By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor
When Randy Travis and his wife Mary take the stage for their two sold-out shows this Sunday, Sept. 11, at the Charles Wood Theater in Glens Falls, it’ll be “something different,” Mary told The Chronicle in a phone interview from Nashville this week.
The country music superstar and his wife, both 63, will give intimate “Up Close and Personal” programs.
“We haven’t done that before,” Mary says. “Usually it’s a concert, with some talking too,” when they’re out on tour with their own band.
Kevin Richards, the local deejay who is this show’s promoter and host, describes it as “A Conversation With A Legend,” with an opening act of local singers Richie Phillips, Jenna Sue and Mark Pierre performing Randy Travis hits.
The program on Sunday: “We’ll cover his life, his childhood, how he got started, and his acting career. Randy has lived such a colorful life,” Mary says.
She defers to Randy, but does nearly all the talking in an hour-long conversation.
In 2013, Randy suffered a serious stroke as a result of viral cardiomyopathy. It left him partially paralyzed on the right side.
It also left him with aphasia — he is unable to speak or to sing, except in short phrases.
Mary recalls with detail the events leading to his stroke — they were on tour, in July, and he had congestion that looked like pneumonia but worsened quickly. Unable to breathe, Randy was hospitalized, and then “flat-lined,” she recalls. He went into a coma, and then suffered a stroke that was not at first recognized.
The infection, doctors traced back to a documentary film session weeks prior in an old feed store, where they suspect “he picked up a spore or a mold,” Mary says.
“From there, we had a high rate of speed change of life, a brick wall,” Mary says. “It’s tragic, but it’s also a gift that he’s still with us. Tested for a season, blessed for a lifetime.”
It’s made them advocates for others who suffer from aphasia — Bruce Willis, famously, and pro athletes they’ve met who experienced head trauma.
“Some people, they’ll ask a question and think Randy is being rude because he doesn’t answer. But he was always the poster child for the time he spent talking with fans. Or, people assume you can’t understand, but his comprehension is as acute as ever, if not better.”
“Sometimes he gets blamed, people ask why is he even still out there, why not stay home — but that’s not us. We’re not homebodies. He still wants to touch people’s lives. Words aren’t the only way of communicating.”
Randy can’t use his right hand to strum a guitar, Mary says, “but his left is good. The chording still goes on, if someone else strums. He can mouth every word of the song but forming the words is a challenge.” In a concert setting, with guest singers, Randy will close his chart topper “Always and Forever” with the single word “Amen.”
Recently on tour with country singer Kane Brown, Randy chimed in unexpectedly on “Highway Junkie.”
“It was beautiful,” Mary recalls. “You just keep challenging those with aphasia and they keep shining. I call it ‘giant baby steps.’ Something small, but in our world it’s huge.”
“It’s always fun and we laugh at ourselves and thank God every day,” Mary adds.
Randy Travis is credited in the 1980s with nearly single-handedly reviving classic country music.
“It had gone a little pop-Urban Cowboy,” Mary says. “In Nashville they told him, You’re just too country. He was scratching his head at that. But he didn’t vacillate.”
Producer Martha Sharp at Warner Bros. famously bucked the system and signed Randy — setting off a revival of classic country.
“Randy came out with his album Storms of Life and turned everything around,” Mary says, with Randy agreeing “Yes.”
“The Dwight Yoakams, Garth Brooks, Clint Black, they were all making great music,” says Mary. “Randy kicked the door open for the rest of them. They call them ‘the hat acts,’ but Randy never even wore a cowboy hat.”
Randy is more famous for his embroidered jackets by designers such as Manuel Cuevas, Mary says, adding, “35 years later he still wears them.”
In a recent visit to the renovated Warner Music Group studios in Nashville, she says they told him, “This is the house that Randy Travis built.”
“We still go hear music as much as we can,” says Mary but adds that “Randy’s not a fan” of what she says he calls “7-11 singers: Seven words, 11 times.”
Some favorites today? She brainstorms: “Kane Brown, Zac Brown. We live 45 minutes from Billy Bob’s (Billy Bob Thorton’s club in Dallas). There’s a lot of good music that passes close to us. Alabama is still touring and what great guys they are. Tim McGraw. Cody Jenks is a great songwriter. Blake Shelton. Drew Parker is a youngster coming up. Jamey Johnson.”
Of all people, they’ve recently befriended Bernie Taupin. Mary says the legendary Elton John collaborator stepped forward, unbidden, to write the liner notes to the new reissue of Storms of Life.
“He said many of his songs were influence, his writing came from Randy, his style, his choice of music, his writing, the melodies. He said he’s followed Randy’s whole career.”
Mary says, “We’ve become friends. A sweet, sweet man, a mountain of a man. He’s pennies from heaven, and there we were with the umbrella upside down.”
It’s not a surprise, Mary says, that even rock and rollers look to classic country music: “The tapestry of our lives is written in a country song,” Mary says.
It’s another moment, Randy chimes in, “Yes.”
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