On Randy Travis’s Distinctive Whine

Randy Travis.

The first song I ever loved was “On the Other Hand,” by Randy Travis. It was the first single from Travis’s debut album, Storms of Life—and it was the third single, too. The song fizzled when Travis first released it in the summer of 1985, so he rereleased it the following spring, figuring it might fare better after “1982,” the album’s second single, entered the top ten.

This time, “On the Other Hand” went to number one on the charts. It was on country radio all the time, and because we listened to country radio all the time, I learned the song, as I’d learned countless others, through osmosis. We lived in Davidson County, in the hills due north of Nashville, a place where country music was less a form of entertainment than an atmospheric feature, as ubiquitous as clouds and often as nebulous.

“On the Other Hand” was different from the other country music I heard at the time. Travis’s deep nasal whine, a mix of range and grog and woebegone, blew through the blur. His voice seemed to summon Hank Williams by way of a bullfrog. He was, among other things, an irresistible parody. I stood in front of the fireplace in the living room. I pinched my nostrils. “On one hand, I count the reasons I could stay with you,” I started, pausing to release my nose-hold and inhale again before continuing, “and hold you close to me, all night long.” 

The song finds Travis weighing the pros and cons of continuing an affair. In the pros column is the pleasure his mistress provides. “And on that hand,” Travis sings, “I see no reason why it’s wrong.” “But on the other hand,” he continues, “there’s a golden band.” If, in the end, Travis is leaning toward calling off the fling, the song is hardly a defense of fidelity. Travis’s divided heart is still with his lover, whom he credits with reviving his joie de vivre. “I’ve got to hand it to you girl,” he tells her in the final verse, “you’re something else.”

Storms of Life went on to sell more than three million copies and win the 1986 Academy of Country Music Award for Album of the Year. It has about it a kind of creaky coherence. The songs are about cheating, leaving, and crisis. The album begins with “On the Other Hand” and ends with “There’ll Always Be a Honky Tonk Somewhere”—the messy bedroom leads inevitably to the barstool, with trips along the way to memory lane (“Digging Up Bones,” “1982”), the confessional (“Reasons I Cheat”), the railroad crossing (“Send My Body”), and the therapist (“Messin’ With My Mind”).

Thematically, the songs don’t buck tradition so much as begrudgingly capitulate to it. In “No Place Like Home,” the single released after “On the Other Hand,” the wholesome truth of the titular cliché dawns on the narrator with the force of revelation—but only after his wife has sent him packing. In the end, the song isn’t about home; it’s about the nostalgia that swirls in the wake of wrecking it.

The gulf between my interest and Travis’s intentions must have given my parents a rise. They marveled at how I knew every word. And I did know every word—or at least knew how to sing them, if not quite what they were saying. What little I could gather, which may have been only a vague notion of friction between the sexes, felt odd and slightly frightening.

Indeed, country songs were not unlike horror films. Both derived power from the ridiculous. Both dealt in extremes, in worst-case scenarios. Both played out, in large part, under cover of dark. There were differences, of course. Instead of monsters, country songs featured carousers. Instead of curses, the toughest of luck. Still, the one seemed as outré as the other. In childhood, masked murderers and unpaid bills are comparably remote.

There was a sense, however, in which the lyrics were beside the point, for in the end, as in the beginning, what I loved first and foremost about Randy Travis was his voice. It was the whine that resonated, that wavering, wind-burred bellow, the sadness and the apathy of it, the pathetic beauty. I wondered how in the world he’d gotten away with making such a noise.

Of all the wisdom my parents imparted—to say sir, to say ma’am, to hold doors for the people behind you, to shake with a firm hand, and so on—the bit they were most emphatic about was whining. Nobody, they said, respected a whiner. It was wrong for the living to want to die, and that’s what whining communicated: I’d rather be dead.

Tied to the warning about whining was a second rule: thou shalt not mope. Whining had to do with talk. Moping had to with posture, with physical crestfallenness, lethargy exaggerated for effect. Put them together and you’d get a loser sulking about with a moan on his lips, which, to hear my parents tell it, was a terrible look. And yet there was Travis, moping and whining without apology, singing on the radio in a tone of voice for which I would have been upbraided and sent off to my room.

Travis’s whine, truth be told, didn’t sound all that sorry to me. I thought it had integrity. It was possessed of the languor of late summer. It felt of a piece with the North Nashville landscape. In a place where the Ford Broncos and tobacco barns had seen better days, where wasps and poison ivy reigned tyrannically, where trees sagged under the weight of bug-gored fruit and tick-eared beagle hounds panted in the hot shade, how else, I wondered, should singing sound?

His was foothill music—not the soaring anthems of mountain tops, not the sober hymns of the horizontal plains, but a tremulous waver between the two, between the lower tiers of heaven and the higher rungs of hell, between delight and dejection, among apathy, agony, and force of will. There was loss in it—not the pain of loss, per se, but the shame that comes from knowing you were right to have lost and that if things stayed the same, you were probably going to keep on losing.

Travis was twenty-seven when Storms of Life came out. As a teenager in North Carolina, he’d dropped out of high school and done a bid in county jail for car theft. Singing was an escape that reified the need to. His world-sick timbre was the bruised fruit of nonchalance chastened by disgrace. Travis’s whine was audible and yet it retained an urgent, under-the-breath intimacy. It was as if a hostile hand was pressed up hard against that hole in the heart where feeling comes from. Even muffled, though, Travis’s sound was trenchant, cutting. It was the outermost echo of a buried cry.

That “On the Other Hand” sounded fresh, newfangled even, in the mideighties highlighted just how gassy Nashville country had become. Critics tagged Travis a neotraditionalist. But there was nothing neo about him. He sounded less like a fusion of contemporary and classic country than the rearrival of a sound that had never not been around. The final song on Storms of Life, “There’ll Always Be a Honky Tonk Somewhere,” opens around the album like a crowded room, at once turning the collection into an homage to honky-tonk music and an essay about the indispensability, in a weary world, of the whine.

Even as Travis became one of Nashville’s most reliable song-dogs, charting single after hit single and selling millions of records, he kept whining, perhaps nowhere more feelingly than on the 1990 single “He Walked On Water.” Over a harmonica and the spare plucking of an acoustic guitar, Travis relays pithy anecdotes about, of all people, his great-grandfather. The man is ancient. He has one foot in the present and one in another century. “He said he’d been a cowboy,” Travis sings:

When he was a young’un
And he could handle a rope
And he was good with a gun

The man’s age, know-how, and eccentricity (“He wore,” Travis sings, “starched white shirts buttoned at the neck”) had cast a spell over the young Travis. In at least two ways, the great-grandfather is like a god. One: the span of his years is unfathomable. Two: the love he engenders borders on worship, hence the one-line chorus—“I thought that he walked on water.”

I knew right away what Travis was getting at. Once or twice a year, my own great-grandfather on my mother’s father’s side would drive down from West Virginia to visit us. His name was Enos, a name lifted from the first chapters of the book of Genesis, and he seemed to be as old as Genesis, as mysterious. He was a mountain man. He had worked as a coal miner. His right hand had been shattered in an accident, and one of the fingers had reset at a ninety-degree angle. When you shook it, the cocked finger pressed into you palm, a sensation that simultaneously bridged and ossified the distance between you.

He spent the days shooting squirrels in the woods around the house. If not “good with a gun,” as Travis’s great-grandfather is in the song, he was loose with the trigger. We’d hear bullets ripping through trees and ricocheting off the barn. At dusk, he’d walk over the hill and empty his field bag beneath the shade tree by the porch. “I looked at him and he looked at me,” he told me once, holding a squirrel up by the tail, “and if I hadn’t pulled the trigger first, he’d be the one sitting here gutting me.”

I was struck, in particular, by the bridge in “He Walked On Water”:

And he was ninety years old in ’63
And I loved him
And he loved me
And Lord I cried the day he died
’Cause I thought
That he walked on water

The lines decried something that, up until I heard them, I had not known that I knew: namely, that my great-grandfather would not live forever and that this was true for everyone I loved. “I thought,” Travis sings. The verb is in the past tense. He doesn’t think such thoughts anymore.

John Berger wrote that storytellers are secretaries who take their orders from Death. “The file,” Berger writes, “is full of sheets of uniformly black paper but they have eyes for reading them and from this file they construct a story for the living.” “He Walked On Water,” like much of Travis’s music, was made, I think, within the umbra of mortality. It wasn’t I-want-to-die music, it was we’re-all-going-to-die music. It was the soundtrack to a story for the living that also kept the dead alive.

Travis was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016. At the time, his reputation was recovering from a series of public mistakes and private misfortunes. He’d been arrested for drunk driving outside of a Texas church. The booking photograph had made the rounds. In Johnny Cash’s famous El Paso mugshot, taken after he was apprehended for smuggling pills across the Mexican border, he looks like Johnny Cash, nonplussed, righteously ambivalent. Travis, by comparison, looks disturbing. His eye is black, his nose is swollen. There is blood between his eyes, which do not greet so much as assault the camera with rage. Shortly after the arrest, a video surfaced of Travis stumbling naked into a convenience store, drunkenly demanding cigarettes. Unlike Cash, whose music was inextricable from his person, Travis had not been a persona so much as a voice delivering songs. Now the singer was eclipsing the music. Country’s lethargic prophet had become a lightning rod.

Travis had suffered a stroke in 2013. There had been talk that he might never speak, let alone sing, again. But at the hall-of-fame ceremony, Travis took the microphone. Phalanxed by his wife and the singer Garth Brooks, who had removed his black cowboy hat in tribute, Travis made it through the first stanza of “Amazing Grace.” His voice was weak and inchoate. That he managed to get any words out at all was something of a triumph and yet from somewhere deep inside the flickering shadow of the sound he used to make, you could hear it—the whine had survived.

And on the one hand, it said, “I’ll keep going but I don’t have to like it.” And on the other, “I’ll sing the sorrow if the sorrow is all I have to sing.”

Drew Bratcher was born in Nashville. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. He lives in Chicagoland.

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