Each week for the next year, Wide Open Country is highlighting a country album that played a pivotal role in the genre. These records come from every corner and decade of the genre: from classic country, to the outlaw movement, to modern mainstream hitmakers and everything in between. But the one thing they have in common? They deserve a deeper listen, from front to back.
Week Two: Randy Travis, Always & Forever
When Randy Travis first arrived in Nashville in 1980, he took a job working as a cook at The Nashville Palace. His manager (and girlfriend) Lib Hatcher just so happened to manage the club and restaurant, so she also booked him there.
Those performances set an early foundation for his sound. A sound that, for the first half of the 1980s, was summarily discarded as "too country." Just about every label rejected Travis at first, until his album Live at The Nashville Palace earned him a record deal. His first album, Storms Of Life, skyrocketed him to stardom. Which is what makes his second, Always & Forever, so impressive.
Why Always & Forever Is Important: Travis stepped into a country world full or urban cowboys, big hair and 80s pop production. When Storms Of Life proved a success, Travis experienced immense pressure to prove his counter-culture country wasn't simply a fad.
One way he did that was, basically, not let enough time pass for anybody to tell the difference. Travis released Always & Forever fewer than 10 months after his first record. Which is, by most accounts, unheard of. His label also released his singles in rapid succession, with all four ascending to the top of the charts.
But the song "Forever and Ever, Amen," is really the focal point of the record. That single, another phenomenal collaboration from Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz, arguably launched the neo-traditional country movement. It won the Grammy for Best Country & Western Song and the Academy of Country Music Award for Song of the Year.
What To Listen For: Travis actually doubled down on ballads on his second record, a move counter-intuitive to the boot-scootin' radio tunes at the time. Travis includes just about every country instrument possible on the record. Slide guitar, fiddle, banjo, dobro, pedabro, harmonica. It's all there.
But he also created a record that focused heavily on his vocal and cut out the overproduced tendencies of the time. That's partially the reason the record ages so well.
"Good Intentions" is one of the saddest songs in Travis' repertoire. It's also his most Merle Haggard-esque (and that's saying a lot). One reason? Travis co-wrote it alongside The Hag and Marvin Coe.
Final Take: Randy Travis may be the greatest male country singer of the 1980s. Or at least of 1986-1990, when he actually started his professional career. Good luck finding a more prolific period of time for any artist.
His ability to deliver an album like Always & Forever immediately after Storms Of Life cemented him as the torchbearer for traditional country. Yes, every decade of country music features a battle between "traditional" and "pop" country.
It doesn't hurt that "Forever and Ever, Amen" is one of the best country songs of all time. And that helps make Always & Forever one of the greatest albums in country music.