The genius of Randy Travis is his voice: rich like Merle Haggard’s, but at moments reedy and mournful like Hank Williams’. Even in the mid-1980s when country stars jumped to the pop scene like Kenny Rogers on a chicken, Randy Travis was still old school. When Country swung back to traditionalism in the early ‘90s, Randy Travis was there waiting. He had never left. He couldn’t have; he just sounds country.
Inspirational Journey is Travis’ first departure from making traditional country albums. All the material on Inspirational Journey is religious, yet it’s not a gospel record. Redemption and salvation are major themes here, but then they are the major themes of most country records; it’s just that in this case they are explored through religion rather than women or alcohol. For the most part, Inspirational Journey is just another Randy Travis record except that this one stars a guy named Jesus.
Nearly all the songs on Inspirational Journey are new compositions, selected by Travis for this recording. The subject matter runs the gamut from pun-ny little church tunes like “Feet on the Rock” (“I put my feet on the rock / And my name on the roll / When it’s called up yonder / I won’t worry ‘bout my soul”) to more serious material like “Walk With Me”, about personal salvation. Stylistically, Inspirational Journey jumps around quite a bit, achieving successes and failures in a variety of styles. “Shallow Water”, scores big with trademark Carter Family harmonies and a rolling bass line; “Which Way Will You Choose” plays it traditional, but ends up sounding like bad Charlie Daniels Band. Anytime Travis gets a chance to stretch his voice out, the results are good; “Doctor Jesus” is a so-so song, but the delivery is strong enough to make it interesting.
The faults of Inspirational Journey lie mostly in the songwriting. For Randy Travis, simpler is usually better. And though Inspirational Journey is 70 percent good material, cheesy chord changes, likely intended to build the songs to rousing climaxes, swaddle the remaining 30 percent in deadening cliches. It’s a Nashville studio hack’s trick that stands out here like a white tuxedo at a funeral. Only on a spare version of “Amazing Grace” at the end of the record, does Travis have enough faith in his talent to take it easy. The results speak for themselves. Simple and elegant: that would be a Randy Travis album worth waiting for.