Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
Randy Travis hasn't had it easy in recent years with abuse, arrests and this past summer, a major health issue of a stroke. But one thing that hasn't changed is the ease with which the North Carolina native, credited with spearheading the Neo Traditionalist movement 25 years ago, tackles traditional material. That's what this disc is about - Travis doing his take on songs that influenced him.
From the sounds of it, Travis had a lot of good music kicking around the house, especially Merle Haggard. Travis doesn't tackle a bunch of songs among the 13 that everyone is likely to know. Yes, he does his version of Saginaw, Michigan, Thanks a Lot and Why Baby Why. He pays tribute to one of his musical heroes, George Jones, on the closing Tonight I'm Playin' Possum with Joe Nichols, but for the most part, these are songs listeners are likely to be hearing for the first time. Merle Haggard was a huge reference point at least based on numbers along because he was the original performer on five of the 13 songs. Among them are the lead-off Someday We'll Look Back, Ever Changing Woman and originally done with Willie Nelson in 1983. If you didn't know this was a covers disc, you may not have known any better.
The production from long-time Travis producer Kyle Lehning is on the spare, low-key side. The Hag'sWhat Have You Got Planned Tonight Diana, penned by David Kirby and Curly Putnam, features pedal steel underneath Travis' easy going, heartfelt and vibrant vocals, which also includes a spoken part. Fiddle is the prominent instrument with a snatch of acoustic guitar on Pennies From Heaven, a song made famous by Bing Crosby in 1936 in a film he starred in of the same name. You just don't hear this kind of music being made in Nashville these days. Of course, you're not going to hear the revved up country on a Travis album. That's not what this guy is about.
When he turns it up a notch on Jones' Why Baby Why and Saginaw, Michigan, pedal steel is heard underneath along with backing female vocals on the latter, further underscoring the obvious fact that this is not a release intended for the commercial masses at country radio. Instead, Travis is content to rely on what moved and still moves him without taking a stab at the charts. Smart move because has had only one song (the number one song Three Wooden Crosses) break the top 15 since 1999.
Travis may have optimistically entitled this collection as "Volume 1." That shows a lot of confidence, but in Travis' case, it was warranted.