The early-to-mid-1980s are typically regarded as something of a dark age in country music history. The success of the 1980 John Travolta film Urban Cowboy (or, more specifically, its blockbuster soft pop/rock soundtrack) signaled the death knell of the outlaw era and ushered in an era of synthesizers and drum machines. Living legends were shut out almost overnight by radio and the average song on the airwaves became less country than ever before.
As the legend goes, out of nowhere a rookie named Randy Travis released his debut, triple-platinum album Storms of Life in 1986, scored multiple #1 hits and in the process, turned the tide at radio and single-handedly saved country music from itself. Indeed, whenever a traditional-leaning artist like Jamey Johnson or Chris Stapleton emerges in recent years, fans disillusioned with mainstream country radio often hope that they’ll prove to be “the next Randy Travis.”
As with many attempts to neatly summarize an entire era, this account might be something of an oversimplification – given that artists like George Strait, Reba McEntire and John Anderson had already released their debut albums and were making an impact on the charts years before this album was released, it’s probably true that the neotraditional movement was already in place and gaining momentum by the time anyone had heard of Randy Travis. However, there is no denying that Travis had an enormous impact and Storms of Life is the one album more than any other that brought traditional country back to the forefront in the mainstream, where it was to stay for a good half-decade until Garth Brooks’ No Fences swung the proverbial pendulum back in the other direction.
Storms of Life is one of those albums where the songs are such consistently high quality choosing what to highlight is a daunting task for a reviewer. Even the “lesser” tracks would serve as a highlight on an ordinary good album, and every song here is single-material. “1982” is the perfect wish-you-could-go-back song with some mesmerizing steel guitar, “On the Other Hand” is a not-quite-cheating classic, “No Place Like Home” is a tender ballad with some touching lyrics, and “Send My Body”, despite dealing with a dire predicament, is insanely fun and catchy. The influence of Merle, George, and Lefty is clearly evident in these songs, and Randy’s vocals display a remarkable richness and maturity that belie his mid-twenties age. I honestly struggle to come up with any kind of criticism, simply because this is a record that perfectly achieves what it sets out to do.
Special mention must be made of the magnificent ballad “Reasons I Cheat”, about a husband and father who commits infidelity because he doesn’t feel appreciated or fulfilled. While this behavior is obviously extremely difficult to justify, the song is told from the man’s point of view, and you can’t help but understand where he’s coming from, at least a little. It’s a dark, complex song that will stick with you. That Travis is the lone writer to this song is quite impressive, and it being arguably the best-written track on the album is no mean feat given the aforementioned all-star team of distinguished songwriters that contributed to this record.
However, if I had to pick a favorite song, I’d probably go with the title track. About a man who’s going down the wrong road but knows he’s not going to change, it’s a country classic in the vein of similar songs such as “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Lost Highway.” The album closer, “There’ll Always Be a Honky-Tonk Somewhere”, acknowledges that the realities of the human condition that country music deals with are universal and eternal, and does so in a fun, humorous manner. And why would you want it any other way?
I don’t know if I’d go as far to outright call Storms of Life the greatest honky-tonk album ever made, simply because the competition is so stiff; it has to compete with classics like Vern Gosdin’s Chiseled in Stone, Merle Haggard’s Back to the Barrooms, Joe Ely’s Honky Tonk Masquerade and Gary Stewart’s Out of Hand, among others. However, even at worst, it’s extremely close to that title, and is also easily one of the very best debut albums ever in country music, in any era or subgenre. It goes without saying that this is an all-time great release that everyone should listen to at least once. But I bet you won’t be able to stop at just one listen.
Grade: 4 out of 4 flags