When Randy Travis began sharing music from his first gospel album, Inspirational Journey, by playing concerts for congregations, not everyone was convinced that he had the interests of the church at heart.

“We have run into some folks at a couple of different churches who seemed somewhat skeptical, wondering, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Travis admits. “But in every case, we’ve left there feeling like we’ve made new friends.”

If any skepticism remains about the country star’s dedication to gospel music, it should be allayed with the release of Rise And Shine, his second gospel album in a two-year period. The album does not represent a shift away from the country genre—Travis began recording a new country album at the same time he made Rise And Shine—but it does underscore his belief in Christian music, and its power to change lives.

“You get a certain amount of the audience coming to hear us who aren’t folks who go to church,” Travis observes. “They know us through country music, and so many times we’ve heard stories about people coming in, getting saved, getting baptized and changing their lives, and some kids that had been doing like I was years ago, and coming in and gettin’ straightened out. It’s making a big difference.”

Travis has made a significant difference in music ever since he first appeared in a Top 10 country list in 1986. He’s seen that chart territory 28 times now, with 15 of his singles going all the way to #1, including such classic titles as “Forever And Ever, Amen,” “On The Other Hand,” “Deeper Than The Holler” and “Look Heart, No Hands.” Along the way, he’s racked up four Grammy Awards, five Country Music Association trophies and 10 gold albums, with eight of those going platinum or better.

He gained similar recognition with Inspirational Journey, as it claimed a Grammy nomination and won 2 Dove awards from the Gospel Music Association.

Rise And Shine continues Travis’ commitment to quality. The musical heart still lies in country, and the characters in the songs are blue-collar people who could easily be found in the lyrics to country songs. Among the people woven throughout the album’s 13 selections are a prostitute, an illegitimate son, a dying grandfather and a husband who refuses to attend church—hardly the typical kinds of characters contained in a Christian project—as Travis explores the ways in which everyday people deal with the trials and tribulations of a sometimes-difficult walk of faith.

“The album goes off into several different directions, lyrically and musically, and I think that’s good,” Travis surmises. “I don’t want to hear a one-note kind of record, be it country, gospel or whatever. I wanna hear some different storylines and some unusual melodic things.”

Musically, the songs on Rise And Shine veer from the Chet Atkins-style finger-pickin’ of “Keep Your Lure In The Water” to the Memphis gospel of “Valley Of Pain” to the foreboding, Johnny Cash aura of “Jerusalem’s Cry.”

As always, Travis explores the rich, deep tones of his lower register, although he reached new “lows” in the process.

“The last note on ‘Jerusalem’s Cry,’ I can’t sing that note every day,” he confides. “That’s just one of those things that happenes every now and then. That day I did the vocal, we did it quick, it was no trouble to do, and at the end, I took a shot at going for that low note, and I acutally hit it. I won’t be doing that live every night, because it’s not always there.”

Travis’ natural tones provide a masculine setting for songs of sentiment, humor and stark human drama. He takes public stances with his faith in “The Gift” and the topical “Everywhere We Go.” He explores the tragedy—and miracle—of death in “If You Only Knew,” then puts a funny spin on baptism in “Pray For The Fish.”

In addition, he uses country music’s story song tradition in an exemplary manner, as the challenges of daily existence point the listener to larger ideals. “Raise Him Up” celebrates paternal selflessness, “Three Wooden Crosses” places a random disaster in the context of a higher purpose, and “When Mama Prayed” demonstrates the powerful leadership that’s present in quiet determination.

“I’m amazed with the quality of writing on so many of these songs that we’ve been able to find,” he says. “When you listen to something like ‘Raise Him Up,’ ‘Three Wooden Crosses’ and ‘When Mama Prayed’—if those three songs don’t speak to you, I don’t think anything can get to you.”

At another point in his life, one might not have predicted that Travis could be reached. Born in tiny Marshville, North Carolina, he lived a distinctively troubled youth. Deeply involved with both drugs and alcohol, he was arrested on numerous occasions for larceny, drunk and disorderly conduct, and breaking and entering. He totaled four cars, two motorcycles and even a horse and buggy, and tells of one police chase that sounds like a scene right out of Cops, with crashes after reaching a peak speed of 145 miles per hour. In another instance, he nearly lost his life while fleeing law enforcement on a motorbike.

“I was drunk,” he remembers. “The last time I looked at the speedometer, it was in the 80 miles-an-hour range, and I hit a stop sign. The last thing I remember is actually kinda coming to afterwards. I just destroyed that motorcycle. That’s the only accident I really couldn’t walk away from. I had to be carried away from that one.”

Lib Hatcher, a North Carolina entrepreneur, was all that stood between Travis and a prison sentence. She saw his musical talent, and convinced a judge that she could tame him, if the reckless young man could be given one last chance. Today, Travis credits Hatcher, whom he has since married, and an inexplicable interest in the Bible for turning him around.

“When I started reading the Bible in my 20s, I was still usin’ drugs, I was still drinkin’,” he confesses. “It was just something I started doing at night, and I really don’t have an answer as to why. I just started readin’ the Bible every night to go to sleep. It brought a peace of mind to me, just the reading of it—a peace of mind that I had never known. I think from a little past 10 years old to well into my 20s, I just never really knew much peace of mind. There was always some inner turmoil—most of it was self-inflicted—but there was always something like that, and I was amazed by what just reading did for me.”

It was after he created that ritual that the world opened up to Travis. He signed a deal with Warner Bros.’ country division in February 1985, releasing his debut album, Storms Of Life, the following year. A year later, he was being hailed as the savior of traditional country music, as Storms went on to amass 3 million in sales, a level previously regarded as unattainable for a traditional country act. His second album, Always & Forever, reached 5 million, as Travis became one of country music’s most consistent hitmakers.

On an emotional level, Rise And Shine returns him to that phase of his career. Travis is now a savvy veteran with 15 years of national exposure on his resume. Yet he’s in the beginning stages in a new genre.

“This felt so much like doing Storms Of Life, and then Always & Forever, when you think about it,” he observes. “Originally, I was turned down for a little over 10 years by every label in Nashville. We already had quite a few songs in mind to record, should we get the chance, and so there were years to prepare for Storms Of Life. Then, all at once, you need a second album, and you have months. It felt the same way here, you know. We had all that time on Inspirational Journey, and then all at once, we needed to finish this.”

This time around, Travis had a larger personal collection of songs to fall back on—material he had written himself, and songs that were brought to him in the wake of the Journey album. As a result, he crafted an album that has the cohesiveness and variety of an experienced man still exploring a part of himself that remains fairly new to the general public.

The process, he says, has been as rewarding as anything that’s happened in his career.

“I really feel like I’m making a difference in a way I never have before.”

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