"Dude, I knew you could sing, but I had no idea you could do that blue-eyed soul thing!"
Producer Randy Jackson paid that compliment to Travis Tritt after recording a duet between Tritt and soul man Sam Moore for Moore's 2006 album, "Overnight Sensational." Then he made a suggestion. "If you ever want to do an album that puts a bigger spotlight on that," Jackson said, "I'd love to work on it with you."
The Storm, Tritt's much-anticipated debut on Category 5 Records, is that album. Tritt and Jackson teamed up to create a powerhouse collection of songs that emphasize the irresistible soul side of Tritt's singing. It's a card that has always been in Tritt's stylistic deck, but one that has often been overlooked by listeners unfamiliar with the deep musical links between country and R&B, particularly in the South.
And in Jackson, Tritt found the ideal collaborator. Before he gained acclaim for his role as a judge on "American Idol," Jackson had played bass with artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Journey. Demonstrating that type of range is precisely the aim of The Storm.
"Growing up just outside Atlanta, to the north of us you've got the Grand Ol' Opry in Nashville," Tritt explains. "A little bit South you've got Macon, Georgia - home of the Allman Brothers, the Marshall Tucker Band and Capricorn Records. And off to west you've got Delta blues. Sprinkle Southern gospel over the top of that, and you're talking about where I came from. I loved all of that music."
To make that point, "You Never Take Me Dancing," the first single from The Storm, opens with Tritt's bluesy moans and a seductive acoustic slide guitar, before settling into the funkiest groove this side of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition." The song was written by Richard Marx, who also collaborated with Tritt on "Doesn't the Good Outweigh the Bad," a rollicking relationship song that grew out of Tritt and his wife's experience building a new house. "You know how they say that if your marriage can survive building a house it can survive anything?" Tritt asks, laughing. "That is absolutely a fact." On another note, Tritt finds all the anguish in Hank Williams, Jr.'s "The Pressure Is On," the soulful tale of an affair that nearly brings a man to his emotional breaking point. "You can cut the tension in that song with a knife," Tritt says. And the propulsive riff of the title track, in Tritt's words, amounts to "a cross between Stevie Ray Vaughan's 'Cold Shot' and the Allman Brothers' 'Whipping Post.' I don't think I've ever written a song like that in my whole career. Once that chord change came to me, the song took off on its own." Blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd joined Tritt on a torrid version of Shepherd's "Somehow, Somewhere, Someway." "That song is right in my wheelhouse," Tritt says. "I said to Randy, if our goal is to get everybody that hears this album to have the look on their face that you had after you heard me sing with Sam Moore, this is the kind of song we have to do. And nobody can play the licks on that song except Kenny Wayne Shepherd."
But, as The Storm makes undeniably clear, country-soul is a road that travels two ways. It would be hard for anyone to miss the twang in "High Time for Getting Down," which features Charlie Daniels blazing on fiddle and celebrates a raucous night on the town: "The honky-tonk is hoppin'/And a cover band is rockin' to some dude named Tritt!" And a clutch of gripping ballads - "What If Love Hangs On to Us" (which Tritt co-wrote with Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty) along with "I Don't Know How I Got By" and "(I Wanna) Feel Too Much" (both written by Diane Warren) - find Tritt exploring the risks and intricacies of love with the unbridled passion that has become his signature.
Tritt has sold more than 25 million albums, and earned two Grammy Awards and three CMA awards over the course of his storied career. The Storm finds him bold and invigorated, at the very top of his game. But his ambitions as an artist haven't really changed over the years - just his skills at achieving them.
"Regardless of what kind of music you're doing, if you can have a song that someone listens to and instantly thinks of a situation they're going through, that's a special connection," Tritt says about his aim as a songwriter and performer. "That's when music becomes more than something you just tap your toe to - it becomes the soundtrack to your life. You don't need a poetry degree to understand this stuff - it talks about your life on a day-to-day basis. That's where I try to come from. That's when you're hitting home" And on The Storm, that's exactly what he accomplishes.