There's no hiding for Travis Tritt. On his latest album, November's A Man and His Guitar: Live From the Franklin Theatre, the Grammy-winning Class of '89 alum leaves behind his band for a live solo acoustic show, captured on two CDs and a DVD. It's Tritt at his most bare – all soulful voice and guitar – singing hits like his debut single "Country Club," the Number Ones "Anymore" and "Help Me Hold On," and covers by his heroes, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.
But Tritt has also laid bare his own opinions, becoming one of country music's most outspoken artists. On Twitter, he shares sometimes polarizing comments about topics from country music to politics. Just this week, he took Meryl Streep to task for her Golden Globes speech criticizing President-elect Donald Trump: "Advice to all actors, musicians and entertainers: Please stick to your crafts that we all love you for and drop the political rhetoric." Tritt didn't back down, going on to engage with Twitter users to both clarify and reinforce his statements. "I'm a huge Meryl Streep fan. One of the best actors ever! But I want to see her doing her craft. Talking politics turns me off," he wrote. (Last January, however, Tritt himself stepped into political talk, tweeting his opposition to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.)
He also held his ground after criticizing the 50th CMA Awards for devoting airtime to non-country artists like Beyoncé at November's telecast. " I want to know when the BET or SoulTrain awards are gonna ask a country artist to perform on their awards show?" he tweeted on November 4th.
In an interview just before Christmas, the Georgia-born Tritt talked up A Man and His Guitar, shared his love for Ray Charles and doubled down on what he thinks is "real country music."
What is it about your catalog that lends itself to a stripped-down live concert like this one?
When I first got a record deal and started doing shows all over the country, we had a section of the live-band shows where I'd send them offstage and I'd do a couple songs by myself, acoustic. The response was always so strong that I had managers and booking agents who begged me for years to go out and do an entire show that way. I resisted it for a long time … but looking back on it, some of the greatest concerts I attended as a teenager were acoustic concerts like that. I saw John Denver, Dan Fogelberg, Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor and even Jimmy Buffett perform that way. … So I put together a set list that I thought was a comprehensive overview of some of the biggest hits I've had, mixed in with some things that were deep album cuts or less familiar songs, and the audience just ate it up.
You wrote many of the songs that you perform on A Man and His Guitar. How important is it for artists to write their own songs today, in a time where outside writers really are the engine of Nashville?
To me, as a songwriter, the greatest compliment that I get is when people come up to me and say, "Man, when you wrote that song, you must have been reading my mail, because that is a sentiment I've been feeling for a long time." It lets me know that I've done my job. That's one of the things I've missed in the country music world. It's always been about touching those raw emotions that so many of us deal with. That doesn't mean that every song has to have some sort of deep message or meaning to it. But for the most part, it's extremely important that in country music we maintain some semblance of what has made country music so special all these years. And that's the ability to reach out and touch people's hearts and lives and become the voice of so many people that have feelings they have trouble expressing.
You've mentioned your songwriting influences, but where does the soul in your voice come from?
I was very influenced by Ray Charles. The first time I heard [Charles' 1962 album] Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, I wanted to run home, grab my guitar and see if I could sing like that. I got to do a CMT Crossroads with Ray Charles [in 2002] and we became very good friends. He had more to do with what comes out of my mouth when I sing than probably anyone on the face of the planet. That's where that soul comes from. And growing up in the churches that I sang in, we'd visit different churches and some were primarily all-black churches. The soul that those choirs and the people in those churches that sang had, it just touched me. I always tried to emulate that to a certain extent in the music I did.
"I'm not a huge fan of the direction country music has taken in the last few years"
You caught some heat for your comments on Twitter criticizing the CMA Awards for having non-country artists – in this case, Beyonce – perform on the show. How did you take that?
I don't back down from any of the things I said. There were certain media organizations that picked up the tweets that I sent out, and they put out a somewhat disingenuous headline that I trashed Beyoncé or trashed this, that or the other. But if you read the tweets, I never did that. I wasn't so much complaining about the Beyoncé performance as I was complaining about the CMA and the fact that this is something that they've been doing for as long as I've been a part of the CMA. It goes all the way back to the beginning of my career. In my day, instead of Meghan Trainor or Justin Timberlake or Beyonce or Ariana Grande, it was Sting or Elton John or this one or that one that they'd bring in.
The excuse that was given was always the same: for ratings. And I understand that. But being someone who loves the tradition of country music and the tradition of the Grand Ole Opry, for example, and what that means to me, I basically just wanted to stand up and say that for every artist we bring in, for quote/unquote ratings to a CMA Awards show, there is a country music artist who is actually releasing country music, that has devoted their lives to doing country music, and their time is taken away. I can name a dozen people who devoted their entire lives to being country music artists and they could have very easily filled that slot, especially in a show that was supposed to be a celebration of 50 years of country music history. Not just music history, but country music history. My beef is not with any of the artists that are invited to come in and play, but it's with the people at the CMA who feel there is a need "for ratings" to bring in outside sources. I think we can stand on our own.
The country music awards should be more dedicated to the country music tradition and the country music community. For crying out loud, we have a gazillion awards shows out there that other types of music are always featured in and they have plenty of opportunity to showcase that. Let's try our best to keep the country music awards focused on the tradition of country music.
Some might argue, though, that Beyonce and the Dixie Chicks' rootsy performance of "Daddy Lessons" at the CMAs was more country than some of the other performances that night.
That's one of the problems and one of the things that people have said in response to this subject on Twitter. ["Daddy Lessons"] was a country song by a lot of people's standards, but they, especially a lot of the younger people out there, don't have anything else to reference it to, to what I consider to be really country music. I'm not a huge fan of the direction country music has taken in the last few years. We seem to have left out a lot of what influenced us to start with, the music of the people I mentioned earlier: George Jones, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Conway Twitty. Those people, that's what I consider to be real country music and you don't hear as much of that these days as I would like to.