20 Years Ago: The Career of Randy Travis is Born Again with a #1 Song

Country Music Hall of Famer Randy Travis had an incredible string of #1 songs in his career. It started with the song “On The Other Hand” in 1986, and stretched into the mid 90s when he was signed with powerhouse label Warner Bros. Records. But even for the best country music artists, the string of hits always comes to an end, and that’s what happened for Randy in 1996. His album Full Circle was well-regarded by critics, but when the album didn’t land even one Top 25 hit, Warner Bros. dropped him.

Randy Travis was then rescued by DreamWorks, which decided his career wasn’t done just yet. They had some success with the album You and You Alone in 1998, landing a couple of #2 songs. But when the followup album A Man Ain’t Made of Stone also failed to seed any major singles, DreamWorks dropped Travis too. This put Randy Travis “out to pasture” in country music, as they say.

But instead of sitting on his hands, feeling sorry for himself, or trying and keep up with the current trends in country, Randy Travis decided he would reinvent his career by focusing more on religious music. He didn’t want to become a Contemporary Christian star, nor did he really have any desire to be a straight up Gospel singer. Marrying his personal faith with his love of country music is what he set out to do.

Randy Travis reunited with his longtime producer Kyle Lehning, and they set out on the next phase of his career. Though Travis still wanted to sell albums and play shows for large audiences, this wasn’t exactly the focus, which was a smart decision. Randy’s last three singles at the time had failed to even crack the Top 40, and he hadn’t seen a #1 song in six years.

Travis signed with the religious label Word, and released the album Inspirational Journey in 2000. The reviews were mixed, and the sales were even worse. But Randy Travis never doubted the new direction, and along with Kyle Lehning, set out to record a second religious record called Rise and Shine. The album was basically done when at the last minute, Kyle Lehning brought Randy a song that he believed might complete the record.

“I was on a treadmill the first time I heard the song about a farmer, a teacher, a hooker, and a preacher, who are all on a midnight bus to Mexico when it collides with an 18-wheeler” says Randy Travis in his memoir. “Just when I thought I knew where the story was going, the lyrics took an intriguing twist. ‘That is an amazing piece of writing!’ I thought … I immediately called Kyle. ‘I understand why you like this song. I know we’re already done with our album, but let’s record this!'”

The song was “Three Wooden Crosses” written by Kim Williams and Doug Johnson. At the time, Randy Travis and Kyle Lehning weren’t thinking about radio or the commercial applications for the song. That had all passed Randy by at that point. They were just thinking it was a great song. So they recorded it, and “Three Wooden Crosses” ended up being a last minute addition to the Rise and Shine album.

Randy’s label Word first sent the song to a few small market radio stations whose audiences might be familiar with Randy, and receptive to a religious song. They ended up being way more than just receptive. Requests started pouring into these stations to hear “Three Wooden Crosses” over and over. Then as word spread from the smaller markets to the bigger markets, country stations, Christian stations, and even pop stations started playing the song.

Soon—and rather inexplicably—a Randy Travis single with a religious theme was streaking up the charts, years after the country music industry had declared him done. Then on May 24th, 2003—20 years ago today—“Three Wooden Crosses” hit #1, becoming Randy’s 16th official chart topper. At that point, it had been nine years since Randy last hit #1. “Three Wooden Crosses” also hit #31 on the all-genre Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and was one of the Top 20 songs in all of country music in 2003.

When the CMA Awards came around, Randy Travis, songwriters Kim Williams and Doug Johnson, and “Three Wooden Crosses” also won the 2003 CMA Song of the Year. Not bad for an artist that had been put out to pasture.

“The last verse of the song revealed a preacher telling the story, blessing the farmer, and the teacher, and the preacher who gave the blood-stained Bible to his mama—the hooker—who had read it to him,” Randy Travis explains. “The point of the story was that it’s not what you take from this world, but what you leave behind when you go.”

When Randy Travis leaves this world (hopefully many, many years from now) he will leave behind an iconic song and a brilliant performance in “Three Wooden Crosses” that will outlast us all.

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