The tape recorder sits beside Travis Tritt's bed. It's been there for the past eight years, ready to capture any early morning inspiration or thoughts that “fall from the sky.''
The recorder is a lesson learned the hard way for one of Nashville's most successful artists and songwriters.
“Sometimes I'd have a song idea, and I'd think, `I'll just write it down in the morning,' but then you wake up and it's gone. An idea can hit me at 2, 3, 4 in the morning, in the shower, riding in my truck, all types of different places,'' Tritt says.
For his just-released “Strong Enough'' from Sony Music, the follow-up album to the double-platinum “Down the Road I Go,'' Tritt, 39, wrote or co-wrote 9 of the 12 tracks. Many of those came during brainstorming sessions at a cottage in Tritt's native Georgia. For about a week, he huddled with 10 songwriters at that retreat, jumping from one group to another until 3 or 4 each morning. The ideas would be his, but the songwriters helped hammer them out onto paper.
Other times, the music is solely his. He takes the tape recorder and the notes he's gathered in a notebook, and he reaffirms to himself that he still has the ability to write songs. That wasn't always so easy. After ending his relationship with Warner Brothers in 1997, he took two years off to be with his family and to reorganize his priorities. Life with his wife, Theresa, daughter, Tyler, 4, and son, Tristan, 3, thrived, but his steadfast belief in his abilities wavered.
“Anytime you go and take time off, you lose confidence in a lot of things. I had a lot of concerns when [“Down the Road I Go''] came out,'' he says.
His concerns were put to rest with his first release off the album. “Best of Intentions'' was written by Tritt, and it dealt with many of the emotions he was struggling with during his hiatus. The words tell of a man lying in bed next to his wife, realizing how much he loves her and wishing he could give her more in life. Critics and fans loved it, and it soared to No. 1, staying there for four weeks.
“Right then I knew that I knew how to write and that I hadn't lost it. Sometimes your mind will play tricks on you,'' he says.
“When I took two years off to change labels and to be with my family, things got back to me. It's a small world and an even smaller industry. Word would get back to me. Critics said, `Tritt took two years off, he's done.' Others said, `Good riddance.' Taking two years off can be suicide for your career - especially in the competitive business we're in. The fact that the last album did so well was a finger in the eye of my critics.''
He makes sure to tweak those critics right from the start of “Strong Enough.'' In the first track, “You Can't Count Me Out Yet,'' the words are purely autobiographical. “They said that I was finished/Just a washed up piece of history/But some things needed changing/ I did some rearranging/My recovery ain't no mystery/Took some time to clear my head/I wasn't lost and I'm not dead/I'm feeling good as good can get/So you can't count me out yet.''
“I wanted to let those folks know that I'm alive and kicking - much to their chagrin,'' he says with a laugh. “I also wanted to let people know that if I can overcome, you can, too. It was meant to be inspirational.''
He says he's not into making statements with his albums, but Tritt writes and records only songs that mean something to him or move him. Talking
to him offers a rare insight into how a songwriter turns an idea into song.
There is a story behind practically every song he records.
“I came up with `If You're Gonna Straighten Up'' about three years ago. Bill Anderson and I were backstage at the Grand Ol' Opry. We're both from Georgia, so we're big [Atlanta] Braves fans. It was a Saturday, and they were in the playoffs. They'd had a mediocre year hitting the ball, but now it's the playoffs and all of a sudden everyone gets hot. I was talking to him, and he says, `If you're going to straighten up, now's the time,' and I'm like, `Man, that's the title of a song.'”
“God Must Be a Woman'' wasn't written by Tritt, but the powerful ballad has a special meaning for him and his good friend, Billy Joe Walker, Jr., who produced “Strong Enough” with Tritt.
“That song was a great find. Vernon Rust showed up at Billy Joe's house on several occasions. This guy was homeless, a heroin addict who was living out of his car. He said, `I write songs.' He shooed him away because he gets people all the time saying that. But he was persistent. The fourth of fifth time, Billy Joe said, `Come on in to the office, and let's see what you got.'
“He played `God Must Be a Woman.' It floored him. He signed him to a publishing deal, then said. `You've got to go get yourself cleaned up,' and he sent him to a rehab center. I heard the song, and I was knocked out.''
Tritt is touring now and doing publicity for the new album, but soon he'll return to his farm in Georgia, where he'll be out cutting hay on his tractor and an idea will probably hit him, or he'll be playing with his kids, and he'll grab a notebook that he'll have nearby because ideas “come in the strangest places.'' He'll refuse to “force'' himself to write a song. He'll let them come to him.
“I get inspirational periods. I'll go two, three, four, five months without writing, then the floodgates will open up,” he says. “I've always said that I believe songs are a gift from God, and you have to be smart enough to write them down when they come.''