Even as Randy Travis clings to life in a North Texas hospital, his spartan brand of country music feels like a thing of the past. At the very least, it's hard to imagine songs like "Forever and Ever, Amen" or "Deeper Than the Holler" ever crying out for a "Cruise"-style remix. Or the North Carolina-bred adopted Texan ever indulging in nonsense like Blake Shelton's inane "Boys 'Round Here."
Coupled with his remarkably expressive, melodious, baritone-trending tenor, Travis' catalog is full of elegance, dignity and -- long before his successful crossover into more overtly Christian country music -- grace. Even his cheating songs ("On the Other Hand") sound classy. Each boasting deceptively simple arrangements, top-of-the-line production and expert execution by a cast of Nashville top hands, his early records (from 1986's Storms of Life through about 1991's High Lonesome) easily rank among the finest of their era, and probably in country-music history.
As of this writing, Travis remained in critical condition in The Heart Hospital Baylor Plano after suffering a stroke Wednesday night. According to both his Nashville-based publicist and the Baylor Health Care System's Web site, he had been undergoing treatment for cardiomyopathy, a viral infection that weakens the heart muscle and is serious as it sounds.
Since Travis was hospitalized this past Sunday, the outpouring of support for the singer has far outpaced the snickering and finger-pointing that surrounded his lurid alcohol-related arrests last year. (Maybe there is still some good in this world.) And not surprisingly, those early albums turn out to be an excellent source of comfort for his many fans during a time like this. As Rocks Off joins everyone else in pulling for Travis, these are the songs we think cut closest to the bone.
10. "Honky Tonk Side of Town" Travis it not associated with barroom boot-scooters all that often, but he cut his share of good ones. Opening 1994's This Is Me, this track has just enough horns and piano to give it a slight New Orleans tincture, and make it worth a spin around your personal dance floor.
9. "Good Intentions" Flavored with lonesome harmonica as the incarcerated narrator addresses his late mother, this regret-filled tune ("looks like I turned out like all the rest") makes a worthy sequel to Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home."
8. "My House" Travis' most recent effort before his hospitalization was the George Jones tribute single "Tonight I'm Playin' Possum," a duet with Joe Nichols released last month. That's a decent little weeper, but this deliberately paced ballad reminiscent of "The Grand Tour" paints a much warmer picture than even Jones' classic -- mostly because as Travis surveys his own dwelling, it turns out to be quite full.
7. "Too Gone Too Long" This sassy, charming ditty make s a prime showcase both some fine acoustic-swing picking and Travis' amazing voice, dipping as low as he can go (which is pretty low) as he negotiates lines like "It's been too long since you walked out my door/ Now you're just an old song nobody sings anymore."
6. "Card Carryin' Fool" Travis never strayed too far from Nashville song forms or production, but he could if he wanted to. This frisky, fiddle-laced Western swing tune from No Holdin' Back doesn't lack much on George Strait's work from the same period.
5. "Reasons I Cheat" In a perfectly slow-paced waltz that squeezes every last teardrop out of the steel guitar, Travis sits in an anonymous tavern and asks himself, more or less, "What the hell?" Line by line, he examines his go-nowhere life, explaining without ever needing to why that maiden across the room looks better and better. Honky-tonk soap opera of the highest order.
4. "There'll Always Be a Honky-Tonk Somewhere" Jukebox in the corner? Check. Lady lookin' lonely? Check. As he ponders factories on the moon and "farming out in space" (how '80s), Travis helps us all take comfort in the places "where good ol' boys meet good ol' girls and the wine and music flow." Thankfully, some things never change.
3. "It's Out of My Hands" With little more than acoustic guitar and mournful steel sighs, Travis evokes both Jones and Haggard as he finally confronts the cold reality that she's gone, gone, gone: "She's taken all the lonely she could stand."
2. "I Told You So" It's difficult for me to even breathe while listening to "I Told You So." The pristine arrangement sounds engineered for maximum heartbreak without laying the schmaltz too thick, but the revelation in the last line of the chorus -- "I've found somebody new and you will never break my heart in two again" -- feels like getting stabbed by a dagger sheathed in velvet. The tables finally turned, all right.
1. "On the Other Hand" Travis provoked what Allmusic calls a "generational shift" in country music by temporarily clearing out all those messy Urban Cowboy cobwebs, and this song is where he started. On Storms of Life's leadoff track (and easily one of the greatest country tunes of the '80s), Travis delivers his words as carefully as both sides of his adulterous dilemma.