Earlier this summer, one of the most distinctive voices in country music, Randy Travis, released his Anniversary Collection, a compilation of duets pairing Travis with some of country music’s top talent. The album features, primarily, a good portion of Travis’ top hits mixed with a smattering of unimpressive originals. In fact, aside from one or two duets noteworthy only because of the vocal prowess or star-power brought by the other singer, Travis’ Anniversary Collection is a regrettable eulogy for Travis’ career.
One of the most successful country artists during the late eighties and nineties, Randy Travis overcame alcohol, drug and marital problems to land over thirty singles on Billboard’s country chart. His deep baritone and country twang were unique at a time that lacked a true low-range talent – a void created during the twilight of the careers of Cash and Jones and before the rise of Josh Turner and the bevy of deep-voiced talent we have today.
He was an earnest and truthful crooner who transitioned with relative ease between ballads and the up-tempo barroom swing so common to late eighties and early nineties country. Hits like “Forever and Ever, Amen,” “On the Other Hand,” and “Diggin’ Up Bones” rolled out of the Travis camp with formulaic but confident certainty, a self-assurance derived from commanding a niche all your own. I’d go so far as to argue that “Deeper than the Holler,” a #1 hit from Travis’ Old 8x10 album, is one of the best country songs of its era, a pure example of Travis at his best.
During the second half of the nineties and for much of the 20th century, Travis’ career was defined by forays into acting and a cross-over into the Christian genre. Undoubtedly, this paralleled Travis’ re-discovery of religion and his conquering of many of the personal demons that plagued him throughout much of his life (certainly a positive thing, it also spurred the release of “Three Wooden Crosses,” Travis’ last major success), but the years of abuse took a perilous toll on his voice, a fact painfully evident in Anniversary Collection.
It’s always difficult to see an entertainer struggle to hold on to their talents as age and their body’s work against them. We see it in sports all the time with the likes of Brett Favre and Shaq, who stuck around a few years too long insisting they could still play, and we see it in music as well every time a broke band mounts a reunion tour or a singer comes out with an ill-received album in their later years.
Here, the few listenable tracks owe their limited appeal more to Travis’ duet partner than to him. In fact, sadly, these tracks succeed in spite of him, rather than because of him. “A Few Ole Country Boys” with Jamey Johnson is worth a listen only because Johnson absolutely nails his verses, as is the case with “T.I.M.E” with Josh Turner (a forgettable song but Turner sounds great). It’s almost a cruel joke concocted by the producers to match Travis with two of country’s great current baritones – the juxtaposition of Travis with two artists in their vocal prime just serves to highlight his fading vocal ability. Pairing Travis with Alan Jackson on “Better Class of Losers” is laughable with a spot-on Jackson running circles around Travis who never had strong command of pitch even in his prime, and he's blown completely out of the recording studio by the vocal nuance of Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth in “Love Looks Good on You.” The album also interestingly features surprisingly weak performances from two of country’s biggest stars -- Carrie Underwood on “Is it Still Over” and Kenney Chesney on “He Walked on Water.”
It’s a touching tribute that so many well-respected artists would honor Travis by lending their voices to the album, and it’s a testament to his music’s power to shape artists of multiple generations across multiple genres. But there’s a time when even the great ones have to hang it up, and for Travis, the time has sadly arrived.