Travis Tritt was more than unplugged on Friday night. His musical soul was stripped naked in an intense one-man acoustic concert that revealed his anger, angst and love of country music.
This was a small-town Southern kid spilling his guts and coming clean as a “hand-spanked, breast-fed” boy from Marietta, Ga. And it all happened on the eve of his 56th birthday before a loud and boisterous sold-out congregation in the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center.
I say congregation because the people in those seats, like Brother Travis, were true believers in the gods of country music – Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette and Waylon Jennings.
As for today, well, as Tritt and his fans might say – to hell with Luke Bryan!
Tritt offered a long and searing sermon that led to his song, “Country Ain’t Country.” Tritt was preaching with fire and brimstone as he labeled the current state of country music as “bull….”
The people in the crowd hooted and hollered, stamped their feet and roared with approval.
“And another thing – I hate the fake country accents a lot of the performers use today,” a combative Tritt said, while sitting on a stool with his guitar in his lap. He was dressed in a Johnny-Cash-like black shirt and slacks. His shaggy brown hair is a bit shorter than in the ’90s but covers the back of his neck. Tritt still looks like a rough-and-tumble rebel, although possessing a gentle cackle when he laughs.
Tritt couldn’t stop talking about the old days of country music, when he and his father would sit in the backyard on an old Kmart lawnchair listening to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM radio out of Nashville.
“My Dad had a big bottle of Budweiser beer and I had a little green bottle of Coca-Cola,” Tritt said. He then talked about one of his favorite childhood songs, “500 Miles.”
“First time I heard it was by Bobby Bare, who wrote it,” Tritt said. “But my Dad bought a Jerry Reed album with the song on it. Jerry Reed was a great guitar player and he played the song in a different way. I’m no Jerry Reed but I’m going to try.”
Tritt then played an introduction to “500 Miles” that sounded like flamingo meets Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Later in the song, Tritt played with a tough, blues edge that gave “500 Miles” added power.
For Travis Tritt, authentic realism is what country music is all about.
“I remember when country music told real stories,” said Tritt, who sold millions of records during the ’90s and beyond, with such hits as “Take It Easy,” “Best of Intentions” and “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin.’”
“Country music was about heartbreak and happy times,” Tritt said. “It made you feel something. Sometimes, it made you cry. Sometimes, it made you hurt. Today, for the most part, that is gone.”
So Tritt and his guitar brought some of that old-time country religion to The Sharon. He opened with “It’s All About the Money,” a modern-day honky-tonk anthem and social commentary. The loudest cheer came when Tritt sang about politicians handing out “bull…”
The subject of exploitation and personal morality came up on his “Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man…” Somewhere in Hillbilly Heaven, Merle Haggard was smiling while hearing that one.
Tritt was in a reflective mood on “Where Corn Don’t Grow.” It’s about the loss of a lifestyle that won’t come back and the struggles of farmers and their sons.
“Country Club” was Tritt’s first big hit in 1989 and the crowd joined in to sing the chorus when he said, “sing it for me, y’all.”
Tritt reminisced about his early days in Nashville during the ’80s when he was hustling for a record deal.
“If you would have seen me in the mid-80s, you would have thought I looked like hell,” he said. He described himself as wearing “tight 501 jeans and a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt with the arms cut off to show my guns.”
He said he wore cowboy boots and had hair down to his waist. But he always carried a briefcase.
“People thought I had drugs in that briefcase,” Tritt said. “But I had songs in that briefcase. And I would be ready to pitch them to a record company.”
He signed with Warner Bros. Records in 1987 and two years later had his first big hit.
“Then some muckety-muck from the label told me they needed 10 or 11 songs for an album right away. They had to rush it,” he said. “I was nervous for about 30 seconds and then I told him I had the songs. They were in my briefcase.”
Those songs propelled Tritt to the top of the country charts.
“Here are a couple of love songs,” Tritt said. He turned mellow and romantic on “Drift Off to Dream” and “Help Me Hold On.” Those songs showed how country music touches the heart. It’s real and it means something.
Just like Travis Tritt.
Tony Violanti is a veteran journalist and writes for Villages-News.com.