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randy travis holding a guitar in front of a microphone

Illustration: Selman Hoşgör, (Frederick Breedon IV/WireImage/Getty Images)

Randy Travis Still Feels the Music

Years after life-changing stroke, the country star is still making history

In 1986, with the release of his debut studio album, Storms of Life, Randy Travis was revered not only for his artistry but also for reversing the pop-country trend of the urban cowboy years, bringing the genre back to its roots and making “neo-traditional” country popular again.

He was a country star almost out of central casting — authentically homespun, respectful of his elders, his voice steeped in the inflections of his idols, primarily Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard and George Jones.

But with the fame and riches — he’s lassoed 22 No. 1 singles, four platinum albums, one double platinum, one triple platinum and a quintuple platinum — came turmoil: a 2010 divorce and attendant financial woes, and in 2012, driving while intoxicated and bizarre public behavior that hearkened to his early years of juvenile delinquency and arrests. (Travis chronicles his beginnings in his 2019 book, Forever and Ever, Amen: A Memoir of Music, Faith, and Braving the Storms of Life, with author Ken Abraham.)

He was just beginning to get his life back on track with the help of Mary Davis, whom he began dating post-divorce.

Then in 2013, Travis was admitted to a Dallas area hospital for viral cardiomyopathy after complaining of congestion. Doctors found that his lungs had filled with fluid, his condition critical.

“Randy flatlined,” says Mary Davis Travis, who wed the star in 2015. “And it took the doctors a little over three minutes to get him back. When they resuscitated him, it threw a clot and went to the brain. But he was in a coma for the next three days, so they didn’t realize he had a massive stroke while he was in the coma.”

Doctors told Mary that Randy would need immediate brain surgery, and even then, “They said, ‘You’ve got one to two percent chance.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s 100 percent over zero.’ Randy is a warrior. He stared death in the face and didn’t blink, and here we are today, seven years later. It’s hard to believe.”

“Yeah,” says Randy, a bit of awe in his voice.

“Randy has always been my hero. “He was the reason I wanted to become a country singer."

— Josh Turner

Following the near-fatal stroke that permanently affected the left side of his brain, he had to learn how to walk and talk again. Because Randy can only speak in brief sentences, Mary speaks for the two of them. But he can still sing a bit — just not with the stamina to record an album or give a concert.

“The aphasia that he was left with keeps him from speaking in full sentences,” Mary says. “Music is a little different, because it’s stored on the right side of the brain, the artistic and memory side. So the songs are all there. He knows all the words, but the aphasia doesn’t let the brain speak to the mouth and let them come out like they used to.”

And Travis still feels the music in his bones.

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In late July, Travis released “Fool’s Love Affair,” a demo he recorded in 1984, before his career took off. Dusted off with enhanced instrumental backing, the song quickly racked up more than 1 million streams on digital platforms. Travis’ “honey-running baritone,” as Mary calls it, can be heard again.

Randy also makes a guest appearance on Josh Turner’s just-out remake of Travis’ classic song “Forever and Ever, Amen.” That’s Randy’s emotional “Amen” at the end of the tune, which appears on Turner’s album Country State of Mind — Travis’ performance was his first recording session since his stroke.

“Randy has always been my hero,” Turner says. “He was the reason I wanted to become a country singer. He’s an inspiring figure, not just to me but to a lot of people, so to have him sing on this record is pretty special.”