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When I was getting into country music as a teenager, the first country album that bothered me with its clichés was Randy Travis’s highly acclaimed 1986 debut, Storms of Life.
It’s not that I hadn’t heard country albums that used familiar themes of drinking, cheating, mama, trains, heartbreak, and so on. Maybe they just seemed more concentrated in one place on this album.
I’d heard some of Randy Travis’s biggest hits through CMT countdowns and compilations at libraries, but I wasn’t prepared for the album tracks here. Songs like “Reasons I Cheat,” while sad, struck me as typical country fare, beyond salvaging from Travis’s appealing baritone.
Going back and hearing the album now on vinyl, with a greater knowledge of country music’s history, I can hear how the album sounded unique in the era of glitz that was ‘80s country. Storms of Life was one of the most acclaimed country releases of the decade, and many found Travis’s Lefty Frizzell-influenced style to be a refreshing example of the “New Traditionalist” style embodied at the time by artists like George Strait and Keith Whitley.
Of course, Travis went on to have other tremendous hit songs after this album, including “Forever and Ever, Amen,” “I Told You So,” “He Walked on Water,” “Whisper My Name,” “Deeper than the Holler,” and others. But there is something special—if not always equally so—about the hits from this debut.
“On the Other Hand” has been called one of country’s greatest songs on multiple lists, and its smooth but bare-bones production, I’m guessing, made it stand out amid the country hits of 1986. The clever wordplay—“On that hand, there’s no reason why it’s wrong/ But on the other hand, there’s a golden band”—may have struck me years ago as one more cliché on this album, but the track is a strong single.
“Diggin’ Up Bones” and “On the Other Hand” were the album’s two #1 hits, but my favorite single on the album has always been “1982,” originally written as “1962.” Travis attempts to literally dial up the past—“Operator, please connect me with 1982”—to reconnect with an old flame.
What surprises me the most about how I hear this album now is that the most affecting track to my ears today is “Reasons I Cheat.” Yes, it is a slow and, some would say, cliché-driven ballad, but I hear it as a refreshingly honest look at one man’s situation that others may find relatable. There’s something particularly special about “Reasons I Cheat,” and it’s not just that it’s the album longest track. Travis’s initially understated vocal helps the record build tension, and however you judge the speaker’s actions, this truly is a great performance.
I guess the clichés of Storms of Life ended up not bothering me that much after all these years.
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