I had no idea about Travis Tritt.
I thought I did.
I knew he was the Southern rockingest of Nashville’s vaunted “Class of ’89,” the group of blockbuster country performers who made debuts in 1989 that included Alan Jackson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Clint Black and some guy named Garth.
I knew he was a Grammy winner who had charted a slew of country hits, including “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares),” “Help Me Hold On,” “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive” and “The Whiskey Ain’t Working.” And I knew he delivered those hits on big stages, with a big band and hydraulics and leather pants and things that whir and pop and bang.
And I knew most singers who perform aggressive stage shows like that are nervous about singing without all the high-dollar, high-impact help from the band and the lights and such.
But on a January afternoon in 2001, I was at a birthday party with a bunch of big-deal musicians. The party was for Country Music Hall of Famer Earl Scruggs, and Earl liked to play music with friends on his birthday.
His music-making friends that afternoon included John Hartford, Waylon Jennings, Tom T. Hall, Jerry Douglas,Kitty Wells, Uncle Josh Graves, Marty Stuart and Vince Gill. Oh, and Travis Tritt. Dear reader, I mention these names because I want you to understand the depth of musicality in that room, and also because I have spent the past 13 years not bragging to you about being there, and I just couldn’t hold it in any longer.
So the banjos and guitars and laughter were ringing, until Earl’s no-nonsense wife, Louise, loomed over a seated Tritt and requested — and by “requested,” I mean “ordered” — that Tritt play a song called “Where Corn Don’t Grow.” No microphone, no hydraulics, no leather pants, no electric guitar, nothing whirring, popping or banging. Right there, in front of the eyes of God and Waylon Jennings. (And I was there, too. Did I mention that?)
Tritt said, “Yes ma’am,” which is the same thing everyone else said to Louise Scruggs. And then he began to play, with a deft and light touch, and with the timing and intonation of a session musician. And then he began to sing, in a voice more nuanced, commanding and compelling than the one I’d heard on the radio all those years.
In fact he sang in a voice more nuanced, commanding and compelling than just about every other voice I’d heard on the radio all those years.
Later, I walked up to masterful Dobro player Jerry Douglas and said, “I think Travis Tritt might be the best male vocalist in Nashville. Heck of a picker, too.”
“Sure,” Douglas said. “You didn’t know that?”
No, I had no idea.
Lately, Tritt has been playing some solo-acoustic shows, forgoing aggression and bluster and finding that the results are surprising longtime fans.
“I take it as a huge compliment when people walk up after 25 years in this business and say, ‘Man, I never knew,’ ” he says.
Tritt hasn’t gotten many of those comments in Middle Tennessee because he’s never played a solo acoustic show here.