*** 1/2Randy Travis. "Old 8 X 10." Warner Bros.
It took this soft-spoken balladeer just two albums to make the leap from Nashville dishwasher to reigning king of country music--certainly commercially, and in many ways artistically.
No one else in the '80s has consistently put out so many irresistible hit singles, a major reason why Travis is the first country act since Alabama's heyday in the early '80s to have consecutive multimillion-selling LPs.
While that kind of across-the-board acceptance often leads to formula music, "Old 8 X 10" takes an encouraging step forward. Best of all, it begins to reveal for the first time the artist behind Travis' wonderfully woody baritone. The Travis we hear is a new-age man who just happens to come wrapped in an old-fashioned package.
"It's Out of My Hands"--one of two songs on the album that Travis co-wrote--accepts personal responsibility in a relationship gone wrong, which is generally pretty hard to come by in country cliche-dom. Unlike most of his predecessors, Travis comes across as a man who recognizes that a woman deserves more than a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t.
At the same time, he unapologetically embraces traditional values of commitment and hard work, qualities that show up in the country cousin's-eye view of love of Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz's "Deeper Than the Holler."
Travis' string of hit singles is likely to be extended by several songs here, including Larry Henley and Ken Bell's witty "Is It Still Over," which should win a songwriter's award for a knockout lines such as: "Is it still over? Is it still through? / Since my phone still ain't ringin' I assume it still ain't you."
Another important sign of progress is that instead of relying so heavily on the rich sound of his voice, Travis is actually shaping melodies more frequently--check out the impressive upward vocal swoops in Dennis O'Rourke's lazy country blues "Honky Tonk Moon," which has been released as the album's first single."
A couple of songs on Side 2 are less striking than we've come to expect from Travis, but all in all, "Old 8 X 10" is the most significant move yet in his climb out of the shadows of icons like George Jones and Merle Haggard. If he keeps this up, it won't be long before he's standing toe-to-toe and throat-to-throat with the field's all-time greats.
**** Great Balls of Fire
*** Good Vibrations ** Maybe Baby * Running on Empty