"When they talk about music getting in your blood, I understand exactly what they're talking about, because that is me," says Travis Tritt with a laugh. "And really, I feel that that's pretty much what I was put here on earth to do. It's like Chet Atkins used to say when he talked about musicians and their instruments, that when they're not holding their instruments, they feel like a part of them's missing. There's a black hole there somewhere that can only be filled by that. And it's the same way for performing, and for writing, and all the creative process. When you're not making music and you're a musician, you really, really miss it."
It's very apparent with Tritt's new disc that his passion for music is STRONG ENOUGH to propel his career through another decade of hits. Tritt's been making plenty of it lately, and when Strong Enough, his new offering of soulful country music, hits stores it's likely to be welcomed by listeners everywhere. After all, his last album, 2000's Down The Road I Go, marked a return to platinum-selling form for the singer, who had taken a two year hiatus from touring and recording to take a well-deserved rest and make some career adjustments. Judging not only by sales, but by four hit singles, awards nominations, critical praise and the esteem of his colleagues, it was time well-spent.
Even more important to Tritt has been the response of his fans at sold-out showsaround the country. Just as the CD proved he was as strong as he's ever been in the studio, two years of heavy touring have shown that his rapport with an audience is still unexcelled – and, not surprisingly, Travis is delighted. "It's been a hard and heavy summer, but it's a great time," he says. "When I came off the road at the end of '98, I really wasn't having a lot of fun. But when we started back with the last album and it began snowballing, I started having fun again. I've been having a blast. Even compared to this time last year, there's a feeling that we're kind of at a whole new level. I see a new excitement with the crowds, the crowds are getting bigger and bigger every night, I see an attentiveness that maybe wasn't there a few years ago."
"In the early days, when all this good stuff was happening to me, and everything was just rocking and rolling I kind of had a tendency to kind of take it for granted: 'OK, well, that's what's going to happen on all of them.' And you find out real quick that that's not always going to be the case. Nothing's automatic and nothing's guaranteed. So I've really had more of an appreciation for it this time around than I've ever had."
Indeed, Tritt's popularity is broad enough that one hardly need recite the details of his career; his story's been told more than once on national cable and broadcast TV. Born in Marietta, Georgia, he grew up with a love for music, singing in a gospel youth choir, and playing in bluegrass, rock and country bands as a teenager. Encouraged to pursue a music career by a friend who had once given up his own dreams, he struggled through most of the 1980s before signing a major label deal, releasing his first Top 10 single, "Country Club" in 1989. By the time he won the CMA's Horizon Award for 1991, he had been married and divorced twice, and he was beginning to be known as a fiery entertainer with a talent for finding – or writing – perfect vehicles for his explosive injection of rhythm & blues and southern rock influences into a framework built on country traditions.
Yet despite the edgy sound of his hits, Tritt was as welcomed by the caretakers of Nashville's traditions as he was by a new generation of fans. Reflecting on the recent tenth anniversary of his induction into the cast of the Grand Ole Opry, he calls it "one of the highlights of my career. When I came to town and started having records out, everybody started keying on the long hair and the leather and the rock'n'roll side of what I did, so much so that I was afraid that the traditionalists would never, ever let me play the Grand Ole Opry – and these were people that I really had a tremendous amount of respect for. So it was a surprise when Roy Acuff himself invited me to come on the Grand Ole Opry, and told me how much he enjoyed my music. I think he was a big reason that I was invited to be a part of the Grand Ole Opry, too, and after thinking for so long that I wasn't going to be a part of it – to even appear there, much less be asked to become a member – that was a great thrill."
Over the next few years, Travis sold 10 million albums, established himself as a regular hitmaker, toured ferociously and launched an occasional acting career, appearing on both TV and feature films. Yet things have never been easy for him, and though he found a source of strength in his marriage to wife Theresa in 1997, a deteriorating relationship with his label was consuming his attention and affecting his career. "Kenny Rogers put it this way," he says, "you're either spiraling up or you're spiraling down, one of the two. It's never just flat. And that's what was going on for me."
The result? That two year break, a new contract with Columbia and a whole new sense of excitement. "When people talk about Down The Road I Go as a comeback album," he says, "that's not an insult to me at all. I really kind of embrace that, because that's pretty much what it was – it was a comeback from being off the radar screen for about two years."
The impact of that comeback was amplified by the banjo-picking Tritt's role in the bluegrass and roots music boom spurred by O Brother, Where Art Thou? Though he's no newcomer to the field – he even performed with Bill Monroe on Ricky Skaggs' Monday Night Concerts on TNN not long before the bluegrass patriarch's death in 1996 – his high-profile guest appearances in the last two years surprised many and helped bring further attention to the soulful mountain style. "Timing is really everything," he laughs. "Back in '92, when we were at our hottest point yet, I did a bluegrass segment in my show – and the critics ate me alive for it. The audiences seemed to like it, but it was just a point of constant criticism, and so I took it out of the show. And then, all of a sudden, when I sang 'Little Georgia Rose' with Ricky Skaggs on that Bill Monroe tribute album he put together two years ago – I played banjo on it, too – all this attention started coming. I think very few people inside the industry knew that I was connected to bluegrass. They'd come to think of me as the country-rocker guy, and I think the last thing anybody expected me to do was pull out a banjo and start doing bluegrass music. But that's very much a part of my roots, and has been since I was just a kid."
"The next thing I know, the phone's ringing and I'm being asked to sing – and play, too – on Patty Loveless' album, Mountain Soul, being invited onto the PBS bluegrass show Ricky hosted, and more." Tritt even appeared at the Opry, in concert and on CD with Country Music Hall of Famer Earl Scruggs. "He's a wonderful singer, and he plays a good banjo, too," said the legendary banjo picker.
Travis left the banjo aside in making Strong Enough, but there's plenty of that wonderful singing Scruggs refers to on the album – and plenty of great songs, too. "I literally devoted about four or five months to just writing for this album," Tritt notes. "There was one point where I wrote fifteen songs in about a week and a half, just going in and writing with other songwriters. We had a little retreat down in Georgia for part of this album, where we brought in about ten songwriters. Some I had never written with before, some of them I had. We put them up in these little cottages not too far from where I live, and I would go over every morning for most of a week. I would start writing 9 or 10 o'clock in the morning, and sometimes I wouldn't get out of there until 3 or 4 o'clock the next morning – I'd just finish up with one group and go on to the next," he laughs.
Still, though he had plenty of Nashville's best writers to work with, Tritt made a point – as he always has – of writing by himself, too. "I think it's a confidence builder for me," he says. "It reminds me that I can write by myself, that I don't absolutely have to have the co-writers. If you start getting lazy, co-writers can become more of a crutch then a collaborator. A long time ago I found myself getting into a frame of mind where I didn't know if I could write by myself any more. When that happens, you have to go back in and sit down and do it, and prove to yourself that you can. And then once you get that going, you feel a whole lot more comfortable about writing with other people – you really feel like you're a legitimate part of that society, that you fit in as a songwriter and that you're bringing something to the table when you go in and sit down with these guys. So I enjoy writing by myself. I always like to start it there and move from that into the co-writing, and then maybe, as we did on this album, come back to writing by myself."
That was the case with "Strong Enough To Be Your Man," the album's title track and first single. "I wrote that one by myself," Travis says, "and it came kind of late in the project. I wrote it based on a song that Sheryl Crow did on her very first album, which was called 'Strong Enough.' It basically asked, from a woman's standpoint, are you strong enough to be my man? I thought it asked a great question, and it made me think about the old question and answer thing that went on with 'The Wild Side Of Life' and ''It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,' as far as it lending itself to answering the question. Her song came out back in 1993, and for years and years I've wanted to write a guy's response to that. So this time around, I finally sat down with that thought, and I said, I'm finally going to write this, and I'm going to write it by myself, because this is really kind of a personal thing."
"I Can't Seem To Get Over You" – a signature country-rocker – was written with long-time pal Marty Stuart. "We wrote it right after Waylon Jennings died," Tritt explains. "Marty and I went up to a little cabin up in the mountains of North Georgia for about three days, and we talked a lot about Waylon, - his death was a great loss for me, I took that one really hard – and about Johnny Cash, too, because his birthday was right around then. So we wrote a lot of songs that had both of those guys in mind, but when we wrote this one, we were thinking Waylon, and 'Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.' It's just got that same kind of four-on-the-floor drive to it."
With a classic southern boogie beat and matching verses about how both a man and a woman need to blow off steam, "Time To Get Crazy" offers a glimpse of how Travis's songwriting has changed over the years. "Usually, when you get down to the final days of recording, you wish you had one more up-tempo song," he laughs. "So I called Gary Nicholson, because I'd wanted to write with him for a long time, and I know he's got a great feel for up-tempo stuff. I think it has something to say for both sexes. More than I ever have before, I find myself thinking, how would a woman react to this? I've always kind of had that in the back of my mind when I was writing ballads, but nevertheless, I've always written the ballads strictly from the guy's point of view. But I find myself thinking these days thinking about where a woman would fit in, and what would her point of view be? That's a part of my songwriting that certainly has changed over the last six or seven years."
From the opening "You Can't Count Me Out," with its acoustic slide guitar and ringing, autobiographically-tinged affirmation ("some things needed changing/I did some rearranging"), to the subtle balladry of "I Don't Ever Want To Make Her Feel That Way Again," Strong Enough reflects a new level of craftsmanship and emotional depth in Tritt's work, and it's matched by the rich yet organic feel of the music – much of it attributable to his hands-on approach to working with co-producer Billy Joe Walker, Jr. "It's a joint effort," Tritt says, "but I'm involved in every part of it – the selection of what studio we record in, what musicians we use to track with, what overdubs are done, all of that."
Yet he's also quick to give Walker much of the credit. "There is really a lot to be said for a guy who is a musician, who is accepted and respected by the musicians who are in the studio. When we get ready to track, Billy Joe does not sit behind the glass, he comes out and gets a seat on the floor, right in the middle of everything. Sometimes he'll pick up a guitar and sometimes he won't, he'll just sit there and listen to it, but he's feeling the warmth of the floor at the same level that those guys are, and I think that's really, really cool. And you can tell the respect level that he has for those musicians, and his ability to let them do their thing, is really, really good. One thing I've learned from watching Billy Joe work with these musicians is that if you give them a general overview of what you're looking for, and then let them work it over in their head, these guys are talented enough that you're usually going to get your best stuff out of them in either the first or second take."
That's an unusual approach to producing these days – but then, Travis Tritt is an unusual star. Tempering the fire and enthusiasm of his early days with maturity and an ever-growing depth of artistry, enlivening his adherence to country tradition with a bold, even raucous invitation to "get crazy," he has struck a balance between them that enhances both, blending the two into music that will never be mistaken for anyone else's. Tough yet tender, reverent as often as he's rowdy, Travis Tritt leaves no doubt that he's Strong Enough to go the distance – in music and in life.