A stroke may have robbed him of his voice, but the legendary country singer still has something to say.
That voice. For decades, the voice of Randy Travis was a smooth pour of warm syrup on a cold morning. With song after song, his gilded baritone rounded the sharp edges of life for millions of people — and ultimately changed the direction of an entire genre of music, producing a slew of platinum records and 16 No. 1 hits along the way. He could take lyrics that might otherwise be corny or trite and make them poetry. During an era when Nashville’s brightest stars thrived making increasingly shallow, increasingly banal tripe, this lean, winsome young man from small-town North Carolina made music that sounded like it may have always existed somewhere in your mind, waiting to be recognized. At concerts, he’d sometimes hum into the microphone, and his voice would send throngs of women — and plenty of men — into fits of ecstatic joy.
Life is different now, though. It’s especially apparent during his live appearances, like a recent book signing at a Barnes & Noble in North Dallas, about an hour from where he lives. A ferocious thunderstorm has lashed the area all day, and through the bookstore windows, it still looks like the inside of a washing machine out there. But that didn’t stop more than 200 people from fighting the rain and wind to get here. A line stretches across the store, twisting and turning around tables and bookshelves, slowly building over an hour or two.
Some of these people have come all the way from Tennessee. Some have come all the way from Ohio. At least one couple flew in from overseas — because they didn’t want to miss the chance.
The 60-year-old country star is seated at a table surrounded by posters promoting his 2019 memoir, Forever and Ever, Amen, which was also the name of one of his biggest hits. The fans in line are all holding their own copies — and a lot of them have two or three. One man has six. They’re here to get their books signed, yes, but they also want to meet the man himself. They want to share a few seconds with him. Most want to tell him about some moment from their personal lives they experienced while listening to his music, moments cemented into their memories through the power of his voice.
But as the line works its way past Travis, he says almost nothing. He smiles over and over for photos. He nods and makes eye contact as stranger after stranger tells him about the painful or triumphant or just downright transformative times in their lives they now associate permanently with his songs. He smiles that legendary smile — the one that got him into movies and network television — and he shakes some of their hands, but they don’t hear him say more than “Thank you.” They certainly don’t hear him sing.
That’s because a near-fatal stroke in 2013 took not only most of the movement on the right side of his body, it also took most of his voice. When his wife, Mary, talks about the condition — which seems to be pretty often since the book came out — she refers to it by the medical diagnosis: aphasia. It’s a particular form of brain damage that prevents him from formulating speech — but unlike some aphasia patients, he follows a conversation and understands what’s happening around him just fine.
As Randy signs books (with his left hand) and poses for photos, Mary stands a few feet away, dressed all in black, talking to her own smaller line of fans who’ve seen her interviewed somewhere or read about the astonishing journey she’s been on over the last few years. Several people want to share with her, too, not only the parts of her husband’s music they appreciate, but their own experiences caring for stroke survivors and other ailing loved ones.
In a short break between strangers, Mary pauses to absorb the moment. She gazes at the long and still growing line of people. She thinks about how each of them fought through the thunderstorm just to make it to the bookstore, how they each have their own stories about their connections to her husband — and now with her. She thinks about so many of the trying times that led them here.
“I mean, it’s just — ” she says, then stops for a few seconds, looking for the right words. “It’s amazing. We like to be out here. We like for him to be seen and to be touched and loved on.”
For Randy, it’s one more track in what has shaped up to be a catalog of could-be-a-country-song moments in real life.
Driving through the gate of the ranch where Randy Travis lives, just outside Tioga, Texas — about 25 miles south of the Oklahoma border — feels like entering a private paradise from another time. A narrow paved road winds through acres of lush green pastures. There’s a paint horse frolicking to the right, three American bison dipping into a small pond on the left, a massive longhorn steer luxuriating in the sun down the fence line. The three-story main house is perched on a hill that overlooks the rest of the property.
Inside, you can almost hear the echoes of the amazing parties that must have taken place here. In the dining room, an epic wooden table is surrounded by enough leather-bound chairs to seat 12. The walls of nearly every room are decked in amazing memorabilia. One side of the living room has nine acoustic guitars Randy has collected from various tours or special events. One is emblazoned with the faces of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, from a show they played in New Orleans. In a corner is a saddle that was somehow previously owned by both Henry Ford and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In a glass case next to the patio door is one of Charlie Daniels’ signed bows. There are photos of Randy with George Jones and Charley Pride. A black cowboy hat hanging behind one of the leather couches has a signed message in marker from Garth Brooks.
A wall in the den has too many trophies and plaques and ribbons and plates to count: Grammys (he won six), CMAs (he won six of those, too), Academy of Country Music Awards, American Music Awards — you get the idea.
Right now, though, Randy is sitting in his wheelchair in the kitchen, watching cooking shows. This is where he relaxes. He loves the Food Network. He also watches a lot of old westerns — as evidenced by the stack of DVDs a few feet away. Next to him, on the kitchen island, there’s a food spread Mary’s put out for us: cheeses, fruits, crackers, cookies, fresh-made iced tea.
Soon Mary pulls up a stool and they mute the television. She’s wearing black jeans, black boots, a black blouse, and a sprinkling of silver and turquoise jewelry. She hasn’t been sitting next to Randy long when she starts talking about how they put the book together with writer Ken Abraham, how it was sort of like therapy going through parts of the last few years. She often makes eye contact with him as she speaks, and repeatedly rests her right hand on his thigh and shoulder.
“It’s real life,” she says of the memoir. “It’s the car wrecks, and the mistakes, and the bad choices. It’s the finding out information, and being beat down, and not handling it the way you should, and then figuring it out.”
Some of Randy’s back story became part of his legend as he rolled off hit after hit in the second half of the 1980s. As a boy, he was a music savant with old-timey tastes. He liked Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. As a teenager he drank a lot, crashed a lot of cars, stole what he could, and spent a lot of nights in the county jail — more country-song living.
Ultimately, music helped him avoid a life of pure self-destruction. He was discovered at Country City USA, a club in Charlotte, North Carolina, owned by a woman named Lib Hatcher. At 17 years old, he was cooking in the kitchen and singing part time. A few years later, his name was up and down the top half of the Billboard Country charts, and he was recording duets with all of his heroes.
It wasn’t just music. Randy was everywhere. He had movie roles starring next to the likes of Patrick Swayze and a young Matt Damon. He guest-starred on shows like Matlock, Hey Arnold!, Touched by an Angel, and Frasier. When George H.W. Bush launched his “Thousand Points of Light” campaign, Randy recorded a song called “Point of Light” to help with promotion.
The memoir is also frank about his personal life during that fantastic rise from fry cook to jet-setting A-list celebrity. Like his relationship with Lib Hatcher. When they met, he was barely old enough to drive and she was married. A court allowed her to take legal custody of Randy, and he moved in with the couple. Soon she left her husband and moved to Nashville with Randy, and, as he once told People, “I think we discovered how much we needed each other.”
Because she was 20 years his senior and also his manager, they were encouraged by industry heads to keep the relationship quiet, which they did for a decade — until Lib and Randy were married in 1991. There are several chapters in the book dedicated to the chaotic end of that marriage, in 2010 and 2011: It involves Lib growing close to a young Irish singer and distant from Randy. Then Randy grew closer to Mary, whom he knew through her brother’s Western shirt business. A series of country songs.
The divorce was cause to open up the finances. Exactly what happened is complicated and confusing. Suffice it to say that Randy had never worried about money, and when he started asking the business manager he’d always trusted about his accounts, the business manager promptly resigned. Randy walked away feeling betrayed by the people closest to him — and with way, way less money than he’d thought.
“The first time Randy asked about his finances,” Mary says, “one of his accounts was empty.”
It’s not that Randy never speaks. He just has a hard time forming more than a word or two at a time, and his vocabulary is severely limited. But as Mary recounts the financial nightmare, Randy is as animated as he’s been all afternoon. He nods vigorously.
Then he lifts his left hand and makes it into a circle with his fingers, adding emphatically “Zero!”
That’s what was happening in their lives when, a few years ago, Randy seemed to be getting into trouble with the law in near-satirical country-music fashion. In February 2012, he was arrested in the parking lot of a church, with an open bottle of wine in the passenger seat. In August of that year came reports that he was driving drunk, crashed his Trans Am, and was found naked in the road by police officers.
It’s not a joke in this house, though. Mary talks about waking up that night alone in bed, horrified, then picking him up at the police station with glass still in his skin. They attribute the whole evening to a bad reaction Randy had to the sleeping drug Ambien.
In the beginning of 2013, things were getting better. Life was getting back on track. Randy took a plea deal and avoided jail and apologized publicly, repeatedly, for his behavior. He started playing more concerts again, appearing at special events like the football-stadium funeral of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.
Then came the stroke.
He went into the hospital concerned about congestion. Soon he was in a coma, which is when he had a stroke. Because his symptoms were difficult to detect, doctors didn’t treat it quickly enough to reverse the brain damage. At first, the mere prospect of ever leaving the hospital seemed small. Then it was weeks living in rehab. Then massive adjustments at home, where Mary was his full-time caretaker. (They got married two years after the stroke, in 2015.)
On that first car ride home, she had one of his CDs playing in the car. He couldn’t speak but he gestured fervently and obviously: No! He didn’t want to hear it.
“It was too much,” Mary says. “It took him a while.”
It was eight months before he was willing to listen to the sounds of his voice. The first time was the song “He Walked on Water,” on a long drive back from rehab. When Mary looked over this time, Randy wasn’t shaking his head. He sat still as tears formed in the corners of his eyes.
It was hard for a while. Years. He’d always been so smooth, so elegant. That voice had always been so powerful. Now there was none of that.
Eventually, with Mary’s urging, they started going out in public more. To concerts his old friends were playing or industry events. Everywhere they went, strangers had stories for them, tales of how Randy’s music had woven through formative moments in their lives. Over and over, he was told that people feel connected to him through his work, that the voice he had lives on — as it was always meant to — even if it no longer has a corporeal form.
After two hours of this new kind of conversation — where Mary does most of the talking, but Randy makes it clear how he feels, too — their dog, Luke, leaps up into Randy’s lap. (They have two Yorkies named Luke and Bach.) Randy strokes the dog’s little head and smiles that radiant Randy Travis smile. He looks down and nods.
“Yep, yep,” Randy says.
These days, life can be hectic. There are periodic book events around the country, television interviews, business meetings in Nashville.
They also spend a lot of time here at the ranch. Some days they just sit around the house, watching the endless sky from the patio. Some days they take a walk down the winding road to the horse stables. They like to go out to eat in Tioga. Sometimes they venture into Dallas.
Last fall, they went on a short tour with Randy’s band. James Dupré sang Randy’s songs, with occasional help on a word or two from Randy himself. They also appeared at an event at the Grand Ole Opry a few months ago, held in honor of Randy’s 60th birthday. Charles Esten from the TV show Nashville was there. Charlie Worsham from the band Old Crow Medicine Show was too. To close out the evening, dozens of industry stars lined the stage, and Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter Don Schlitz, who penned several of Randy’s biggest hits, played a rendition of “Forever and Ever, Amen.”
Video from that night is poignant: As the song nears the end, the crowd erupts in cheers and applause. Randy walks slowly toward the center of the stage, with Mary bracing him. His eyes widen as he looks out at the audience and he flashes that unmistakable grin.
When Schlitz has sung everything but the last word, he points to Randy and Randy holds a microphone close to his mouth. He belts out the final word: a deep, broken, mournful “AAMMMENNNN!”
His voice is a little raspier than it used to be, a little shakier. But that doesn’t matter to the crowd gathered — or the other Nashville stars on stage. As he finishes, the room fills with joyous cheering. It’s a moment that will transcend country music history.
Back in their kitchen, Mary explains that they may be selling the ranch soon. They plan to move to Nashville. They want to live closer to a hospital, in case something else should happen to Randy. They also want something smaller, a place without so many stairs. She says they plan to keep at least some of the horses. It won’t be easy, but they’ll adjust.
“We’re still singing,” Mary says. “It’s just a different type of song now.”
Photography: Courtesy Scott Slusher.
From our February/March 2020 issue.