Well, it’s about darn time country music outlaw Travis Tritt got down off the stage to record some new music. It’s been over ten years since the Georgia native put out an album of songs he wrote or co-wrote. Electing to keep moving and keep playing, Tritt sold out concerts on the laurels of great stage presence and boot-kicking hit songs ranging from 1989’s “Country Club” straight on through to 2013’s The Calm After … The man was on fire, his songs the hot cakes of jukeboxes across the country. Songs even non-country music fans took a shining to: “Here’s A Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares,” “Modern Day Bonnie & Clyde,” “T-R-O-U-B-L-E,” “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive,” “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’,” “Ten Feet Tall & Bulletproof.” And that doesn’t even include all the ballads.
He dueted with Marty Stuart and John Mellencamp, picked a guitar beside Waylon Jennings, got Billy Bob Thornton in a video and practically reunited The Eagles. He could sing a song that had the bikers cheering and turn around and give the ladies a ballad that could melt butter. And although “the establishment” in Nashville thought he needed harnessing in, he took the advice of his pal Jennings and stayed true to his heart and not theirs … and became a success because of it. And the lead-off track to his new album, Set In Stone, out this Friday, May 7th, lays it all bare right there in front of you. “They’ll say they have a crystal ball but trust me they don’t know it all, there ain’t no substitution for the truth; don’t ever let them turn your head around, just stand your ground.”
Tritt stays Tritt on each of the eleven songs on Set In Stone and it sure is good to have him back. “Stand Your Ground” is an anthem for staying true to yourself, “Open Line” oozes moodiness, “Southern Man” echoes pride amid a killer guitar solo and latest single, “Smoke In A Bar,” reflects on the good of the good old days. His reflections on life, love, work and friendship have always been the core of his songwriting. As he sings on “Stand Your Ground,” “If you sing a lie they’re going to see right through.” And that philosophy has been Tritt’s bread and butter for the whole of his career, winning him Grammy’s and CMA’s, charting twenty songs into the Top 10, five of them hitting #1. Not bad for a country boy with a dream.
Talking with Tritt is like sitting on the back porch with an old friend; I don’t think he’s ever met a stranger in his life. When we spoke recently about his new album, and his life in country music, he was honest, grateful for all he has accomplished, giving credit to his musical heroes who in turn helped him stay true to what he wanted to do with his music.
Travis, how is life treating you right now?
Well, except for the fact that we’re just like everybody else wanting to get back out on tour, everything is going great. Everybody has been healthy, and that’s a good thing, that’s a blessing, but man, we’re just looking forward to having things open back up and get to a situation where we can go back out and do what we love to do, which is play music live in front of people.
I think so. We’re starting to see dates open up. I’ve been more fortunate than a lot of artists that I know. I’ve had the opportunity to do a few shows here and there over the course of the past year. Course, not near as many as we normally would do. But the good news is we’re starting to see our schedule open up in a lot of places and that’s always a very encouraging thing to see. So many people are just longing for that experience of going back to live shows and live concerts and the sooner we can get back to that, the happier I think everybody is going to be.
So what finally got you off your butt to write and record us some songs?
(laughs) Well, it wasn’t because of laziness that I didn’t record anything for about fourteen years (laughs). I’ve never been very good at multi-tasking and from the beginning of my career, I always had a hard time switching from one mode to the other. In other words, when you go in to do an album, I have to go in and focus for a period of time on writing as much material as I possibly can for that album. And when I get into the writing mode, I get laser-focused on that and I really don’t want any other distractions. I can’t deal with other distractions away from just being focused on the writing. Then when we go in the recording studio, it’s pretty much the same thing. I get laser-focused on recording in the studio. Then when we go back out on tour, I get laser-focused on giving the best performances that I possibly can in a live setting.
So I made a conscious decision about twelve, thirteen years ago, that I really just wanted to focus on the touring part. I’m one of those artists that’s fortunate enough to have enough hits over the years that I can do a two hour show or longer no problem and the show is jam-packed with hits from beginning to end. So I really just wanted to focus on touring. Then I hired a new manager about two years ago and he came in and one of the first things he said was, “You know, Travis, you’ve got a lot of music still left in you and I think you need to think about going into the studio and recording some new music, writing some new music, just so not only you feed your loyal fans that have been with you but you also get a chance to introduce that music to new fans that might not be familiar with your work.” And the more I thought about it, the more I thought, you know, that’s really a good idea.
Then when he mentioned the idea of getting a chance to work with Dave Cobb producing the record, that was just the icing on the cake for me. And it turned out to be something that I never should have been scared of in the first place. It was something that I truly enjoyed every minute and it was like getting off a bicycle and not riding a while. You never forget how to ride. And I had such a good time putting this album together. I can’t wait to get it out in front of the people and see what the fans think about it.
What were you scared of? I can’t imagine Travis Tritt being scared of anything.
You know, a lot of things have changed about the way that a lot of people record music over the past twelve, thirteen years. And I was not certain that I was going to fit in with a lot of those changes. But Dave Cobb put me really at ease right off the bat because we started talking about it and he said, “Look, here’s the way I do it. I take live musicians into the studio and we record live all at the same time.” Then he said, “And I want to record as many of your vocals live while we’re doing those tracking sessions. I want to record as many of your vocals as possible.” And that really put me at ease because that’s exactly the way that I’ve done it since the very beginning of my career thirty-some-odd years ago.
The other thing that really intrigued me about this was that Dave, his records sound so good for a reason. He likes to use as much analog stuff in the studio as he possibly can. He likes to mix to tape, the same we did back in the nineties and the early 2000’s, and just get away from that digital sound, which is so harsh to me and so unforgiving. I love the warmth of analog and I love the way it sounds and there is nothing in this world, in my opinion, that replaces the sound of taking live musicians into the studio and just recording everything live as you go. So it was really just a pleasure to be a part of this project.
To you, what is the most chill-bump moment on this record?
Wow. You know, I think there’s so many good songs on this record. I love the new single, “Smoke In A Bar.” I love it because it talks about the thing that so many people have come up and talked to me about over the last few years, from a music standpoint, and that’s people are nostalgic for the stuff that really told great stories in country music. There is some of that still out there but the fact that the music of my era, nineties country, which I personally happen to think was one of the greatest times in country music history, that music was really tied to our roots in a very open and honest way and I think that’s important. I think it’s important no matter which direction that country music goes in. I think it’s good to grow and I think it’s good to change but at the same time I think it’s important to hold onto our roots as well. So I’ve had a lot of people tell me over the past few years, “Man, wouldn’t it be nice if we had more of that great storytelling in more of the music that’s coming out today.”
In the last year or so, with all of the craziness in the world, between the pandemic and all the other things that have happened, I’ve had a lot of people in the last year tell me, “You know, man, wouldn’t it be nice if we could be in a situation like we used to, where people trusted each other a little bit more, there wasn’t so much division and upheaval.” So I heard that song and I thought about all of those conversations that I’ve had with people over the years. I think there are a lot of people that are very nostalgic for those times, both musically and from a social standpoint. So when I heard that song for the first time, I think that was a chill-bump moment for me for sure.
You really kick this album off with that first song, “Stand Your Ground,” and you say quite a bit in that song. What started it?
I had just sat down for the first time to write with Channing Wilson and Wyatt Durrette and we spent the first hour or so just kind of getting to know each other and they were asking me a little bit about my background and how I got started. And I told them the story about meeting Waylon Jennings for the first time and that was when I was kind of getting a lot of grief from country radio and the powers that be in Nashville because they considered me to be an outlaw. They considered me to be a guy that was wanting to do his own music his own way and that was kind of forbidden back in those days. But I was very insistent about doing it that way and as a result I was getting a lot of grief and I was starting to take it kind of personally until I met Waylon.
The first time that I met Waylon Jennings, he told me, “Listen, I’ve been hearing all these things that they’ve been saying about you and I just want you to know that all the things that they’re saying about you is exactly the same things they said about me and Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Jr and all these other people over the years.” He said, “Just remember this: those people that wear those suits and work at those record labels and work at those radio stations, they get their music for free. The only people that you need to be concerned with are those hard-working people that go out and work forty and fifty and sixty hours a week to put food on the table for their families and put a roof over their heads and those people that are willing to spend a little bit of that money that they earned, that hard-earned money, to go out and buy your music every time you release a new album, and then occasionally they’ll go out and splurge for a concert ticket to come see you play. That’s the only people that you need to be concerned with.”
So I told that story to Channing and Wyatt and they said, “Man, we got to write that story.” So it was just basically a throwback to, I think, what a lot of artists have faced over the years and are still facing today, which is if you come in with a specific idea that you want to do, trust your gut, trust your instincts. That would be my advice, to trust yourself because nobody knows what your audience will and will not accept from you better than you do as the artist. And don’t let anybody who claims to have a crystal ball steer you in any other direction. Stand your ground.
“Open Line” has this chilling, bluesy, moody atmosphere
Yeah, that song was a song that I wrote with Brent Cobb, who is Dave Cobb’s cousin, obviously, and a guy that is a tremendous songwriter and tremendous artist in his own right, and another guy that I really respect a lot and that’s Adam Hood. He and I, all three of us, were writing together and the initial idea came from Brent Cobb. He said, “I’ve got a couple of lines for this and I don’t really know exactly what direction it should go in but let me just play you what I’ve got.” And he did and I loved it. I loved the mood of it, I loved the feel of it. So we wrote that song together, the three of us, pretty quickly in one of the first writing sessions that we all worked on together. I’ve very proud of it too. I love the dark mood of it, I love the feel of it and I think the lyrics tell a really good story, kind of like, just be careful of the deals that you make, don’t deal with the devil.
Were you ever into the old blues?
Oh yeah, the biggest influences that I ever had growing up were, of course traditional country was always my center, but I was also equally influenced by southern rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, the Marshall Tucker Band, Charlie Daniels, people like that. And then I loved blues. I loved BB King and Muddy Waters and then later on I started really listening to a lot of stuff from Clapton and Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan and was just very, very influenced by that throughout. As a matter of fact, if you take straight ahead country and then southern rock and blues and bluegrass and sprinkle a little bit of southern gospel over the top of it, that pretty much describes all of my influences right there.
On your T-R-O-U-B-L-E album, you cover Buddy Guy, his “Leave My Girl Alone.” Was that your choice back then?
That was my choice. On every album that I’ve ever done, I’ve always tried to, at some point, show little glimpses into all of the different styles of music that influenced me growing up. That means there’s going to be some straight ahead country, there’s going to be a little bit of southern rock, country rock, in there, there’s going to be a little bit of blues and there’s going to be, hopefully, a little bit of bluegrass in there as well. So that was a conscious decision. I just loved Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of that Buddy Guy song and I wanted to include a little bit of blues in that particular album so I came in with that song and we decided to record it and the rest was really kind of history. The cool part about doing that song was it opened up the doors for me to get a chance to meet and record with Buddy Guy for an album that he was doing. And he loved my version of it as well so that was kind of a bonus to get a chance to meet and work with Buddy Guy, who I have so much respect for.
With a song like “Better Off Dead,” it’s almost like an old-time gospel. It has the sound and it ends with a revelation realization.
Yeah, almost redemption, you know. I think so many great country music songs in the history of country music have been about that very thing. They’ve talked about, you know, I’ve done something that I’m not proud of or I’ve treated my old lady or my old man badly or I’ve done something that I just feel like I need to find some kind of redemption for. And I think that’s what the song is based in. That song in particular, the thing that really inspired that song from a melody standpoint was I was just going back and listening to a lot of those old traditional Ralph Stanley bluegrass records, where those bluegrass ballads were really straight ahead and so powerful. I think that song, “Better Off Dead,” is probably one of the most bluegrassy ballads that I’ve ever had an opportunity to write and I’m very proud of that song.
Of all the songs that you’ve written or co-written, what was the hardest song for you to write emotionally?
Oh wow, that’s a tough one. Any time that you get introspective and you start revealing things about your life, especially your vulnerabilities, I found early on in my career that if I write about things where I made a mistake or write about apologizing for something I know that I did wrong in a relationship, for example, those songs are difficult for me to write. But women love hearing those. My experience has been over the years that women love it when a guy is man enough to say, “You know what, I made a mistake here, I screwed up and I’m sorry.” So those are the hardest ones to write but I think songs like, I don’t know, “Strong Enough To Be Your Man” or “Foolish Pride,” “Best Of Intentions;” songs like that that really expose the raw vulnerability that I’ve gone through, and I know a lot of other people go through as well, I think those are probably the most difficult.
So why didn’t “Here’s A Quarter” end up being a heartbreak song? You took it in a different direction.
Well, I wrote that song to cheer me up (laughs). I never intended for anybody to ever hear that song, first of all. I wrote that song when I was going through a divorce and I had just hung up the phone with my soon-to-be ex-wife and I had been served with divorce papers and I was really kind of in a depressed mood at the time. This was my second divorce and I was in my early twenties.
Good Lord, Travis
I know! (laughs) I was just not really happy about it, you know. But once again, things happen and water gets under the bridge and you just have to decide some things just can’t be salvaged. So I pretty much had reached that point and I wrote that song after hanging up the telephone with her, talking about our upcoming divorce, and she had mentioned to me in that phone call that maybe we were rushing into this, maybe we should get back together or maybe we should go to counseling or this, that and the other. And I’m reading through these divorce papers all the things that she wanted in the divorce, and this was before I even had a record deal, and she’s wanting royalties for stuff I hadn’t even earned yet and all these different things and I’m reading through that and I hung up the phone and I thought, no, too much water’s gone under this bridge (laughs).
So I grabbed the guitar and I just started writing the lyrics for “Here’s A Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares.” And it made me laugh, out loud, because it was kind of a kiss-off song in response to a situation that I was in and I did it just to cheer me up. Once again, never intended for anyone to ever hear that song. And many months later, I was onstage one night at Billy Bob’s Texas in Ft Worth and something in my head said to play that song. So I did. It was the first time I’d ever played it live in front of anybody and the response was just overwhelming. And I knew that I had something and I had to record that song and I had to release it at some point. The rest is history.
I would say pretty close. I was learning to be the performer I am today. You know, as rough as those times were, cause I played, first of all, back in those days, in the early eighties and right up until we released the first single in 1989, I was playing every honky tonk, biker bar, pool hall, bowling alley, beer joint that you could find; places that were not always the easiest to play. But as hard as those times were, I wouldn’t take anything for those experiences, because those experiences in those honky tonks and those clubs taught me how to make people listen to me, instead of just being background music. I was never happy with that. I was going to make those people listen to me one way or the other.
I remember in the early days, I started out just me and an acoustic guitar onstage and of course you’re competing with pool tables, alcohol, pinball machines, dart board competitions, all these different things going on. And you have to find a way, or I HAD to find a way, to get those people’s attention. So I went to the local Music Mart in Smyrna, Georgia, and I bought a Fender Twin amplifier and a Fender Stratocaster guitar and a hundred foot long guitar cord. I didn’t even know they made such a thing (laughs). I would start out every night with just my acoustic guitar but by the time I got to my third set about 10:00, man, I’m pulling out that Stratocaster and I’m plugging it in to that Fender Twin amplifier and I am running out on top of people’s tables, kicking over empty beer bottles and stuff, and I’m making them listen. I’m doing “Johnny B. Goode” and all that kind of stuff and forcing them to listen to and pay attention to what I was doing. And it worked.
I also learned during that time how to keep the show going no matter what happens. If a microphone goes down or stops working, I figured out how to keep the show moving forward while you’re working on the problem. Or if you break a guitar string or whatever, I learned how to keep things going rather than have everything just come to a screeching halt. I still every night when I go onstage now, I still pull from a lot of those lessons that I learned back in those honky tonk days, club days. I wouldn’t take anything for those lessons.
Why has it always been about the acoustic guitar for you?
You know, I always played acoustic guitar and electric guitar and occasionally banjo and this, that and the other. But for me, there is just something about it. Most of the songs, I guess every song that I’ve ever written in my entire life, I wrote it on an acoustic guitar. That was the first instrument that I learned how to play and there is something about that attachment to that sound and that feel that I get when I get an acoustic guitar in my hands. You know, it’s hard to get away from your first love.
When you were first learning how to play, what was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?
I would sit down and listen to records. I still to this day, I can’t read a note of music. So everything I learned, I learned by ear, by playing by ear. The hardest stuff for me to learn back in those days was learning to play bluegrass music. My uncle used to take me around to bluegrass festivals from time to time and getting an opportunity to learn, cause you can be sloppy in a lot of different types of music but you can’t be sloppy in bluegrass and play it well. So I really spent a lot of time practicing and listening to those bluegrass records and trying to learn how to pick that flatpicking style that so many of my heroes, like Tony Rice, played and man, it was tough. To be that precise and be that fast and be that fluent with it, it just took a lot and a lot and a lot of practice. I spent hours in front of a stereo or a record player listening to that music and trying to emulate what I was hearing. So that was probably, without a doubt, the most difficult.
Your daughter Tyler is a singer. What is she up to?
Well, she’s like everybody else, she’s working very hard to get back out on the road. She’s also been working in the studio a good bit, working on recording demos and hopefully will get a chance to present those to some producers and other people. I think she really wants to record a full album and hopefully she’ll get a chance to work that album and use it as a way to continue promoting her career. I think she’s extremely talented and I hope she gets every opportunity that she possibly can.
What do you hope your grandchildren will have learned from you?
Oh wow. I hope that they would learn, more than anything else, just to try to abide by the rules that I’ve always tried to abide by as well. And that is to just do your best at everything that you do, pour your whole heart and soul into everything that you do and always try to treat people with respect and with the same type of respect that you would want for people to treat you with. Kind of the golden rule kind of thing, you know. And I would think that that would be the most important lesson that I’ve certainly tried to teach my children and they’ve learned that lesson extremely well. All of my children are extremely respectful and just good human beings. So I would hope my grandchildren would learn that same lesson, if not from me indirectly, from learning it from my children.
Portrait by David Abbott; live photos by Mary Andrews