With lifetime sales in excess of 25 million, Randy Travis is one of the biggest multi-genre record sellers of all time and a recent inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame class of 2016. His honors include seven Grammy Awards; 11 Academy of Country Music statuettes; 10 American Music Awards; two People’s Choice awards; seven Music City News awards; eight Dove Awards from the Gospel Music Association; and five Country Music Association honors. In addition, three of his performances earned CMA Song of the Year honors: “On the Other Hand” (1986), “Forever and Ever Amen” (1987) and “Three Wooden Crosses” (2002). To date, he has 23 No. 1 singles, 31 Top-10 smashes and more than 40 appearances in feature films and television shows to his credit. Four of his albums are Gold Records. Four are Platinum. One has gone Double Platinum. One is Triple Platinum, and another is Quintuple Platinum. In 2004, Randy was honored with his own star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is honored on the Music City Walk of Fame in Nashville, TN. He has been a member of the cast of the Grand Ole Opry since 1986. In 2017, Randy was honored with a wax figure at Madame Tussauds™ Nashville.
Since his near fatal stroke in 2013, with the help of his wife, Mary, and rigorous physical therapy, Randy continues to make improvements in his speaking, walking, and yes, singing. With the help of author Ken Abraham, he released his critically-acclaimed memoir in 2019, Forever and Ever, Amen.
Chet Cooper: Randy, are you capable of speaking at this stage in your therapy?
Randy Travis: No.
Mary Travis: Simple words, yes, that’s how aphasia goes, as you know.
Cooper: Did you know or read the book by Kirk Douglas, My Stroke of Luck, after his stroke?
Mary: Yes, sure did. Actually, Kirk sent that to us after Randy’s stroke, with the kindest note. We still have that. It was signed, with a sweet note to Randy as we read it. It meant a lot to us.
Cooper: That is so nice to hear. I spent some time with him after his stroke at his house. I don’t know if he had mentioned in the book how he had a new awareness in his own life about being human, observing other people and seeing how the caregivers and others around him were supporting him. He realized that he was selfish, and it changed his view from being self-centered in his life. Randy, it seems like you were more of a giver. There’s something there that seemed to be a little bit different from the Hollywood scene Kirk grew up in and the battle within. But there might be a similar battle in music. Can you say anything about a change of attitude after your stroke, looking at other people and caregivers, especially Mary?
Mary: You hit the nail on the head. Randy’s always been very humble, kind, appreciative, cordial, and always made time for his fans as far as autographs and pictures. He’d be late for a show if he had to if there was somebody who wanted to tell him a story. Randy was known for that. He’s still known for that. That still happens to us today. We’ll be in the middle of dinner somewhere, and people will come over, “Do you mind a picture?” and he’ll do it. Because Randy understands that those are the people who brought him to where he is, and without those folks, there wouldn’t be a need to be up on that stage singing. So Randy has never forgotten his roots. He didn’t forget the dance, the ones who brung him. And maybe that’s different in music and being up there on a stage singing to people. Because you have those people right in front of you. You see responses—faces, tears and smiles—and maybe that makes it a little different from Kirk Douglas in Hollywood.
In his case, you’re acting for a camera. You never really see the response that you’re having from the people watching the movie, other than the ratings you get. But as far as putting a face and a name and a smile or a tear with those people, you don’t ever see that. So maybe it’s a little easier to become calloused or self-centered, if you will, like you said. I see less of that maybe in music, especially country and gospel music, for that reason. You’re in touch with your fans more on a daily basis than Hollywood is.
Cooper: That’s a great answer. I always felt there was something humble about Randy. It came across. You only know as much as you see. You never know the real person, but it certainly seems to come across that way. The way you’re describing the music, that the audience is responsive, that’s something. If you think about movies, it’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait and lighting and this and that, and there’s lots of crew. I’m sure it’s more stressful than we think, and everyone wants your attention as well, Randy, and that at some point, it takes a toll, I would think.
Mary: I’ve never even really thought about it. You’re the one who brought it to my attention. That’s where I see the difference. We did go to Hollywood, we did do 44 shows, TV, movies, things like that, but he took the heart with him that he already had, and he didn’t change. He was doing Westerns and they usually have the heart, maybe just from being country folks. And in Hollywood, they cater to you. There’s somebody there to peel your grapes and powder your nose. You learn to expect that. But once you get on that stage and you’ve got a couple of hours all on your own up there, all by yourself, there’s nobody catering to you.
Cooper: Nor powder your grapes! (laughter)
Mary: Or peel your nose! (laughter)
Cooper: I forgot you’re an actor as well. And here I just threw Hollywood under the bus.
Mary: We understand what you’re saying.
Cooper: Tell me about you finding out about aphasia and getting more involved in that awareness movement.
Mary: I’ll be honest with you, it’s something we didn’t know anything about. I’d never delved into stroke that much to begin with. It had never touched my life. I know Randy hadn’t; it wasn’t in his family. Until you go through it, until you educate yourself, just like anything else in life, you’re basically an idiot about it. And I was. The aphasia part was a real eye-opener for me, because I know that I’ve run across people in my past who didn’t speak, and I misconstrued it as if they just didn’t like me, didn’t have anything to stay to me, or were stuck up or whatever. But that’s not the truth.
And now that we’ve gone through this, if somebody speaks to Randy or they try to have a conversation and he doesn’t talk back to them, I’ve heard them walk away and go, “Well, I guess he doesn’t have anything to say to me.” And you think, “Oh, my gosh, he really does, but he has aphasia.” Then of course they feel bad, but I want them to understand that there are people like that. I think two-thirds of stroke victims are affected with aphasia at some point, to some degree, some more severe than others, depending on what part of the brain is damaged or affected.
It’s an awareness that people need to have. There have been so many people I’ve been able to bear witness to, to explain to them what aphasia is and how it affects stroke victims. It’s a matter of letting the world know what it is so they can be more of a help than a hindrance.
Cooper: Randy, can you write? Which arm was affected? Are you right-handed or left-handed?
Mary: He’s left now. He was right-handed.
Cooper: Have you tried writing?
Mary: He was left brain. He learned to write his autograph with his left hand.
Cooper: I have a check I’m sending you. Can you sign that for me? (laughter) And what about typing? Can you type with your left hand?
Mary: As far as letters on the computer.
Cooper: So his brain’s not connecting yet with the keyboard and letters? OK. There was someone I met years ago who had aphasia and through his rehab, he was watching movies with the captioning on and he was connecting the words with what he was hearing. That helped him to start to build his vocabulary again, to build those words. Have you thought of doing something like that, Randy?
Mary: We do have movies that have captions. I think he recognizes words here and there, and as far as the captioning, I will read those to him so that he can see the word. We do a lot of that. And there are still everyday words, even eight and a half years out, that I see he’s starting to recognize that he didn’t last week, last month or last year. I know the brain is still working on it. His was a massive stroke in the central cerebral lobe of the left side, where all of those speech patterns take place and all of the communication, the writing, the reading, occurs.
He had some vision problems the first six to nine months afterward, but the vision came back, which was wonderful. As far as the communication, it’s limited but getting better.
Cooper: The person that I know, I think he was ten years out, and he was also still getting words. He was always by himself with these movies. He eventually started watching the words in foreign films. He found that time spent getting his brain acclimated to seeing and hearing helped. And I think he actually spoke different languages when he was younger, so that was another good thing for him, to try to reconnect to a foreign language. Like you said, it’s different and everyone has a different capacity for rehab. It takes sometimes so much longer than we expect. You just keep going.
Mary: We went for two and a half years every single day for four to five hours of occupational, physical, and speech therapy, and it did get to the point where Randy had pretty much shut down. He got to the point where he didn’t want to go, but I made him go, and we’d get there, and he’d just sit there. He had shut down. Even the therapist said, “When it gets to that point, they need a break.” And it’s exhausting. I can only imagine being in their shoes and trying to start over. It took us about two and a half to three months just to learn the sound of A, just to say A again.
We would get one sound, two sounds, three sounds, and they started getting better. It’s tedious. I can see where they would want to give up real quick, because it’s “giant baby steps,” but to us they were huge. Saying the first word—all of these things—meant so much. When we got home from the hospital, he didn’t recognize the channel changer. He didn’t know what a phone was. He didn’t know things that we take for granted. Until the brain gets those connections that had been clipped, it has to figure out how to reconnect to the world again.
Cooper: It sounds like you’ve gone through both the medical and rehab sides, but it comes down to your own efforts. Once you get through the frustrating times as you had, you can get depressed. There are a lot of things that are really challenging. Maybe because I am a journalist, I’ve seen so many people who have done so well over the years, not full recovery per se, but more than huge steps. I’m glad you’re feeling more optimistic to continue to move forward in your ongoing word-building and everything you’re trying to do to regain more of your ability.
With music, tell us how you’re doing. It’s almost like a relaunch of your music. There’s a lot of activity going on, lots of press releases coming our way about you. How does that all come about? Is it just new to me? Is it new to you as well, this resurgence of music that you’re putting out?
Mary: There are songs that he remembers recording. There are songs that were in the vault. But they were songs that Randy had recorded back in the ’80s and early ’90s, maybe for an album and they ran out of room on the album and were put on the shelf. The songs that just came out with the remastered Storms of Life were three of the ten songs that were cut from the Storms of Life album. They put down 20 songs and 10 of them made the album, which was all they would put on albums back then. So these three new ones were made for that album. They get to see the light of day. It just took 35 years to get them off the shelf.
Cooper: Is there a specific reason it’s coming out at this time?
Mary: Thirty-five years ago is when Storms of Life came out. It was the pivotal album that turned country music back into country music. There had been urban cowboy pop, which had lost the traditional country flavor. And Randy had come to Nashville and been there for several years before anybody would ever consider him because they kept saying, “You’re just too country.” And he never understood, because he said, “How am I too country to be in country music?”
Mary: He was having some issues there. But the radio was playing your urban cowboy and your pop stuff. They weren’t looking for people like Randy. There was a lady, Martha Sharp, who was the head of A&R at Warner. She went out to Nashville Palace and listened to Randy, and she loved what she heard. She loved this good, wholesome-looking boy, dressed in a jacket and his boots and his pressed slacks. He looked so sharp. She heard that voice and she said, “That’s what I’m looking for!” So she signed him with Warner without even asking the president or anybody else. Pretty soon after that they put out the Storms of Life, and that thing just took off. It went multi-platinum. Soon thereafter, he followed it up with another album, Always and Forever, and that went even bigger than Storms of Life. At that point, the guys who were wanting to play traditional country music, who had been shoved to the side now, had a foot in the door. They started getting heard, like Clint Black and George Strait and Garth Brooks. They got heard, because they had been playing the music, but nobody wanted to hear them, nobody was taking a chance on them. To the extent Martha did Randy and Randy just came out with that voice, and everybody stopped to listen. They turned him down for ten years, and after the last 35 years they’ve been turning him up.
Mary: It’s worked out just fine. I think that’s why, getting back to your original question, it’s been 35 years since the Storms of Life, and they wanted to reissue it in a remastered format with technology from 35 years forward, which is much cleaner and crisper than what they had back then. That’s when they decided to add the three new songs. People were excited about that, to hear his voice again with new songs, and he has some new Christmas songs coming out also.
Cooper: That were in the vault?
Cooper: What is the combination of the vault, by the way?
Mary: (laughs) 1982! (laughs)
Cooper: How did you two meet?
Mary: In 1990, I was working with my brother Stubbs, who had a shirt company called Stubbs Collection. We made the first shirt in our farmhouse here in Plano, Texas.
Cooper: Is that silk-screening shirts?
Mary: Yes. The first ones were silkscreened. They were dress shirts built for bodies like Randy’s that were kind of the nice perfect pyramid shape, with a little bitty waist. My brother was built the same way. He had work shirts and he said he felt like he was buying shirts for Omar the Tentmaker.
Mary: They fit in the neck and shoulders, but he had a little bitty waist, and so he was tucking this tablecloth in his dress slacks. So he started coming up with this design, and with buttons that were on a button tape so you could take them out, get the shirt dry cleaned, and not melt your buttons.
Cooper: Oh, clever!
Mary: He had all kinds of wonderful ideas, and he made a beautiful shirt. He had his hands on all of them. None of them ever left with a string hanging out. If it wasn’t perfect, it didn’t leave the shop. Randy was wearing them. He’d found them in a shop in Nashville, so he’d come to Dallas and he came by the office and would buy shirts or get new buttons or whatever it was that he wanted, and that’s where we first met, in 1990.
Cooper: You met him at the store?
Mary: We did meet at the store, and then we went to dinner.
Cooper: Is this before or after you took his shirt off— (laughs)
Mary: (laughs) At that point, he was of course in a relationship with his manager, and I was in a relationship, but neither one of us were married in 1990. He went off and got married and I went off and got married, and 20 years later, in 2010, we had kept in touch as family friends over the years, but there was nothing between the two of us other than the friendship amongst the family. In 2010, we reconnected. He was going through a divorce, I was going through a divorce, so we met up, and he can’t get rid of me. I’m like an old suitcase, you can’t get rid of it!
Cooper: (laughs) Are you still wearing those shirts?
Mary: Oh, a lot of times. You’ll see him in those Stubbs shirts in a lot of his pictures and appearances. They were wonderful shirts. They lasted forever.
Cooper: Randy, did you work out to get the V-shape for the shirt?
Cooper: You normally need to work out a lot to have a broader chest and a smaller waist. It takes real effort.
Mary: He did work out a lot. He was very fit, very conscious about it, very conscious about his diet, his vitamin regimen. He worked out with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris. He did some jiujitsu and martial arts with Chuck Norris. He was good friends with Jack LaLanne. He was very much into fitness. Going forward, when we had the stroke, the doctor said if he hadn’t been in such great shape, he never would have made it.
He was in top shape. He’d worked out three hours the day before we first went to the hospital.
Cooper: Are you able to do some exercises now?
Mary: His right side is paralyzed. His left side is amazingly strong, because it always was, but it had to take over the work of the right side. It kind of makes me mad, because he’s so disciplined, if you will.
Cooper: I think getting into any career the way you have, you have to have a certain internal discipline built into your DNA to make it that far, to get to that level. It just doesn’t happen, no matter how lucky one is, and to maintain it. So you worked out with Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Mary: One thing Randy always told me was that Arnold always said that your workout is not as important as the food that you give your body. The food you eat is as important or more important than the type of workout, the length of workout, the amount of workout you do. The food is more important than any of it. And that makes sense. I’m sure they’ve told you: you are what you eat. That was Arnold’s theory on it.
Cooper: Are you going to go on tour? What are your plans for the future, depending upon what happens with COVID?
Mary: As far as traveling, we’ve taken personal trips. As far as touring, we had a tour at the end of ’19 that was the Randy Music tour. Randy was there, present on the stage, but there was a young country singer named James Dupré who sang Randy’s songs. It mainly consisted of his hits. We want to travel and go on tour.
There’s nothing Randy would love more than to do concerts. But if that’s not the will of God, we’re OK. We’ll just do what we’re doing, go to concerts, listen to concerts, and have friends. If they do another Randy Music tour, we’ll be there too.
Cooper: Is there a movie in the works about your life, Randy?
Continued in next issue — Randy Travis part 2