FORT WORTH, Texas — Tioga, Texas, is best-known as the birthplace of Gene Autry, a peaceful landscape of wide pastures, grazing horses, two-lane country roads and friendly people.
It’s the kind of place where even well-known country music star Randy Travis can settle into a quiet existence and maybe find some healing if he happens to need it.
So I wasn’t surprised Thursday when folks there were talking up Travis’ good side more than his naked drunken-driving arrest Aug. 7 after a stop at a Pilot Point convenience store, months after a February arrest for public intoxication in a church parking lot in nearby Sanger.
Last week many of his neighbors were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, offering hope for redemption.
Texans, and country music fans, are like that.
“He’s a real nice guy, very personable and very friendly,” said James Hilliard, owner of Clark’s Outpost barbecue restaurant in Tioga, where Travis frequently dines. “I hate that this happened. I’ve heard about another man that never made a mistake, and they hung him from a cross.”
Of course, these conversations took place before Travis, 53, got involved in a fight that night in the parking lot of the Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, this time exchanging blows with another man. If there is healing in Tioga, Travis needs it now.
Twenty-five years ago, Randy Travis was the one doing the redeeming, rescuing country music from a malaise of overproduced pop. Fans called him and fellow stars like Dwight Yoakam the Class of ‘86, the New Traditionalists.
Travis had just released his iconic “Storms of Life” album and the singles “1982” and”On the Other Hand,” introducing audiences to his deep, world-weary voice.
When I first heard those songs, I thought the vocalist must be an older man, singing from a lifetime of experience and despair.
When I finally saw Travis in concert not long after, still in his 20s with a slight build and shy smile, it was clear that the landscape of the music itself was changing. My husband and I were 30-somethings, conspicuously surrounded by teens and college students in an outdoor crowd high on heartache.
In 1988, Travis gave me his thoughts about why very young fans flocked to his shows.
“I’m not sure how it happened or why,” Travis said. “I’m not sure why or how they’ve started hearing the stuff we’re doing. ... About the only thing I can come up with is they heard it through their parents. That’s all I can offer as a reason.”
Travis had experienced some hard knocks by the time his music career took off, having gotten in trouble as a teen in North Carolina for auto theft and burglary. He was redeemed by Lib Hatcher, a bar owner 18 years his senior who became his manager and later his wife. They divorced in 2010 and are locked in an acrimonious legal battle over her claims that he illegally terminated their business agreement and hired thieves to steal computer records and memorabilia.
Over the years, Travis’ laid-back stage presence hasn’t changed much. He still tells a corny joke and grins when the audience groans. He still sometimes has an air of vulnerability in front of a crowd, bordering on discomfort.
Country fans respect and relate to that because it’s real. The quickest way to turn them off is to barge onstage with some slick, throw-off comment — and Travis never has.
According to his website, he’s sold 20 million albums, had 18 No. 1 singles, has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and has been a member of the Grand Ole Opry for 25 years. He has branched out into Christian music and become an accomplished actor in selected TV projects.
A current album, “Anniversary Celebration,” includes collaborations with Alan Jackson, George Jones, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and Carrie Underwood.
There was nothing to suggest an angry or troubled man during any of the interviews I had with Travis in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. He was always well-spoken, never overbearing, and would chat amiably until I ended the session. He much preferred a conversation to a question-and-answer format.
Fast-forward to Aug. 7, when authorities say Travis appeared naked at a Pilot Point convenience store late at night, tried to buy cigarettes, then drove off in his 1998 TransAm. He wrecked the car in a construction zone, and a passer-by reported finding him lying in the middle of the highway.
He was arrested by Grayson County Department of Public Safety troopers, whom he is accused of threatening, and was jailed in Sherman on suspicion of drunken driving and retaliation. According to published reports, he threatened to “shoot and kill the troopers.” Travis was released the next day on $21,500 bail.
No court date on those charges has been set, and calls to the Sherman DPS office have not been returned. The retaliation charge is a felony punishable by as much as 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
While country-Western fans sometimes expect their heroes to fall, a few with business interests recoiled from what they had seen and heard.
Travis’ September concert in State College, Pa. was quickly canceled by its organizers after the August arrest, as were a few others, according to an Internet search. The concert at Penn State was to have been a benefit for the State Theatre and St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy. An organizer termed the situation in a news release as “extremely unfortunate, having financially impacted both organizations.”
He was also dropped from an appearance in conjunction with the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., this week.
Still, Travis didn’t go into hiding, and he seemed to be resuming his 25th anniversary concert tour in other places with little backlash from fans. An employee answered the phone last week at a concert hall in Franklin, Ohio, near Dayton. Travis’ first post-arrest concert took place there Aug. 17.
Did he mention anything onstage about, well, you know?
“When he first came on, he did say: ‘I made it here! You’ve got to be careful what you do when you’re drinking,’” she said.
In Tioga on Thursday, Hilliard said: “He’s not one to hide. He’s a part of the community.”
Later that night, Travis was involved in an incident in a church parking lot, this time in Plano.
He was cited for simple assault, accused of getting involved in an argument between a woman, reportedly his girlfriend, Mary Beougher, and her estranged husband, according to WFAA-TV, which also said the police report described Travis as having “torn” clothing and “bloodshot” eyes.
Plano police said no mention was made in the report about suspected intoxication.
So the question comes up again: Can there be any professional or personal redemption for Travis this time? Will these latest tussles with the law be the tipping point in his career? Is he running out of time with the country music establishment?
Before Travis’ scuffle in Plano, things in Tioga seemed to be settling down.
“He is doing his performances; he had two wonderful concerts this past weekend,” Beougher said Wednesday as she returned a phone call from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “We’re all working on Randy’s behalf. He’s doing very good, recovering from” facial wounds from the accident after the convenience store run.
Travis was described as coping with the aftermath of his arrest in August.
“He has a heart of gold,” Beougher said. “It’s tough on him right now.”
Travis clearly wants to get back on the road and has tour dates scheduled throughout the fall in New York, Minnesota, North Carolina, San Antonio, Las Vegas and Reno, Nev.
“He’ll get through it; it’s just a bump in the road,” said Gary Corley, a Sherman attorney and self-described fan who lent his University of Texas Longhorns cap to Travis as he bailed out of the Grayson County Jail. “It doesn’t change the fact that he’s a phenomenal singer and songwriter.”
How forgiving can country fans be? Just look at the careers of two collaborators on his current anniversary album: George Jones’ alcohol addiction and his habit of standing up audiences earned him the nickname “No-Show Jones.” Willie Nelson has traded on an outlaw persona for decades and backed it up with frequent marijuana arrests.
Concert promoters, though, take a dim view of people who don’t make their concert dates, and promoters can’t push a music release when the artist’s news feed is filled with arrest reports.
On the other hand, Travis has made very loyal friends and fans over a quarter-century with his good-natured vibe and good music.
“I am on Team Randy Travis. ... He is still one of the best performers to take the stage at Billy Bob’s,” said Pam Minick, the club’s marketing director. “He performed here in March, shortly after the arrest in Sanger.
“He was a real gentleman, and quite embarrassed by the situation.”