Randy Travis was, easily, my favorite singer when I was country music critic of the Dallas Morning News – he still is. So when I went to Oahu in 1993 for my sister’s wedding, I arranged a sidetrip to Maui. Randy was a great interview that day, didn’t flinch or hold back at all, and Lib “Mrs. Travis” Hatcher was a perfect hostess to my wife, who came along because our room wasn’t ready. I got a great story, earning that $500 in expense money from the DMN.
The article ran on a Sunday and Monday morning ruined my whole week when I played the most vicious voicemail, from Randy’s publicist, that I’ve ever received. My guess was that I wrote too much about the gay rumors, but I thought that was something the Travis camp wanted to address. This publicist also handled Willie Nelson, so our paths would eventually cross, about three years later. I asked her what that voicemail was all about and she said I shouldn’t have mentioned that Lib Hatcher had a speech impediment. OK, I could see that. (I brought it up as a subtle contrast to her goose with the golden voice). I imagine Ms. Hatcher lit into the publicist for vouching for me and she was just doing her job by passing along the rage, but, man, oh man, did she let me have it!
KAPALUA, MAUI, Hawaii – Randy Travis and his manager-wife, Lib Hatcher-Travis, live in a house that doesn’t look like much from the driveway. Parked out front is a brand new red pickup truck, but you expect a Ferrari, or at least a Lexus. This is, after all, the place that Mr. Travis retreated to almost 10 months ago after eight solid years of album-tour-album-tour. You expect it to be a palace among the palms – a resting spot befitting the man who almost single-handedly resurrected country music with the brilliant Storms of Life LP in 1986. But Randy Travis doesn’t even live beachfront.
As you descend the steps that lead to the front door, however, you realize that there’s much more to this house than what you can see from street level. There’s a beautiful tropical garden on the right and a swimming pool tucked in on the left, and huge picture windows frame a living room that is decorated like a Santa Fe daydream. Wrapping around much of the house is a sun deck where, in winter, you can look out and see the humpback whales, finding a warmer, kinder ocean to frolic in.
Randy Travis has a simple front – the “aw shucks” kid from North Carolina who rode his galloping baritone to the top of the charts – but when he unlocks and unwinds, you can see that there’s much more to him. He opens the door, shirtless and muscular and pleasant, and then he scurries back to an unseen room to finish drying his hair. He looks different, better, really, without every hair in place.
Some singers undergo magical transformations when they hit the stage or when they warble into the pampered studio mike, but when Randy Travis talks it’s almost like he’s singing, but without a melody. His voice is so naturally resonant that he can almost rattle the cages of emotion even when we’re just sitting there by the pool.
I’ve come to his home to talk about Wind In the Wire, his long-form video masquerading as an ABC television special, but after some perfunctory comments (“It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a Western”) and an anecdote about having to fight Chuck Norris over and over again in one scene (“I told the director that if he says `cut’ one more time, I’m gonna be fightin’ him next,”) the conversation turns to deeper topics. Drugs. Evil. Sexuality. And how much it hurts when everybody’s talking about your personal life when all you want to do is sing and ride horses.
After making Wind In the Wire, which comes off as a marriage between an Elvis Presley movie and one of Randy’s old Coke commercials, Travis acted in the gritty drama At Risk. He’s still wearing the beard from the role, a homeless person who watches two of his friends waste away with AIDS. It’s a pretty brave undertaking for the man whose publicist had to fax press releases all over the country to assure the media that Randy Travis was just taking an extended break from touring. The word had gotten around that there would be no tour in 1993 and possibly even ’94 because Mr. Travis had AIDS. The rumor was that he had gone to Maui to die.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that I’m supposed to have AIDS, that I’m supposed to be gay, that I’m supposed to be seeing Dolly Parton, all this ridiculous stuff,” he says, shaking his head. “You know, you try not to let that stuff bother you, and usually it doesn’t. I figure, I’ve got a good life. I’ve got my cows and horses and I’m happy, so let ’em talk.”
He hesitates for a moment, then continues. “The only thing that really made me mad was when that gay article came out,” he says. In 1991, the National Enquirer reported the rumors that Mr. Travis was a homosexual and that his relationship with Ms. Hatcher was strictly platonic.
“I was so mad that I actually thought about going to their office, to confront them in person. I wanted to sue them so bad, but my lawyer talked me out of it. They had the article worded in such a way that it would be hard to sue them, so we just let it drop.”
Once a rumor has been printed it seems to grow wings, and the talk of Randy’s sexuality just won’t go away. He used to shy away from the topic, knowing that a denial gets the tongues wagging almost as much as an admission, but he talks about the rumors as freely as he does his new album, a collection of cowboy songs which is the soundtrack to Wind In the Wire.
“I could live to be 80 years old,” he says, “and when I die there are still going to be some people that say, `He must’ve had AIDS. I told you he was gay.’ ”
When the Enquirer explosion hit, Randy announced that he had been secretly married to Ms. Hatcher a couple of months earlier (May 31, 1991). But news that he’d married his manager, 18 years his senior, only sharpened the blades of those who care how a singer sleeps.
A punk kid
Lib Hatcher met Randy Traywick (his real name) more than 20 years ago when the then 14-year-old won a talent contest at the country music nightclub in Charlotte, N.C., that Ms. Hatcher owned with her husband at the time. Randy was a bad kid, an admitted druggie and a petty thief, who could sing like a combination of his four idols: Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, George Jones and Lefty Frizzell. On stage, his heart soared along with his magnificent voice, but when “Randy Ray” came down to earth, he needed a little help from his friends to get a different kind of buzz. It’s an old story. Just ask Merle, Hank, George and Lefty.
“I ran with people who used drugs, people who sold,” he says. “You can’t believe how many drugs there were in Marshville (his hometown, 40 miles from Charlotte) and how easy they were to get. I did anything I could get my hands on: PCP, MDA, LSD, THC.”
The base for this dangerous alphabet soup was alcohol, which Randy says he couldn’t handle very well.
“I’d be singing in some nightclub, a 14-year-old kid, and there’d always be somebody slipping me a beer. And I’d swig ’em down,” he says. “Alcohol made me feel big and brave, and when I was drunk, I wasn’t afraid of anything.” When he was high, he’d steal cars and break things; when he wasn’t, he’d commit burglaries to get money for drugs.
“I had a mean streak and a terrible, terrible temper that I inherited from my dad, but we’ve both gained control over it through the years.
“I’m real thankful that crack cocaine wasn’t around back then,” he says. “Also, I was scared of needles. I’ve held people off so they could run drugs up their arms, and I’ve stuck needles in them, but I could never do that. That and not having crack probably saved me from complete self-destruction.”
Those two things and Lib Hatcher. In 1978, Randy was about to be sentenced to five years in prison for breaking and entering when Ms. Hatcher stepped forward and told the judge that she was about to hire Randy to sing full time at her club. He had a great future as a singer, she told the judge, please don’t send him away.
“Some of my friends stood up there and vouched for me, too, saying that I’d quit drugs, which was a lie at the time, but the judge went for it,” he says. ” `The next time you come before this court, bring your toothbrush,’ he told me.”
“Nobody runs me,” Mr. Travis says, “but Lib runs the business and she’s done a hell of a job.” She’s in the kitchen frying up okra, this blonde who threw a lasso around the Voice and then the man.
Ms. Hatcher-Travis’ own voice betrays a trace of a speech impediment and she, self-consciously perhaps, barely moves her lips when she speaks. “Here are pictures of two of the houses we own in Lahaina (Maui’s hub),” she says, taking a break from her deep-frying to open a couple of interior design magazines. Randy and Lib also own ranches in Georgia and Tennessee.
“Lib loves to decorate,” Randy says, then survives a sharp glance from his wife. “I keep saying, `That’s enough already,’ but then she’ll come home with something else to put on the walls. Oh, well, whatever makes you happy. . .”
She feigns throwing the magazines at him, and they both smile.
Who’s to say that Randy Travis and Lib Hatcher are not in love in their deceptively huge Maui hideaway.
(NOTE: The couple divorced in 2010 after 19 years of marriage. Travis fired Hatcher as his manager the next year, leading to suits and countersuits. It was messy. The singer suffered a near-fatal stoke in 2013 and lost the ability to speak due to aphasia.)