Near the end of the title cut and opening song of Travis Tritt's latest album, the acclaimed and accomplished country star unleashes a ferocious growl. "The sound of outlaw music sets me free," he roars, setting the tone for a collection that is startling in its forcefulness--even, perhaps, curiously so.
That Tritt would record an album of Southern rock- and blues-steeped country music is no surprise at all, however. For it is precisely that flavor of the genre for which Tritt first gained notoriety, earning a reputation as country’s “new outlaw” long before invoking the names Waylon and Cash became fashionable among upstart artists.
What begs examination, rather, is the manner in which Tritt’s artistry and career broadened after that initial rush of hit singles, platinum albums and sold-out tours. And why he has chosen this moment for such an invigorating return to his roots.
Over the course of his 15-year career, the Georgian has delighted fans and disarmed critics by exploring his deep love of hardcore country, flashing an ability and affinity for bluegrass, revealing unexpected sensitivity as a balladeer, winning respect as a formidable songwriter and, most emphatically, drawing widespread recognition as one of the finest vocalists the genre has ever known.
In his personal life, Tritt spent the early part of his career living up to the outlaw image he projected, and has been very candid about his excesses. But since his 1997 marriage, his third, he has settled in as a devoted husband and doting father of three. And it is against this backdrop of expansive artistry and harmonious home life that Tritt has recorded the most unapologetically aggressive and single-minded album of his career. Curious, indeed.
Born and raised in Marietta, Georgia, Tritt was an early and eager student of music, picking up guitar at age eight, singing in his church youth choir and playing in bluegrass, rock and country bands through his teens. His honky tonk history started when he applied his blue-collar work ethic to the diverse sounds of Southern popular music. Tritt spent years playing small clubs where he was expected to be able to cover everything from Hank Williams to Otis Redding to Skynyrd.
When he sings, “I got these calluses from all those nights/Spent playing a Telecaster till my fingers bled Bud Light” on the new album, Tritt’s is the voice of experience. And that apprenticeship served him well when he first began making overtures to Nashville. Armed with, a well-defined sense of artistic direction and that unmistakable voice, Tritt landed a major label deal and launched an impressive career.
His first single, 1989’s Country Club, roared into the top 10, and the album of the same name went on to become the first of many platinum records. He won the CMA’s prestigious Horizon Award in 1991, was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry the following year and amassed a body of hits including “I’m Gonna Be Somebody,” “Here’s A Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares),” “Anymore,” “Ten Feet Tall And Bulletproof,” “Foolish Pride” and dozens more.
Those quick to peg Tritt as a rocker for his leather and long hair were time and again forced to backpedal. Whether it was picking up a banjo with the late bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe or Earl Scruggs, or belting out soul and blues with artists like Patti Labelle and Buddy Guy, Tritt exploded stereotypes. A deep musical kinship with the late legend and fellow Georgian Ray Charles ran from Tritt’s childhood discipleship studying the icon’s groundbreaking Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music, all the way to a recent CMT Crossroads performance with Charles. And yet Travis also recorded with traditional country stalwart George Jones and released many a throwback country hit like “Where Corn Don’t Grow.”
Tritt’s personal life began a transformation seven years ago with his marriage to Theresa and their ever-growing family that now numbers five. Professionally, the new millennium marked a turning point as Tritt’s relationship with his first label Warner Bros. deteriorated precipitously, and the singer soon found a new home with Sony/Columbia.
The aptly titled Down The Road I Go, released in 2000, spawned four top ten hit singles and returned him to platinum stature. The 2002 follow up, Strong Enough, entered the country album chart at #4 with strong sales out of the gate. However, only two top twenty singles resulted from that disc. Which brings him to the current project, My Honky Tonk History.
Introduced by barroom piano and a shotgun blast, the album speeds into the aforementioned title track. The outlaw theme runs through to the fatalistic gospel of “Too Far To Turn Around,” co-written by label mate Gretchen Wilson, who also lends backing vocals. First single “The Girl’s Gone Wild” features Tritt’s hardest-driving backbeat since “T-R-O-U-B-L-E.”
“What Say You,” a duet with John Mellencamp and featuring Bela Fleck on banjo, affirms traditional values but stops well short of being jingoistic. The album’s first ballad, “Circus Leaving Town,” is a little-known gem from singer/songwriter Philip Claypool that, through metaphor, explores the touring life’s toll on a relationship.
A cover of Delbert McClinton’s “Monkey Around” is high-test blues, powered by what might be the most explosive recorded vocal performance of Tritt’s career. Even a traditional cut like “I See Me” follows the album’s theme as the lament of former renegade who sees himself in his son.
The sole self-penned cut is a tender ode to lifelong love titled “We’ve Had It All,” co-written with pal and former tour mate Marty Stuart. “When Good Ol’ Boys Go Bad,” “It’s All About The Money” and “When In Rome” crank up the attitude again, while the stone country “Small Doses” finds heartbreak leaning on a familiar crutch.
Taken as a whole, My Honky Tonk History is far from a rehash of past glory, nor is it an attempt to return to previous successes. But why would an artist who has written the bulk of his own material only record one of his own songs? Why would someone whose talent has continually defied pigeonholing create such a laser-focused album? Why would a committed family man return to sounds that evoke images from a much more turbulent time in his life?
The answer might just be found in that startling confession at album’s open. With nothing left to prove, personally or professionally, perhaps Travis Tritt finds himself unencumbered enough to revel almost exclusively in the sounds and themes of the music at his very core. Maybe, just maybe, the sound of outlaw music really has set him free.