No Holdin' Back

Randy Travis

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No Holdin' Back Review

by Thom Jurek

Released in 1989, No Holdin' Back was an anomaly for a record coming from Nash Vegas at the turn of the decade: It's a very traditional country album. Period. Travis is a honky tonk singer who uses the entire scope of the music's history as his playground. He doesn't take a lot of chances, as this record proves, but then he doesn't need to. It's not about ambition on No Holdin' Back. Kyle Lehning's production is flawless, in that he allows Travis' big voice to be buoyed by his accompaniment. He sounds like he's dead center in the mix. The album begins with the Matraca Berg nugget "Mining for Coal," an elegiac love song. That's typical enough, but on the very next track, his cover of Melvin Endsley's "Singing the Blues," there is a straight-up honky tonk song complete with male backing chorus -- à la the Jordanaires -- vocals, plinky upright piano, harmonica, and a barroom tempo. But that's not all: Travis lets out a long Hank Williams-style yodel that will make the listener feel the master's ghostly presence. The single "He Walked on Water" by Allen Shamblin was a bad choice, though it sold well. It's a syrupy ballad that is so overly sentimental that there is no place in the song for Travis to go. The most notable cut on the set is Brook Benton's "It's Just a Matter of Time," and it should have been picked as the album's first single to radio and retail. First, coming almost in the middle, it's the hinge for the entire album. Secondly, this is Travis at his best, stretching to get to the heart of a music that has so little to do with country; like Ray Charles on the other side, he has to make this soul song his own. And he does. It's a country song like it was written that way. The other standout is "Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart," a modern country shuffle reworked though the tradition. Travis goes after it like Merle Haggard would, slipping in under those verses to max out the emotion from the melody, and then driving that refrain home with a hammer as the pedal steel whines and the crisp drums accent the end of each beat. This is solid Travis, and it proves that at the end of the 1980s he was really just getting started.

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