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.
May 24, 2023 @ 11:05 am
That song is about as perfect as a country song can be.
May 24, 2023 @ 10:57 pm
You do not hear that kind of country anymore. Ones that tell stories. Ones that make you feel – inside.
May 26, 2023 @ 9:57 am
A #1 song in my mind.
May 24, 2023 @ 12:32 pm
My only regret is that his career was so sadly cut short. But even that story is one of miracles and perseverance.
May 24, 2023 @ 1:15 pm
I would love to see more artists that have been put out to pasture return to the spotlight. It seems country can’t play anyone unless you have a huge social media following. I would love to see Trisha Yearwood or Wynonna release a song and nominated for a CMA again. I can hope, but won’t hold my breath.
May 24, 2023 @ 2:33 pm
Trisha did have a moderate hit in 2020 with “Every Girl In This Town”. It wasn’t a huge smash but not bad for an artist who hadn’t had a hit in over 15 years (“Georgia Rain” in 2005)
May 24, 2023 @ 2:11 pm
I think I got burned out on the song as a teenager but I revisited summer 2021. Like you said in your summary… that song is everlasting.
I need to do a deep dive through his work.
May 24, 2023 @ 4:34 pm
It’s a tear-jerker of a song, poignantly sung, but the lyric has a fatal flaw.
The accident happened before the pastor telling the story was born (or when he was a child), so we’re supposed to believe that 3 wooden crosses have stood there withstanding the elements for 30+ years. Like many pastors’ anecdotes, it falls apart on close examination.
May 24, 2023 @ 5:05 pm
I imagine you’re also flummoxed by the the “John Deere Green” painted heart that keeps coming through, no matter how many times the town where Joe Diffie comes from paints over the water tower. “Where did Billy Bob get that paint?!”
May 24, 2023 @ 5:32 pm
😂 Novelty songs are allowed to violate the laws of science, but—I actually find the paint thing plausible. It was oil-based green, and they kept painting over it with water-based white.
May 25, 2023 @ 12:56 pm
Uh, I think you might have missed the point of that song, too.
The point is not that the bozos who run the town use cheap, indoor paint to cover exposed outdoor structures and edifices. The contention of the singer is that “there ain’t no paint in the world” that can cover up Billy Bob’s love for Charlene (presumably because it derives from their homespun, rural values and grammar).
May 24, 2023 @ 6:49 pm
There are four wooden crosses in my part of the world (Interstate 10) that have been in the median for over a dozen years, commemorating a tragic car wreck, so, don’t jump to conclusions.
May 24, 2023 @ 8:29 pm
The question I’ve alway had about this song…Did the bus driver survive?
May 24, 2023 @ 10:19 pm
The writers seemed to forget about him….after mentioning that he ran the stop sign.
May 30, 2023 @ 12:47 pm
People keep up the crosses at sites of fatal accidents sometimes.
I don’t know about 30 years, but I know there are some around where I live that have been there a decade plus.
May 24, 2023 @ 6:29 pm
I’ve read the demo of Three Wooden crosses was recorded by Joe Nichols. Don’t know how true it is, but would love to hear his version. He has the closest voice to Randy’s I’ve heard in all of these years. I’ve always wanted to hear him cover some Randy music and was delighted when they recorded the duet “tonight I’m playing possum” about George Jones.
May 24, 2023 @ 10:28 pm
“Three Wooden Crosses” was really a one-shot comeback for Travis. Once this song ran its course, country radio went right back to ignoring him.
May 25, 2023 @ 6:43 am
3 Wooden Crosses is a cute song, and I’m glad it revitalized his career, but his debut record, Storms of Life, is about as perfect a country album as has ever been made. It makes you feel OK about feeling bad. And you can sing your heart out to it and feel like George Jones no matter how bad your voice is. I love that record.
May 25, 2023 @ 10:10 am
It is a truly great song beautifully performed.
May 25, 2023 @ 10:23 am
I have always loved Randy. Travis and there has never been a song I haven’t liked he a true country singer and more
Rickie Jon Connors
May 25, 2023 @ 1:10 pm
If the story behind that song was written today and recorded by Morgan Wallen or Parker McCollum, it would probably be titled “Some Sad-Ass Shit That Happened (in My Town)”. Or similar.
May 25, 2023 @ 8:51 pm
It would feel very fake as well. There’s something about many modern country singers that just doesn’t seem honest to me, like they’re all playing characters and just there for the paycheck. Of course, not every single star from past eras of country music was “the real deal” either, but I guess you could say they were at least “better actors” back in the day. Most could put on a convincing performance. Great (and very underrated) example: “The Car” by the late, great Jeff Carson. There’s not a single person in Nashville right now who could cover that song and make it sound as legit as the original.
Rickie Jon Connors
May 25, 2023 @ 10:13 pm
I don’t know that one. Will check it out.
May 26, 2023 @ 11:18 am
Are you saying we are closer to Idiocracy than I thought?
Rickie Jon Connors
May 26, 2023 @ 12:07 pm
May 25, 2023 @ 3:42 pm
I’M VERY HAPPY TO HEAR THAT HE IS BACK AND I WISH RANDY TRAVIS ALL THE BEST OF HEALTH HAPPINESS GOOD LUCK TO HIM DEBORAH CHENEY
May 27, 2023 @ 7:53 am
Three wooden Crosses is great. Another of Randy’s compositions and recordings : I told you so!
May 27, 2023 @ 1:49 pm
Doug Johnson, one of the song’s two co-writers, has recently had some health issues. So, if you’re a fan of “Three Wooden Crosses,” send some positive thoughts his way.
The song’s other co-writer, Kim Williams, whom we lost in 2015, had an inspiring life story that, itself, could’ve made for a good country song.
May 27, 2023 @ 11:10 pm
One of my favorites
May 28, 2023 @ 2:27 pm
One of the best country songs this century. Beautiful.