After several successful gospel CDs, Randy Travis fans are set to rejoice as the traditional crooner has recorded his first new country music project in eight years. 'Around the Bend' releases July 15 and features the kind of poignant ballads and clever uptempos that have made Travis one of country music's most successful artists. The Boot sat down with the living legend to talk about his much-anticipated return to country.

What made you decide to go straight-up country for this record?

I've been wanting to make another country record for some time. It just seemed like the right time to do it.

What kinds of songs were you looking to record on this project?

I was looking for something I liked. When [my producer] Kyle Lehning and I started working together years ago, he said, 'I want to help you make the best record we can make. And remember, you are going to be singing these songs every night, so if you don't love it, don't do it.' And I've stuck by that. If we don't just truly love the song, we don't do it. One amazing thing is that Kyle and I [rarely] disagree on songs. I bet there have been less than 10 times that we've disagreed.

Whose idea was it to cover Bob Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice It's Alright.'

Kyle had the idea of doing it. And to be honest, I thought, 'I'm not sure about this.' It had been a long time since I'd heard that song, so he pulled out a copy that Dylan was doing and then he went and got another, which I think was Arlo Guthrie's version. He played it, and I liked it. I thought it would be fun . . . Then when we were in the studio, [guitarist] Brent Mason started doing his Chet Atkins style, and I said, 'That thing that Brent is doing right there, that's kind of the way I see it.' Kyle turns back to where the board was and he said, 'Turn the machine on real quick.' So we didn't even do a normal rehearsal. It just started going down and it worked somehow. Every once in a while, a little magic happens.

Are you happy or distressed about the current state of country music?

It's a different world for sure. As far as what music we're hearing, there's some great records out there. There are still some people who are doing really good traditional stuff. When you look at Alan Jackson's stuff, he's very, very traditional; and you have Josh Turner, no doubt a traditionalist singer, so we have people doing good music. As far as the business itself, we're at an interesting place right now, figuring out who are we selling to, how are we selling, or where are we selling. When you get into MySpace, YouTube and all those ways of promoting records -- in that respect, I don't know how this business is setting, and I'm not sure that anybody does. Musically though, I think we're okay. I'd still love to hear a little more of the traditional stuff coming along.

What CDs have you purchased recently?

The last one was Alan Jackson. Kyle had talked about how good the quality of writing was, and I just like his records overall. It is a good album, 17 songs on it. And I bought Carrie Underwood. Carrie did a remake on 'I Told You So,' and she's a great singer.

That's a song you originally recorded. What did you think of her remake?

I thought she did a great job on it. Actually, the first time I heard it was over the phone. I can't remember who was playing it for us, but I was very impressed with her performance. To be honest, 'I Told You So' was more suited for her as a vocalist than for me. When you look at the vocal range, her ability to get into the upper register of her voice and just hold those high notes is great.

What advice would you give to young artists today, like Taylor Swift?

With Taylor, she's good for the business as a whole, because you have to admit that with her age, she's certainly going to draw a younger group of people to listen to country radio, maybe for the first time. And they've done a good job with her in choosing the right songs for her to record. You have to pick the right subjects and the right messages when you are at that age. But I don't give advice at all. I know the only thing that I would probably say is do what you love, and don't do it if you don't. Your choice of material as a singer is going to be the reason that you stay where you are in this business or decline, so that material is very important. And make sure you try to keep the schedule in a manner that lets you enjoy the ride. We got to the point years back that it got so chaotic, we were running nonstop from the time we woke up until the night ended. Take time to enjoy the ride along the way.

Before 'Three Wooden Crosses' became a hit, you went through a dry spell at country radio. What did the success of that song teach you?

That quality of material will succeed, and that's why it's so important to choose the right songs. 'Three Wooden Crosses' did something for us that I thought we'd never see again -- turning into something that is like a signature song. It's like when we do 'Forever and Ever Amen' on stage. An audience hears just the lick that is played on the intro of that song, they know what's coming up and they respond to that. 'Three Wooden Crosses' is the same way. An audience just hears the intro being played on that song and they automatically start to respond to it. It turned into what would be called a signature song, so it really surprised me. I think the song surprised a lot of people in Nashville, coming from a gospel project on country radio and then being a No. 1 record and Song of the Year, but that is a remarkable piece of writing. Kim [Williams] and Doug [Johnson] did something wonderful there.

Is there anything that irks you about the industry these days?

I'm not going to complain too much. I'm sitting in an interesting place in that even if I'm not getting airplay, I'm still in that position of going out and playing shows and doing very well. I'm on stage with guys I've worked with for years and having fun doing that, so I sure can't complain. As far as things that do irk me, I won't call any names, but every once in a while I'll see a song go up the charts and wonder why? How did that work? Why did they even give that a shot on radio to begin with? Something like that will bother me every now and then . . . Also all these new ways of promoting an album -- I wouldn't say it irks me, but it's like learning a whole new language. I'm not happy about it. It will make you long for the good old days. [laughs]

I take it you're not a big technology buff.

Heck no. I don't know anything about it. . . . The technology that goes along with the compu
ter, I don't care. I just don't care. I don't even have a cell phone yet. [My wife] Lib has three, so I figure I'm covered.

You've done over 40 film and TV projects. Which do you enjoy the most -- music or acting?

I'm a singer first, there's no doubt about that. I've been working for audiences since I was 9 years old. I enjoy acting, and what I wanted to do to begin with was to work in a Western. Then we met Andy Griffith and started out by working on 'Matlock' and then 'Touched By An Angel.' I did seven of those [episodes]. I have fun doing it. Fortunately as the years went by, I was able to work on several Westerns, too, and those were the most fun for me just because of the way I grew up. For 20 years of my life, I was probably on a horse everyday and I was out shooting everyday, so it is something that I have fun doing. I'm not a great actor.

What have you been doing for fun lately?

Yesterday I was at home in Santa Fe. I rode my favorite horse -- I have six or eight now. I rode him for a couple of hours and then took a pretty green -- meaning not well trained -- colt with a lot of bad habits and put her through training, teaching her, 'This is your name. I want you to come to me when I call you.' That took about 40 minutes, and then going through a door, she would run over you. So we worked on her and stopped that. It's something I enjoy. I grew up training horses. That colt went through an hour and 20 minutes of schooling yesterday, and then I did a little shooting too. So that was a day off before leaving the house and knowing we were going out for 30 days on this run. Also, I'll go out and have dinner with friends, and sometimes it's just the two [he and wife Elizabeth] of us in Santa Fe and we'll do a movie. The last movie we saw was the 'Hancock' movie with Will Smith.

You'll turn 50 next year. How do you feel about your life and career?

I feel fine about this place in my career. When I first started trying to get into this business, I thought if I could make a living singing and writing, that was it. When you look at the sales back then, if a country album sold 100,000 units, it was considered successful. So career wise, it's gone so far beyond anything that I ever thought about. So if I never recorded another album period, I can't complain. I'm very happy with where this career has gone. I've been able to do stuff that I would never have dreamed of had it not been for this music business.
Now as far as where I am age wise, I don't care about that. As long as I'm at the point physically that I'm still healthy and able to take care of myself and get up and go on my own steam, I don't care what age it is. Fifty doesn't bother me. I'm happy to be here.