As mainstream country music underwent dramatic transformations throughout the 1990s, many veteran artists who had made their name in the 1980s found themselves losing their foothold at radio. While Randy Travis was able to maintain success through the first half of the decade, his 1996 album Full Circle was a commercial flop. In response, Travis parted ways with longtime producer Kyle Lehning and co-produced the next two albums himself along with Byron Gallimore and James Stroud. This strategy worked initially, resulting in the excellent 1998 album You and You Alone, which yielded two #2 hits. However, the follow-up, 1999’s A Man Ain’t Made Of Stone, was one of the weakest albums of his Travis’ career, combining average material with overstuffed production, and was a commercial disaster. This all but killed Travis’ momentum, and he spent most of the next decade recording gospel music.
By 2008, Travis was back with Kyle Lehning and ready to return to secular country music. Around the Bend, released that year, is not the best album of Travis’ career, but is probably in the upper half and represents a return to form. The production is more contemporary than Travis’ early work, but is mostly rooted on the traditional side, especially by 2008 standards. Randy’s voice has changed throughout the years, becoming gruffer and deeper, and he probably lost a little bit of range, but the decline is not nearly significant enough to detract from the enjoyment. This album was roundly ignored by country radio, but that’s an indictment of country radio, not this album.
Randy Travis is not a prolific songwriter, and therefore whether his music succeeds or fails often rests on the quality of the material he chooses. Thankfully, I’m here to report Around the Bend draws from some of the top-shelf names in the business such as Leslie Satcher, Shawn Camp, Hugh Prestwood and even Bob Dylan. Not every track is a knockout, but each one is at least solid, and there are a few genuinely outstanding moments.
“You Didn’t Have a Good Time” is one of these highlights – a superb neotraditional ballad that explores the folly of using alcohol to disguise your problems. It’s a great stone cold country lyric, and Travis’ performance proves why he’s considered a living legend. “Dig Two Graves” is similarly excellent – a man’s wife is dying, and he realizes he loves her so deeply he probably won’t be able to last without her. Such a theme could easily be mawkish in lesser hands, but Travis makes it work. The piano-led ballad is incredibly moving and was one of the best singles of 2008.
The rest of the album fails to match these two songs, but there’s plenty of quality to be had. “Every Head Bowed” is a clever ditty that involves reminiscing about attending church as a kid and engaging in all sorts of hijinks. “Everything I Own (Has Got a Dent)” is another humorous number that succeeds, featuring a narrator likening his failed relationship to all the other things in his life that are broken. “Turn It Around” is a catchy slice of pop-country, if not very deep lyrically. Album closer “‘Til I’m Dead and Gone” is a well-executed bluegrass-flavored uptempo with an enjoyable instrumental outro. I wouldn’t mind seeing Travis record a bluegrass album someday.
Among the more weighty material, Leslie Satcher’s “From Your Knees” is a serviceable neotraditional ballad with a witty double meaning chorus, but it’s the type of song you’re more likely to enjoy in the moment rather than remember afterward. Hugh Prestwood (“The Song Remembers When”, “Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart”) is a songwriter whose name is synonymous with quality, and I’ve always thought highly of his “Love is a Gamble”, a touching ballad of a mother advising her son on what love really means (and I happen to love the way Randy enunciates the word “torn” in the chorus). Bob Dylan’s classic “Don’t Think Twice (It’s All Right)” has been covered by a bevy of country singers, and while Randy’s version doesn’t set the world on fire, it makes for a pleasant listen.
“Faith in You” is a very lush, string-laden ballad that involves Randy ruminating philosophically on the meaning of faith, life, and love. This is the type of song that wears its emotion on its sleeve and is overt in its attempt to impact the listener emotionally. Randy’s sincere performance is enough for this song to win me over, but I can easily understand how others might find it too treacly.
After a nine-year wait for secular music, Around the Bend was somewhat disappointing in that it fails to be as thoroughly excellent as Storms of Life, or even some of Randy’s better ’90s albums. However, if you judge it by its own merits and not in comparison to Randy’s past work, it’s easily a well-above average album, constituting a satisfying collection of tunes that add positively to Randy’s legacy. If you haven’t gotten around to exploring Randy Travis’ catalog yet, this is not the place to start, but it’s definitely worth seeking out at some point. Truthfully, I struggled between giving this album 3 or 3.5 flags, but after some deliberation I decided “You Didn’t Have a Good Time” and “Dig Two Graves” are strong enough for the latter rating to get the nod. It’s a worthwhile album no matter how you slice it.
3.5 Flags Out of 4