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Q&A: Randy Travis and Mary Travis on stroke, new song, COVID

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Q&A: Randy Travis and Mary Travis on stroke, new song, COVID

Partway through a Zoom call with Mary Travis and her famous husband, Randy Travis, they suddenly disappear from the screen.

When the couple pops back into view 20 seconds later, Mary is apologizing and Randy is laughing.

“Are we back?” asks Mary, who is squeezed next to Randy in the rustic family room of the house on their ranch in Tioga, Texas (population: barely 1,000). “We’re out in the country. You have to forgive me. If it just goes in and out, it’s because the paper cups and the string don’t work real well all the time.”

Randy laughs again.

In fact, during a freewheeling, 40-minute conversation about what life has been like for the couple not just since the pandemic started but in the seven years since his devastating stroke — the 61-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer and Marshville, N.C., native finds several reasons to laugh, and even more reasons to smile.

He isn’t able to contribute more than a steady diet of one- or two-word answers, due to the aphasia that affects his ability to produce and comprehend speech. Instead, he relies on Mary to speak on his behalf.

By the time the chat is over, though, the most overwhelming sense you’re left with is this: He seems truly happy.

“My one prayer when (he first had the stroke) — and it happened so fast — was ‘God, please just let me have him back. Any way, shape or form,’” says Mary Travis, who met Randy 30 years ago but didn’t start dating him until 2010, after they had both gone through a divorce. (They married in 2015, two years after his stroke.)

“And God was faithful. He gave him back. And we followed that light. … It’s easy to be bitter, but it’s much better to be better. So yeah, it’s all positive. We stay away from the negative. They have a problem for every solution, so we don’t go there.”

Randy smiles, and nods.

So, what has life been like for Randy and Mary Travis lately? Perhaps not as leisurely as you might think.

They haven’t been back to North Carolina since the second annual Randy Travis Music Festival last September in Marshville, the small town 35 miles southeast of Charlotte where much of Randy’s family still lives.

But they’ve been to Nashville a couple of times recently, and are headed back this week, Mary says, “to pick up kind of where we left off in March with some projects.”

The big one that did get done over the summer was his first single since his stroke — “Fool’s Love Affair,” based on a demo he recorded in 1984 — and the couple has done a number of interviews together to help promote it since it was released on July 29. And the song has been so well-received (it was streamed more than 1 million times in its first week of release, and Mary says just last week it was picked up by 30 radio stations in the South) that they’re thinking about dusting off other unreleased material.

For the story on the song, his ongoing recovery, their perspective on the pandemic, and more, check out our interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. Well, I take it you’re not leaving the house very much.

Randy Travis: Nope.

Mary Travis: You know, at first we kind of just settled in and waited to figure some of it out. But we go out — for dinner, and we’ve been to Nashville a couple of times. So you start moving about and do it cautiously. Life can’t just shut down.

Q. But is Randy considered immunocompromised? Do you need to be extra-careful?

Mary Travis: Yeah, compromised in that he’s been through what he’s been through. But by God’s grace, he’s just as healthy as a fiddle. I mean, he’s probably a lot healthier than I am at this point. (They both laugh.) But, you know, he doesn’t have any heart issues or lung issues, and after he’s been through what he had been through, you would think so. But he doesn’t. We haven’t had any complications whatsoever. Knock on wood and thank God, we haven’t had the flu, we haven’t had anything like the COVID. He’s tough as a boot, sweet as an angel. (Randy laughs.)

Q. They say that the pandemic oftentimes is either bringing couples closer together or it’s causing them to drive each other crazy.

Mary Travis: I mean, since seven years ago, we’ve been together 24-7, ’cause I’m his sole caregiver. He’s had to tolerate me for a long time. (Both laughing.)

Q. Yeah, I thought it was interesting what you said in that Rolling Stone interview about the fact that almost everyone’s lives have changed so much but yours isn’t really all that different.

Mary Travis: Right. People were talking about how hard it was to adjust to life coming to a screeching halt, and things not being normal and going about the way you normally did in life. It made me think back on seven years ago this past July, when just in a matter of a few hours our life changed, because it was such a quick progression from the viral cardiomyopathy to the flat-line and to the stroke and then the brain surgery and 5-1/2 months in a hospital. Then when we got home it was 2-1/2 years every day of rehab for four or five hours a day. So that was our life just shutting down. It was going a hundred miles an hour and hitting a brick wall. And that’s kind of what the rest of the world did this past February and March.

Q. What’s been the biggest adjustment, if any?

Mary Travis: For us it was that we had friends that would come by and see us, and that kept us going. Musicians that would come and play. So a lot of that came to a stop. For awhile that was hard. Then you really do feel all alone. But I think we’ll all come out of it stronger, with a little bit better perspective in life. My heart goes out to the mamas out there that have children that now they’re trying to juggle work, if they’re fortunate enough to still have a job. But now they have the kids to home-school, and there’s just so many things going on at once for them.

Q. Musicians would regularly come out to the ranch to make sure that you guys were still surrounded by music, essentially, so Randy wouldn’t lose touch with it?

Mary Travis: Yeah, they know what music means to Randy. That’s the very fiber of him. Everything. His heart and soul is music. So anybody that may have been passing through, or had concerts close — or even the local musicians, the more Texas or the local musicians — for them just to come and play a fiddle, strum a guitar, sing a song, and to watch him nod his head, sing along and tap a foot, it was magical. It means a lot to us when they do that, and when we have the opportunity to hear music.

Q. Let’s talk about “Fool’s Love Affair.” Can you just summarize — what’s the story behind the demo, and whose idea was it to try to dig it up?

Mary Travis: Well, in 1984, Randy was just a new kid in Nashville, and he was still cooking at the Nashville Palace. He really wasn’t a name. I mean, it was before he ever had a label. It’s before he had ever even signed with Warner. Nobody really knew who he was yet. And that’s what the youngsters that come to Nashville do, is they do the demos until they find work. So “Fool’s Love Affair” was written in 1982 by Charlie Monk, Keith Stegall and Milton Brown, and Charlie — who people know in Nashville as “the mayor of Music Row” — had Randy demo it. They were gonna pitch it, I think, to George Jones, or Merle Haggard or somebody. But they didn’t pick it up, so it kinda sat on a shelf there at Charlie’s office on Music Row all these years.

About three years ago, he contacted us and he said, “There’s this song that I co-wrote and Randy demo’ed, and I’d really like to put that out to radio. Is that OK with y’all?” We said, “Sure it is!” So he contacted Kyle Lehning, Randy’s lifetime producer, who did all of Randy’s producing for all of these years — I think other than two albums, Kyle did every one that Randy ever did. And Kyle said, “This is great, ’cause I can always do something with Randy’s demos. The voice is always there. But I need the masters (i.e. the official original recording of the song). And Charlie couldn’t find those. He looked for about a year and a half.

Then about a year and a half ago, he found them because he was loading up all of his boxes there at his office on Music Row, and he said he kicked — or somebody came in his door and kicked — this one box, and out fell this master of “Fool’s Love Affair.” And he said, “I knew that was a God wink, that I was supposed to do something with it.” He got so excited. He took it over to Kyle, and Kyle added a few instruments to it. It already had background vocals on it, which he said was very unusual for the time. But Kyle added a few instruments and tweaked it a little bit, and that’s what we hear today. So it had a long shelf life (laughing) — and hopefully it’ll have a long radio life.

Q. What was that like to hear the song when it was finished?

Mary Travis: Just to hear his voice on the radio again, it’s awful sweet. It was wonderful. And that’s what we’ve heard from people: that just to hear that voice again meant so much. He said, “If I can change one life, or lift one person up with just one song, then I’ve done my job.”

Randy Travis, photographed performing at Spirit Square in Charlotte on May 14, 1999, the night he was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. Charlotte Observer File Photo

Randy Travis: Yup.

Mary Travis: So I think he’s done his job.

Q. Are there other new songs to come in the future?

Mary Travis: There are other songs, yes.

Randy Travis: Yes.

Mary Travis: There’s a whole album of ’em that Kyle actually found. He had some that could have made an album or could have been on an album, but they just ran out of room. So he went and picked out some of his all-time favorites. There’s about 13 of ’em that would complete an album. And they’re from different times in Randy’s career, so it’s interesting — some are gospel, some are true country, some are a little bit jazzier. One of ’em sounds like it’s kind of Frank Sinatra-era. So it would be fun if we could finally get that out. Once we can find the history on all of ’em.

Q. Of course, there’s already been a steady flow of new — or new-to-us — Randy Travis music this year. Right before the pandemic, in February, the live gospel album came out (“Precious Memories (Worship & Faith),” recorded in 2003 at Calvary Assembly of God Church in Orlando, Fla.), then there was the single in July. Then in August, Josh Turner released a cover of “Forever and Ever, Amen” that came together after Randy went into the studio with Josh. But best I can remember, Randy hasn’t performed publicly, live, since he did “Amazing Grace” at his Hall of Fame induction in 2016. Or has he?

Mary Travis: No, no. Well, I mean, just spots here and there. I think it was Michael Ray, at CMA Fest, had him up on stage and he did an “Amen” there and the crowd went nuts. Just one word. It’s amazing how one word can change a life. But otherwise no.

That one at the Hall of Fame, we had started working on that song in rehab, and we were leaving to drive to Nashville for the Hall of Fame, a week early. We’d stopped by to see my mother, and when we were pulling out after saying goodbye, Dennis, his brother, called and said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but Daddy just died.” Sudden heart attack Saturday morning. We re-routed and went straight to North Carolina. His daddy was gonna be there for his Hall of Fame induction, which meant so much because his dad was such a huge part of his music. Making him play music when he was young. Making him sing because Ricky, his older brother, didn’t want to. So we got Randy’s voice, which was a blessing. And so we went to North Carolina and buried his dad on Tuesday and then headed for Nashville for the Hall of Fame that following Sunday. So it was kind of a bittersweet tear-in-one-eye-and-a-twinkle-in-the-other week. But on that drive, I guess — short story long — we practiced “Amazing Grace” over and over.

Randy and Mary Travis, in unison: A lot! (Both laughing.)

Mary Travis: He’s like, “Oh no, not again.” But we did, we practiced it, and we had talked about it, and I mentioned to him singing it at the induction. He wasn’t sure. And we hadn’t told anybody he was gonna do it — nobody knew he could sing it. But so right before the induction, I said, “Do you feel good about it?” And he said, “Yup.” So that’s how it happened. We didn’t know 30 minutes before we went on stage whether we were gonna do it or not, but he was ready. And he did a beautiful job.

Q. Do you two envision a day when there might be more of that?

Mary Travis: You know, he doesn’t think so. But I never give up hope on that. Every day, there’s a new word, there’s a new response that lets us know that that brain is still rewiring. And every stroke is different. I mean, there’s so many brain cells and synapses and all those things that of course we don’t understand. Only God knows those things. We don’t know if one day it will all of a sudden come back — and it may, I’ve heard of that — or if it’s just little by little and his confidence comes back. I don’t know. Like I said, every one of ’em is different, and every one of ’em affects the person differently. So we just keep hoping and praying, keep working at it. If it doesn’t come back all the way, then we’re OK with that, too. We’re content with where we are if this is it. And if it does, then glory be — it’ll be wonderful. (They both laugh.)

Théoden Janes has spent 14 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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