Travis Tritt talks about his new, solo acoustic live album, the artists who influenced him and what he thinks about pop stars appearing on country music awards programs.
Considered an exciting up-and-coming artist when he released his 1990 Country Clubdebut album, Tritt quickly built an impressive music catalog that payed homage to country greats like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and George Jones. But at the same time the music honored Tritt’s love for rock ’n’ roll and groups like The Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Seger.
Tritt spoke with Pollstar a few the days before the Nov. 18 release of A Man And His Guitar – Live From The Franklin Theatre. The new album is available via TravisTritt.com and through major digital retailers and a DVD of the concert is available through Tritt’s website and on his tour.
In addition to talking about the new release, Tritt expressed his love for gospel, rock, blues and other genres that have influenced him through the years, reminding us that he’s as much a music lover as he is a music artist.
A Man and His Guitar – Live from the Franklin Theatre, seems tailored made for fans wanting a closer look at your music, almost as if you’re playing for friends in your living room.
That’s one of the biggest reasons we chose to do it. From the start of my career, when I was doing shows with the band, I would send the band off midway through the show and I would do one or two songs by myself with an acoustic guitar. The response to that was always phenomenal.
Back in the early days, I had managers and booking agents who all asked me to consider putting an entire show together that way, just me and a guitar. I don’t know why I resisted it, but probably because of the fact that, for some reason at that particular time, I didn’t think that anybody would pay good money to come and watch a guy like me sit down and play guitar and sing for two hours. I never thought that would ever happen.
About six years ago, my booking agent finally convinced me to do a small number of those type of shows. I think we booked five, originally. We did them in performing arts centers where it was a little more intimate, 2,000 people at the most. We did those and the response was through the roof. I put together a show I originally thought would be 90 minutes [long] and the first show lasted 2 hours and 20 minutes. The audience response was fantastic, over the top.
So that encouraged me to do more of them. We still don’t do that many but out of the 150 dates I do a year, we do about 30 shows that are solo acoustic. For me, they really don’t feel like shows. It’s much more relaxed. When it’s just you and a guitar out on stage, it feels like I’m sitting in my living room playing to my friends. Plus, it gives me an opportunity to, not only play a lot of the music from my catalog, but to play some other things, like songs from artists that influenced me from the time I was very young. It gives people the chance to hear songs performed by me that they may not hear any other way. It’s been a great opportunity for me and I’ve enjoyed it.
How do you approach another artist’s song and make it sound like your own?
I think that’s the biggest challenge anytime you’re trying to cover material, to try to make it your own. For this particular acoustic-type environment, I think back to great songs like Eric Clapton’s version of “Layla” that he did on his Unplugged album and the way he kind of reworked that whole song to make it totally different and totally his own. That’s what I’ve always tried to do with these acoustic shows. The small number of cover songs can change from night to night when we’re out on the road.
On this particular album, one of the covers we feature is the old Gregg Allman tune “Come and Go Blues,” which was a song that influenced me from way back and [gave me] the chance to experiment with some different tunings and do it a little differently than what people have heard before. It’s always fun to hear the crowd’s reaction.
More recently, in just the last few months, I wrapped up the last of my acoustic shows for this year, but one of the cover songs that I started doing was the old Beatles song “Help.” But I slowed it down and did it in a real bluesy type fashion and totally made it something that was my own.
Regarding your acoustic shows, did you check out other artists’ solo tours?
I really didn’t. I just came up with a list of songs I felt people absolutely wouldn’t let me leave without hearing. Then we added in a few other things, songs that were very inspirational or from artists that were very inspirational to me. Like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, or Jerry Reed, those type of people. What I found, what the acoustic shows afforded me, was the opportunity, not only to play the music but to be in a very relaxed environment in that I could talk to the audience in between songs. I could tell them the stories behind the songs, what I was thinking when I was writing some of these songs, or the story behind what influenced me to do songs that were written by other people and what made we want to record them on albums. Those stories gave a lot of behind-the-scenes looks that a lot of people didn’t know anything about.
A lot of people, I found, didn’t know about the relationships I had with Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash or Charlie Daniels. They did more than just befriend me. They really took me under their wings. They were constantly advising me and telling me how much they enjoyed what I was doing. They gave me a lot of encouragement. So I get the chance to share those stories with the audience as well. That’s one of the things that gives it much more depth.
How flexible is the setlist for one of your solo acoustic shows? Can you mix things up on a whim or plug in a song someone in the audience shouted out?
The cool thing about doing a solo-acoustic performance is that there’s nobody on stage but me. I can sing whatever pops in my head at any given time. That’s really cool. Yes, we’ve taken requests from the audience. From time to time people shout out something that they want to hear. Some of them might be songs I haven’t done in a long, long time. But if I can remember it, yeah, I’ll give it a shout.
I wouldn’t blame an artist with as extensive catalog as yours for working with a Teleprompter. Are you using one for these shows?
No. I don’t begrudge any artist for doing it either, and I know a lot of them do. But I always look to people like Charlie Daniels, who just turned 80 years old. I’ve worked with Charlie a lot, probably more than any other artist I’ve worked with on the road. Charlie does not use a Teleprompter. The coolest thing about Charlie … if he opens a show for me, he makes me work that much harder because he goes out there and literally attacks the stage every single night. That’s something you just dream of. To be that age and be able to still go out there, attack the stage and approach the concerts with the same intensity that you had in your younger stage is just amazing. Not very many people get that chance to do that.
I told some of the people in my organization, “Look. I don’t begrudge anybody for [working with a Teleprompter]. I understand why they do it. But if I ever get to a point where I have to use a Teleprompter, just tell me to go home and give it up because I probably shouldn’t be out there.” That’s my own personal opinion for me.
How do you rehearse for an acoustic solo tour?
That’s easy because I play guitar every day whether I’m on the road or sitting around at home. I love playing. There are things I still find myself learning every time I pick it up. I learn new things, new licks, new tunings, new ideas and concepts that come out as a result of that. Obviously, when you play every day for an hour and a half … sometimes much longer, it becomes pretty easy to figure out how you can do certain songs that you think of just out of the blue. Maybe a song you did years ago that was not a single, maybe a deep album cut, you can work those songs up fairly easily when you’re just sitting around picking at home or on the bus. Once you figure out you can pull that off acoustically, solo by yourself, then it’s just a matter of going out and playing it.
What other aspects of your life do you focus on with the intensity that you focus on your music?
Only my family. My family is so important to me. My kids – I have a daughter who’s 18, a son who’s 17, another son who’s going to be 13. My wife, she is truly my soulmate. I know that phrase gets thrown around a lot but it’s absolutely true in my case. When I’m not focusing on the road, which is much of my time, I love spending time with my family and focus on them. My children are all very talented. My daughter is looking to trying to establish a career in the entertainment industry as well. Any help, advice, encouragement that I can give to her or any of my kids, that’s something that’s extremely important to me.
Are your family members your toughest critics?
They really are. That’s always been the case. Anytime I was thinking of recording a certain song for an album or had just written something, I would sit down and play it for my wife first. She’s got a really good ear for things that sometimes it’s hard for me to get a perspective on because they’re so close to me. She’s always been great for that.
My kids have developed the same thing. They are very, very good about letting me know exactly what they think. They’re not afraid to hurt my feelings. They’ll tell me honestly and truthfully and that’s what you want when you’re looking for someone’s opinion, someone that you trust.
You’ve been praised through the years for carrying the country music tradition much like George Jones and like Merle Haggard, but you were never afraid to tip your toes in rock. More recently, you stirred up a hornet’s nest on Twitter regarding Beyoncé’s performance on the CMA Awards. What’s your opinion on where country music is headed these days?
The problem that I’ve had with the CMAs or any other country music award show for years, and this goes all the way back to the beginning for me, is the constant insistence by either the producers of the CMA show, the country music shows or the networks … to bring in pop acts, R&B acts or other types of acts into those shows to try to boost ratings.
In my day it was people like Sting and Elton John. [Lately] it’s been people like Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor, Justin Timberlake and, more recently, Beyoncé. Not too long ago I saw on the CMT Awards, a performance by Pitbull. In my opinion, all of those acts are extremely talented, and I have no problem with people in country music collaborating with artists from other genres. God knows I’ve done my share of it. I’ve collaborated with everybody from Patti LaBelle to Little Feat to Ray Charles to David Lee Roth, and the list goes on and on.
But when it’s a country awards show specifically focusing on country music, and this particular show was not just any country music awards show, this was the 50th anniversary. Those of us doing country music, releasing country music singles to radio, who are doing country music albums and tours, have drawn in millions and millions of fans, and sold millions of albums across the world. I myself, personally, have sold more than 30 million albums worldwide. We’ve drawn in a huge audience that maybe didn’t exist prior to some of us coming out.
I know from Randy Travis forward, a lot of people have been drawn into the country music listening audience that weren’t there before. Not only that, but we’ve put so many fannies in the seats at country music concerts over the years that I feel that the country music award shows can stand on their own. We don’t need outside help from anybody. That’s nothing against them. I think, in my own personal view, that country music award shows should celebrate country music artists and country music performers, only. … Let us stand on our own two feet. I think we’re perfectly capable.
A longtime complaint among country fans is that today’s country isn’t as good as it was in past years. People said that 30 years ago before you signed with Warner Bros., and folks are still saying it today, yet they refer to the music 30 years ago as the standard. What’s your take on that?
The thing I’ve noticed more recently, as far as the difference between the new generation that’s out now in country music versus the new generation that was out when I got started in the late ’80s is that … being a part of the class of ’89 – myself, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Garth Brooks – we all sounded different from each other but we all paid a tremendous amount of respect to the artists that had come before us. We all loved Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, George Strait, George Jones and Waylon Jennings. We all let our audiences know that. Not only by talking about them but in the music we did. We paid homage and tribute to those people in everything we did.
Nowadays, it seems like in the last, I dunno, in the last 10 years or so, we’ve really gotten away from that. I wish there was more of a throwback to that. I think any music, no matter what type of music it is, if it’s rock, soul, R&B, or whatever it may be, any music that tends to get too far away from its roots and its beginnings, tends to get lost. I think that’s what happened to the genre of rock, to be honest. There are no rock [radio] stations anymore. And there are no more rock groups except for classic rock groups. I think that’s one of the reasons because it got so far away from its original beginnings that it became unrecognizable.
It also goes to the lyrics. The thing about country music, I think, that has made it so great for so many years is the lyric to a country music song talked about things that everybody could relate to. It made them feel something. It stirred emotions in people, how they felt about their love life, their social status, their background or whatever. They weren’t just all songs that you could tap a toe and dance to. I think we’ve gotten away from that. The good news, for me, at least, is I’m starting to see the beginning of country music coming back around to the concentration on lyrics that aren’t just talking about drinking beer in a pickup truck, partying in a field some place.
And it needs to come back around to that. It’s the thing that not only brings people in but keeps them there for a long, long time. That’s the thing that’s kept country music so strong for all these years. Everything is circular in this business. It all moves in circles and sometimes it may take 20-30 years before it comes back full circle. But I think about where country music was in the ’80s when Randy Travis broke out. He took everything back to the very beginning, to the roots, people like Hank Williams Senior, Merle Haggard and some of the others, he really brought that back. At that particular time country music had gone off into a pop phase but he brought it back to [being] OK and cool to do traditional country music again. And that spawned a whole lot of people and I think it’s going to come back to that again. I really do.
But even the artists you mentioned, like Garth Brooks and Clint Black, seemed to be taking tips from the rock world regarding the live show. You used to have gigantic coins hanging from the stage rafters while performing “Here’s A Quarter,” and Garth Brooks has talked about seeing KISS while still a teenager and being blown away by the live show. So weren’t the ’80s a time when country acts were taking chances with their live shows?
I think so. When Garth approached live concerts [it was like], “Let’s bring the same type of lighting, staging and effects and all the things you’d see at rock show, what made those shows so exciting, let’s bring all of that into country music. And right after Garth did it, I kind of followed his lead. Some artists can get by with that, some cannot. If you’re an artist who just stands in one spot and that’s your thing, then the staging doesn’t make all that much of a difference.
But if you’re an artist like Garth or like me, that runs around on stage and enjoys really getting into it and uses that as part of your life show, at that time that was an attraction.
I remember I went out not long after we got started and I spent a million dollars on a stage. We had hydraulic lifts, I rode a Harley out on stage. We had the same lighting and effects that you would see at any rock show you would go to. That did a tremendous amount to boost my ticket sales and it was right at the time.
In 1989, that’s when I got started. Ten years later, in 1999. I decided to take some time off. My daughter had been born in ’98 and I decided to take some time off from the road. At that time I was with Warner Bros. and I wanted to get out of that deal and sign with another label. … I signed with Columbia.
During that period of time when I was taking a couple of years off, I had just done a duet with George Thorogood for the “King Of The Hill” soundtrack. He was on tour with the Steve Miller Band and they were playing at Starwood in Nashville. I got a call one day from George and he said, “Man. Would you come up and do that song with me, the ‘Move It On Over’ thing that we did together?” And I agreed.
So I went up. … Steve Miller, he and I had become friends early on and I had seen him in concert several times. He had three or four trucks, a huge stage and all the effects. But when I saw him in Nashville for that particular show, he had stripped everything down. I think he was down to one truck and three buses. It was just a black stage, no risers, no tremendous lighting effects. And he still sold out Starwood.
I went to see Bruce Springsteen around that same time and he had done the same thing. It was almost as though artists were saying, “OK, look. Everybody has seen the big light shows and the big stage productions. Everybody has seen what that’s all about. But now let’s bring it back to what this is really all about, the music.”
I saw ZZ Top, Steve Miller, Bruce Springsteen and numerous other acts kind of scale everything back at that particular time and focus on the music. And it didn’t hurt their ticket sales one bit.
You’ve done some excellent cover versions of old blues songs. Do you consider yourself somewhat of a blues man?
I love blues music. I grew up listening to it. It was a staple of the stuff I listened to. When I started out [I was] a huge Muddy Waters fan, huge fan of B.B. King, of Buddy Guy. Later on, people like Stevie Ray Vaughan, who probably did more than anybody bringing blues into the forefront of the consciousness of America. I loved all of it. I’m a big Eric Clapton fan. I guess hearing all these people I really admire so much talk about their blues influences really kind of turned me on to blues. Of course, being from Georgia, there’s no way in the world that I could not be a blues fan and love The Allman Brothers the way I did.
I would say [blues] is very much a part of who I am and what I do. I really enjoy playing the blues. I always try to throw in at least one or two blues tunes [during] every show I do, whether it be solo acoustic or full band. … To some extent, I would consider myself to be, if not a blues man, heavily blues influenced.
If you could give some advice to a teenager who is just now picking up a guitar and maybe considering a couple of open mic engagements in Nashville, what would you tell them?
Every time you get a chance to play in front of somebody, do it. I would also tell them that no matter what people try to tell you, it’s important that you stay true to yourself. Find out who you are, find your own voice, stay true to who you are. I was a little bit different when I came on the scene because I brought a little bit of the rock influence, the blues influence and some other things into my primary love of country music.
But I remember the words of encouragement I got from people like Charlie Daniels and Johnny Cash. The most important piece of advice I got was probably from Waylon Jennings who told me early on, “Listen. Being an outlaw or being different is tough. But, the thing is, even if you’re a little bit different, everybody that’s a little bit different deserves the opportunity to do it their way at least once.”
I really latched on to that, that made a lot of sense to me. I’ve always tried to do it my own way. I’ve always tried to stay true to who I am. If I left any of those parts out of my albums or my live concert performances, it really wouldn’t be me anymore. And I want people to get a complete picture of who I am and why I fell in love with music in the first place, and what influenced me from the very beginning. And I think as long as any new artist does that, you got an opportunity to certainly be recognized.