Music

'Three Wooden Crosses': The Story Behind Randy Travis' Song of Faith and Mercy

FILE - In this June 7, 2013 file photo, Randy Travis performs at the 2013 CMA Music Festival at LP Field in Nashville Tenn. Travis has been hospitalized in Texas with viral cardiomyopathy. A news release from the singer's publicist says Travis was admitted to the hospital Sunday, July 7, 2013, in Dallas. (Photo by John Davisson/Invision/AP, File)

When Randy Travis released his number-one hit song, "Three Wooden Crosses," he hadn't had a chart-topping hit in nearly a decade. Not only was the song a country music hit, but the now gospel classic was released in collaboration with Warner Bros Nashville and Word Records, which became the first Christian label single to reach the coveted spot of number one on the country charts. Songwriters Kim Williams and Doug Johnson created a song that emotionally captures the power of faith and redemption and continues to be special to listeners to this day.

Johnson told WSLC that it all started when he came up with the concept of the central characters in the song.

"One night, I was sitting around the house," Johnson begins, "and I came up with the characters - a farmer, a teacher, a preacher, and a hooker - on their way to Mexico. I thought it was a really odd grouping of people, but from that, the first verse and the melody of a song just kind of came out...I just had to figure out what was going to happen."

When he pitched the song to Kim Williams, they knew they had something special on their hands. 

"That was one of the best opening lines to a song I'd ever heard," Williams recalls. "I remember telling Doug that I didn't know where this was going - but I couldn't wait to find out!"

Read More: 10 Things You Didn't Know About Randy Travis

Williams and Johnson took that opening line and started working on the song together. They decided that they knew which character was going to survive in order to have the most impact on listeners. 

"I think we both knew that it would be the hooker," says Johnson with a laugh. "It seemed to fit in with the theme of forgiveness and understanding that we were going for. I am always moved by messages of mercy, and by stories of outcasts who are saved by love."

And he was right. The song, from Travis's 2002 album Rise and Shine, was incredibly popular -- especially with Randy Travis delivering the lyrics. Listeners requested the song over and over again on the radio and it became his 16th No. 1 hit. "Three Wooden Crosses" went on to win Song of the Year at the CMA Awards and the Dove Awards. Various artists have covered the song over the years, including Josh Turner

The song has become one of Travis' signature songs. In 2009, he even named his compilation album covering some of his greatest hits, Three Wooden Crosses: The Inspirational Hits of Randy Travis.

"Three Wooden Crosses" Lyrics

A farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher
Ridin' on a midnight bus bound for Mexico
One's headed for vacation, one for higher education
And two of them were searchin' for lost souls
That driver never ever saw the stop sign
And eighteen wheelers can't stop on a dime
There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway
Why there's not four of them, Heaven only knows
I guess it's not what you take when you leave this world behind you
It's what you leave behind you when you go
That farmer left a harvest, a home, and eighty acres
The faith and love for growin' things in his young son's heart
And that teacher left her wisdom in the minds of lots of children
Did her best to give 'em all a better start
And that preacher whispered, "Can't you see the Promised Land?"
As he laid his blood-stained bible in that hooker's hand
There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway
Why there's not four of them, Heaven only knows
I guess it's not what you take when you leave this world behind you
It's what you leave behind you when you go
That's the story that our preacher told last Sunday
As he held that blood-stained bible up
For all of us to see
He said "Bless the farmer, and the teacher, and the preacher
Who gave this Bible to my mama
Who read it to me"
There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway
Why there's not four of them, now I guess we know
It's not what you take when you leave this world behind you
It's what you leave behind you when you go
There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway

Now Watch: Loretta Lynn's Siblings: Then & Now

recommended for you

'Three Wooden Crosses': The Story Behind Randy Travis' Song of Faith and Mercy