18 June 2011

"Storms of Life" by Randy Travis

Storms of Life
Randy Travis
Produced by Kyle Lehning
"On the Other Hand" and "Reasons I Cheat" produced by Kyle Lehning and Keith Stegall
Release Date: 6 June 1986

Randy Travis's 1986 debut album, Storms of Life, may just be perfect.  This isn't going to be a standard review.  Rather, I'm going to share how Storms of Life became one of the most important albums I ever heard and a major part of my formative life.  (Shorthand: "gonna get personal.")

I was familiar with the singles, and then my mom bought the cassette of the album.  Maybe it shouldn't have, but it spoke to me very specifically and very personally.  In 1986, I was seven years old (I wouldn't turn eight until December) and just a couple of years removed from my parents's divorce.  The dissolution of their marriage was ugly, and Storms of Life really helped me understand it.  I'll walk you through it, cut by cut.

"On the Other Hand" (Paul Overstreet/Don Schlitz)

This song is sung from the perspective of a married man to a woman who clearly wishes to be his mistress.  The first person narrator describes the chemistry with this woman as a reawakening, and that actually made sense to me.  I thought it was reasonable that two people who had been together long enough could just kind of lose their excitement--even if I didn't understand what that excitement was all about.  This song, maybe because it was one of the first songs I studied about the topic of cheating, maybe because it's the first song on this album, framed the entire subject of what happened with my parents for me.  Of course, the guy in this song chooses his wife over his "passion" and that's not how it played out in my world.  Still, it gave me an insight into my dad's side of things.

"The Storms of Life" (Troy Seals/Max D. Barnes)

A guy down on life for reasons never really explained, driving around in his truck lamenting how poorly he handles things when they go bad ("Always gettin' high/when I get low").  My dad has owned and driven a truck my entire life, so it was pretty easy to picture him at some point during all the ruckus driving around wondering how it ever got to that point.  Whether he ever did, I have no idea.  I always assumed this was the same narrator from "On the Other Hand," only we'd jumped ahead some to after his wife found out about his near-infidelity.  It took me quite a while to make peace with this song, actually.  For the longest time, I resented it as some kind of emissary trying to make me sympathize with my dad.  Eventually I overcame that and took ownership of the song myself.  It's one of my favorite songs of all time, and I love the specific descriptions throughout.  I think of this song instantly whenever I pass "an Old Mail Pouch sign fading on a barn."  Terrific writing.

"My Heart Cracked (But It Did Not Break)" (Phil Thomas/Ronny Scaife/Don Singleton)

"You're spreadin' lies/all over town" opens this song.  It's about a guy trying to be defiant about just how crushed he was by a break-up.  The uptempo sound belies the desperation of the lyrics, and it was really this song that taught me a sad song can sound joyful.  To be honest, I identified with this song as being about me more than either of my parents.  I downplayed how much it all bothered me, in part because I didn't want to have to admit that it had that kind of power over me (though I doubt I would have put it in those words at the time).

"Diggin' Up Bones" (Paul Overstreet/Al Gore)

I love this song if for no other reason than teaching me the word, "exhuming."  In this song, our narrator is left alone in his home, his wife having left him.  He's sitting in their bedroom, going through the things she's left behind: pictures, her ring, a negligee.  Very vivid descriptions walk us through this moment in this guy's life, confronted by the tangible evidence that she's gone.  Like "The Storms of Life," I can't say whether my dad ever had this moment but I always hoped he did.  And I hoped it sucked as much as it does for this guy.

"No Place Like Home" (Paul Overstreet)

This is probably the one song more than all the others that hit home for me.  This time, our first-person narrator is packing up his things to leave and stops to plead with his wife to try one last time to make it work.  I don't know that my parents had this conversation; if they did, I know it didn't work out as it does in this song.  Later, when I learned about the concept of alternate realties, this song was the first point of divergence to cross my mind.  Somewhere, I think, is a reality where my parents did have the experience of this song.  I'd be very curious to see how that reality's me turned out.

"1982" (James H. Blackmon/Carl J. Vipperman)

In this song, our first-person narrator laments about how "there was a time when she was mine/back in 1982," realizing that "she is what I should have held on to."  The funny thing about this is that my parents's marriage really began to go sour in 1982.  I'll never forget one night after my dad had left, he called my mom and tried to have a "No Place Like Home" conversation, saying he would break it off with his girlfriend and start fresh if she would take him back, that he realized he'd made a mistake.  I was in the kitchen.  Why my mom didn't have me leave the room, I don't know.  Maybe she was too caught up in the moment to even know I was there.  What I do remember is that she told him, "No."  Another adult was there; likely my grandmother, but perhaps a neighbor or a friend of my mom's.  Maybe more than one of those choices.  I listened as she recounted the conversation to whomever was there.  Part of me hears "1982" and feels spite; another part of me feels pride.

"Send My Body" (Randy Travis)

This one is about a guy convicted of an unnamed crime ("wrongdoing" is all the song tells us) and he accepts this, only wishing that they send his body back home and have him buried underneath his mama's apple tree.  My brother loved this song because in the course of singing along with the line, "my mama was a damn hard workin' woman," he got to cuss.  By 1986, our mom was very much a damn hard workin' woman, "and she tried to raise us kids without a pa."  Our dad may have had biweekly visitation, but he was no more involved with our raising than any babysitter we ever had.

"Messin' with My Mind" (Joe Allen/Charlie Williams)

Here we have a playboy admitting he's actually fallen for a girl.  This one I kind of claimed for myself, projecting into my future that I wouldn't just get seriously involved at the drop of a hat.  I never became the player that this guy claims to be, but I did stick to the part about rarely being available/vulnerable.  I only even dated a handful of girls before my wife, and none of them were ever particularly serious.

"Reasons I Cheat" (Randy Travis)

Going all the way back to "On the Other Hand," "Reasons I Cheat" tries to explain to me what the source of my family's drama really was.  Every reason he gives in this song is a commonly cited impetus in conversations with people, but I never felt like any of them were the real reason.  The very tense of the title suggests that this guy is a serial cheater, as though cheating is more of an ongoing hobby than anything.  And yet, there's something about the way Randy Travis sings this one that tempered my anger.  This song taught me that even if my questions were ever addressed, I would never have the answers I seek.  Ultimately, my family was much better off with my parents divorced than we would have been had they "toughed it out."  So while I wish we'd all been spared the Year of Hell, I eventually made my peace with the fact that what happened apparently needed to happen.

"There'll Always Be a Honky Tonk Somewhere" (Johnny MacRae/Steve Clark)

Something lighthearted to end the album, this is about how even in the future when there's "farming out in space," honky tonks will be around, populated by the same kinds of people who keep them in business today.  I had no idea what a honky tonk really was, beyond the description from songs and what I'd seen in some country music videos, but in this song I learned that it's basically a bar where people go to either have a good time or to just be around other people during not-so-good times.  By 1986, I'd seen some Cheers, so in my mind a honky tonk was Cheers with cowboy hats.  I liked that idea.  Still do.

So that's the story of how Storms of Life helped me make sense of my parents's divorce.  It was particularly of value to me since the songs are all sung from the male perspective and my dad never shared his side of things with me beyond the standard, "I had to get out, couldn't live with her anymore" line.  Randy Travis made it sound miserable, and that's what I wanted to believe he was during all that.  And yet, Randy also made it sound reasonable; almost sympathetic in a way.  Almost.  The album wasn't meant for seven year old boys of divorce, and maybe that's what made it perfect.  None of the adults in my life tried to engage me in a mature way about that time, and I thank Randy Travis, producers Kyle Lehning and Keith Stegall, and all the songwriters for revealing that world to me.  I was still angry and hurt by it, but at least I had a better understanding of what had actually taken place, and why, and that knowledge really did help me process it all after three years of keeping my questions to myself.