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Travis Tritt's life has been threatened, but he still finds reasons to celebrate

Story by Lorie Hollabaugh

Travis Tritt remembers well the moment he found out someone wanted to kill him. "I heard two statements loud and clear during the conversation when we first heard: 'threat against your life' and 'ties to the Mafia,' " he recalls. "Those two things made me perk up and say, 'This is serious.' "

Travis received the unnerving news several months ago that a Nashville-area man with mob ties had taken out a contract on the singer's life. The man was allegedly motivated by what he called "a dispute over a woman," but Travis denies knowing any of the people involved.

"The rumor mills get going, and people automatically think, 'He probably was involved somehow - where there's smoke, there's fire,' " laments Travis. "I don't know these people, to my knowledge I've never met or seen them, and I don't have a clue why my name is involved in this whole deal. And that's the frustrating part - we're still trying to figure out how my name got brought up. And until we do, the fact is the threat is very real - and our lives have certainly been impacted by it."

Travis and his family have naturally reacted by beefing up security. "Obviously, you can't feel comfortable," he says. "I live in a rural suburb of Atlanta, and prior to this, I thought absolutely nothing about jumping in my truck and going to the hardware store, or to the grocery store to get a gallon of milk, or whatever. And now you can't do any of those things without having somebody with you."

Still, Travis has tried his best to shield his two children - daughter Tyler, 4, and son Tristan, 3 - from news about the threat. "They're not aware," he explains. "They're too young to understand, and obviously we would keep them as isolated as possible from this anyway. But at the same time, extra precautions have to be taken. And it does change your life."

Doing much to take Travis' mind off his troubles recently was his recent collaboration with one of his idols, R&B legend and fellow Georgian Ray Charles.

"Since the very beginning of my career, people have asked me who was the one person I would love to record with - and it was always Ray," says Travis. "But we had never had the chance to meet. So the folks at my record label arranged for me to finally hang out with him in his studio earlier this year, and we became fast friends. We found we had a lot in common, not only coming from the same part of the country, but musically, too."

Travis had almost met his idol before - under far less comfortable circumstances. One night years ago, Travis was dozing in his hotel room when he was awakened by a funny noise ...

"I heard somebody fumbling with the lock like they were trying to get in, so I jumped up, half asleep, not dressed, and walked towards the door," he recalls. "Then I really hear somebody trying hard to get in! I thought somebody was trying to break in, so I yelled, 'Hey!' And I hear this voice say, 'I believe there's somebody in that room' - and it was Ray Charles! I recognized his voice right away." Obviously, there'd been a mix-up at the front desk and the legendary R&B singer had been directed to the wrong room.

Now the two are good buddies, especially after taping an episode of the CMT series Crossroads together. "During rehearsal, when he walked out and sat behind the piano, and I was behind the microphone, it hit me: I'm onstage with Ray Charles," Travis recalls. "It was pretty intense for me. That truly was a dream come true.

"I could die right now a happy guy and never do another duet with anybody, because I've been fortunate enough to work with all of the people I ever wanted to: Johnny Cash, George Jones, Buddy Guy, David Lee Roth, Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, Earl Scruggs. I've had wonderful opportunities to work with people who really were a big influence on me."

Travis' own influence on music continues with his latest hit, "Strong Enough To Be Your Man." He wrote the tune as an answer to the 1995 Sheryl Crow pop hit "Strong Enough," but soon found himself drawing on his relationship with his wife of five years, Theresa, for inspiration.

"The questions asked in Sheryl's version were strong from a female standpoint," he ponders. " 'I'm a complicated woman, I've got issues, but at the same time I need companionship - are you strong enough to deal with all these things and still hang around?' That was basically the premise of that song - and I see a lot of that in my relationship with my wife.

"Anybody you meet is gonna have some issues, some little things you have to deal with that are not all that pleasant. So the experiences I had of taking the good and bad, and putting less emphasis on the bad in my relationship, certainly played a part in how I approached that song.

"It was coming from a place of reassurance. It's an important thing in my relationship to stop and reinforce her belief in what we have. We constantly do that for each other."

Coming up on his 13th year making records, Travis is a contented man with a beautiful family and a still-thriving career. After a period during which his career looked shaky, his triumphant return with 2000's Down The Road I Go album has been cemented with the success of his new one, Strong Enough. And there's no end in sight.

"I had immense relief and excitement about the fact that the last album did so well," he admits. "And that I was able to come right back after being away for several years and not only take up where I left off, but really surpass that. The last album was one of the most successful of my career, and that makes you feel good.

"It certainly reinstills my faith, not only in myself, but in my fans and the people who supported me, too. It has all been very inspiring."