realize that the main point of the project is not to show hardened outlaws sinking further into despair, but rather good people pushed to their extremes who indulge in their pain and are forced to live in the aftermath of their decisions, even if their personal circumstances forced them into their new lives regardless.
It’s why despite me appreciating that this album ends on an appropriately downbeat note on “The Wall,” I still love the original closer of “There’ll Always Be a Honky Tonk Somewhere” even more, a cute little ode to how country music’s spirit will always live on so long as there’s a jukebox and a bar … but also how saints and sinners will always clash with one another, even if those battles are purely internal ones. For as much as Travis would become more known in time for his sentimental yet earnest ballads and gospel numbers, this surprisingly dark and revealing album has always been his crowning moment – at least to me – and with the 35th anniversary edition, a classic just got a little better, and that’s saying something.
- Favorite tracks: “On the Other Hand,” “The Storms of Life,” “Diggin’ Up Bones,” “There’s No Place Like Home,” “Send My Body,” “Reasons I Cheat,” “There’ll Always Be A Honky Tonk Somewhere,” “Carryin’ Fire,” “The Wall”
- Least favorite track: “My Heart Cracked (But It Did Not Break)”