At the end, we're not sure what we've learned about country music, about duets, or, most importantly, about Randy Travis.
Randy Travis' catalog of songs is still in many ways an American treasure trove. His '80s albums are especially strong, his easygoing charm putting a kind face on emotional tales of epic heartbreak and pain. This Anniversary Celebration marks the 25th year of Travis' career. It's a way of giving testimony to the enduring power of his songs, but as it stands, it mostly testifies to the idea of Travis as a legend, by putting him side by side with today's stars. Each song, except one, is a duet, with a star of some kind. That includes well-established country stars (Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson) and newer ones (Josh Turner, Carrie Underwood, Zac Brown Band); legends (John Anderson, Willie Nelson, George Jones), country-ish non-country singers (Don Henley, Shelby Lynne) and "Why are they here?" others (Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth, Christian singer Eamonn McCrystal).
In each case, the formula is to take a Travis song -- some new, some old -- and get Travis and the guest to sing it together. The pairings sometimes seem purposeful. Brad Paisley is on the song with the most prominent guitar lick ("Everything and All"). John Anderson fits naturally on "Diggin' Up Bones". Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson are on the song about someone who's about to hit the bottom, Kristofferson sounding like he's about to croak as he sings, "My life is in your hands / They say no one can fix broken like you can." Nelson also seems to be singing craggier on purpose. "Didn't We Shine" hauls out an assortment of past legends for a nostalgic look back -- a parade of has-beens, partly, singing a turgid, treacly song, though Ray Price still sounds awfully good. Occasionally the match-up seems too purposeful; of course it's Jamey Johnson who's singing about "A Few Ole Country Boys". Other times, the logic behind the pairing is unclear, even stupefying.
There are moments when a song, singer, or combination impresses. Kenny Chesney strikes the right note of sensitivity for "He Walked on Water", a song as sentimental as Chesney's own. A medley with Alan Jackson puts him and Travis on equal footing, and they sound natural together, like two "ole country boys" singing together on a front porch or in a small club somewhere. Tim McGraw takes over "Can't Hurt a Man", making it seem like one of his own ballads of bitterness at lost love. Carrie Underwood channels past female singers well, though the age difference in their voices does make the relationship in the song ("Is It Still Over?") explicitly May-December. Best of all, John Anderson sounds like he really has been digging up bones in a "recent broken home...gnawing on an old cold chicken leg", even if the song's arrangement doesn't play into the gravity of his voice well enough.
The duet is an art form, and country music has many, many examples of singers perfecting it -- think of all the classic male-female duet partners, but also of various classic one-offs over the years. Ultimately, very few of the duets here are all that artful. The singers take turns singing verses, or parts of verses, and sing together on choruses. But there's rarely any real reason behind the way they sing together. Their voices, with some notable exceptions, don't complement each other or come together in a way that adds meaning to the song. Instead, it's a variety show -- entertaining enough, but essentially people with great voices showing up and singing their parts well, and that's about it. It's reminiscent of the recent trend in music award shows, to put people together because an audience may want to hear them together, not because they naturally fit together, have figured out a meaningful way to combine their talents, or are working up something new and fresh.
The blandness of these songs as duets often manages to gloss over the gifts of the songs themselves -- the devotion in "Forever and Ever, Amen", for example, is stronger when it's one man expressing it, not a group singalong, with Zac Brown Band sounding especially faceless. The song choices here play up the generic side of Travis' songs, too, missing some of the truly hard-hitting story-songs and first-person devotional, heartbreaking confessions. Instead there are a lot of "I'm gonna be a better man" songs, so common in our current era of country music.
The impression at the end, with the reprise of "Everything and All", is of having watched a show rather than taken part in a real celebration. At the end of the album, we're not sure what we've learned about country music, about duets, or, most importantly, about Travis and his music.