In 2011, Randy Travis filmed an intimate acoustic concert to mark the 25th anniversary of Storms of Life, the 1986 album that sold 4 million copies and spurred the neo-traditionalist movement in modern country music. No one would have guessed that footage would become “the last live recording we did,” says Kyle Lehning, Travis’ longtime producer.
But in 2013, as the footage was being prepared for release — a release that didn’t happen then — Travis was admitted to a Dallas area hospital with complications of viral cardiomyopathy. He suffered a massive stroke that necessitated brain surgery and robbed him of his ability to play guitar and perform. It also limited his speech. Doctors told his wife, Mary, that he had only a 1 or 2 percent chance of survival.
And yet here we are 11 years later, and a new documentary built upon that footage celebrates the life of the beloved singer, now 63. Randy Travis: More Life couples that concert with the rest of the story — Travis’ multiple touch-and-go medical emergencies, his long rehabilitation (with such techniques as neuro-acupuncture, hyperbaric chamber treatment and stem cell injections), and retirement on his ranch in Tioga, Texas. (You can rent the documentary on streaming platforms, or watch it for free on Travis’ YouTube channel in episodes being released every two weeks through July 7.)
Celebrating Country Music
Though the seven-time Grammy winner comprehends everything around him, Travis no longer speaks in complete sentences, and so Mary does the talking for him. (The couple wed in 2015 after Randy’s 2010 divorce from Elizabeth “Lib” Hatcher, who landed his recording contract and spearheaded his career during their 19-year marriage.)
In our interview, Randy nods in agreement, smiles and punctuates the conversation with the occasional word or two. He especially lights up when Mary recounts the outpouring of support from fans since the incident. Country fans are perhaps the most loyal of any genre, and Nashville’s elite performers have always made themselves accessible to their followers, spawning a family bond between artists and fans.
“When we were still in the hospital, my sister-in-law would say, ‘I need to bring you mail,’ ” Mary remembers. “Well, she would bring these big blue storage crates, and they would be full. Then, two or three days later, she’d bring another one and it was full. I read every one of those letters to Randy when we were in the hospital, even though he was in his coma state a lot of times. They gave us strength and encouragement.”
The couple also heard from Garth Brooks, Jamey Johnson and the since-deceased Charlie Daniels, all of whom called to check on Randy and offer support. Several of the Oak Ridge Boys came to the hospital. And Josh Turner, who had grown up emulating the vocals of Travis’ Storms of Life and who sings “T.I.M.E.” with him in the documentary, performed an impromptu concert for Randy in his hospital room as Turner’s wife, Jennifer, took Mary out for some much-needed away time.
“I won’t lie, it was hard,” Turner recalls. “They had taken part of his skull off because his brain had been swelling and the doctors were trying to alleviate that. His head was bandaged and he was in a pretty critical state. I played six songs for him, and he would nod his head and smile and I could tell it took his mind off his situation.”
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Turner visited Travis again in the intensive care unit after a critical setback. “He was basically just skin and bones. You could just sense the heaviness in that room because everyone was scared to death they were going to lose him. I cried all the way down the hallway because I thought that would be the last time I saw him. I just knew that he wasn’t going to pull out of it.”
Yet some months later, Turner was playing a show in Texas and Randy and Mary showed up at his bus. “His hair had grown back, he had put on weight, and he looked like the old Randy. I was in shock. He is a tough cat. I think I’ve learned more about him since he got sick than I ever did before.”
In 2020, Turner invited Randy to make a guest appearance on his remake of Travis’ “Forever and Ever, Amen.” In his first recording since his stroke, Travis added an emotional “amen” at the end of the song. But that’s where Travis drew the line. When Turner asked if he wanted to sing more than that, “He looked at me and all he said was, ‘Nope.’ It was a very emphatic ‘nope.’ All he wanted to do was the ‘amen.’ ”
Though Travis may never sing again, there are unreleased tracks likely to get dusted off, as with the 2020 release of “Fool’s Love Affair,” a demo the North Carolina native recorded in 1984 that immediately racked up more than 1 million streams by fans eager for more of the baritone The Paris Review once described as a “deep nasal whine, a mix of range and grog and woebegone.”
“Randy was born to sing real, honest-to-God country music,” says Lehning, his producer. “He has an old soul’s voice, and he’s a direct line from Hank Williams Sr. to Lefty Frizzell to Merle Haggard and George Jones, the great, male, instantly recognizable country singers. He was never as interested in chasing stardom as he was in following authenticity.”
Having sold more than 25 million records, Travis’ legacy is intact. But perhaps it now also includes a hard-won lesson in perseverance. “He has been just a picture of health,” Mary says. “We don’t go to the doctor other than just for our six-month checkups.”
His only medication is to control the seizures that started after the stroke. A physical therapist comes to the house, and the couple stays engaged, seeing friends and going out for dinner and movies. His goal these days is to “stay healthy and stay the course,” Mary adds. “The best therapy is living life.”
Alanna Nash has written about music and culture for such publications as Vanity Fair, People, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times, and is a winner of a Country Music Association media award.