Country music performers consistently describe their audiences as above all else loyal , because once won, fans traditionally stick with country stars through the thick and thin of their careers.
That credo was put to the test Saturday at Anaheim Convention Center, where country's new darling Randy Travis, fresh from winning three major awards from the Country Music Assn., shared a bill with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, veterans who have garnered far less industry and public attention in recent years.
In retrospect, it's not as surprising as it initially seemed that the red-hot Travis, the first country act to have his first two albums go platinum (1 million copies), opened the show rather than headlined. Country musicians and fans, more than their rock counterparts, are as respectful as they are loyal, and for Travis to leapfrog over two giants from the past would have been downright unneighborly.
But then, Travis hasn't yet developed enough performance confidence to warrant headline status, either. Judging by the rapturous squeals from the sellout crowd, Travis was the clear favorite of the night, yet his modest attempts to convey some semblance of a personality were as stiff as his posture.
His biggest asset, pinpointed more clearly in concert than on records, is a knack for picking great songs, whether his own or those by other writers. Travis may have won this year's top male vocalist awards from both the Country Music Assn. and the Academy of Country Music, but armed with songs as superbly crafted as "Forever and Ever, Amen" and "On the Other Hand," so could have Pee-wee Herman.
When Travis strayed from those compelling what-will-happen-next tales and their gracefully cavorting melodies to a Hank Williams medley--simpler songs that depend on sheer expressiveness--his vocals fell flat. Still, with all the acclaim heaped on him, it's easy to forget his relative inexperience--he's all of 28--and it may just take time for Travis to develop interpretational skills to match the innately rich vocal quality that has served him so well.
Now if Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, far more accomplished vocalists, would hire Travis to find them meatier songs to sink their considerable chops into, maybe they'd get back into the limelight.
Sandwiched between the two T-men, Lynn lacked her usual vocal confidence and authority in her performance. Yet while her name has been conspicuously absent from the country charts lately, she demonstrated that despite all the current attention to New Traditionalists like Travis, Old Progressives such as herself have contributed inestimably to broadening country music's acceptance of new musical and social ideas.
Although Twitty has continued as a country hitmaker in the '80s, he is saddled with too many forgettable, quasi-novelty pieces like "Tight Fittin' Jeans" and "Red Neckin' Love Makin' Night."
But with the sweeping vocal dramatics he unleashed in a quick chorus of his 1958 pop hit "It's Only Make Believe," he hinted at the power he could inject into something more evocative. He even turned what reads like a routine lyric in "Julia" into a harrowing bit of self-discovery: "I never thought that love could hurt me / Now I tremble at the thought of losing you."
To close the three-hour show, Twitty called on Lynn (literally on a prop telephone) in the duet "As Soon As I Hang Up the Phone" and then reprised four of their numerous collaborations.