WALKING ON FAITH

Thanks to "Three Wooden Crosses," a spiritually renewed Randy Travis marches back to the top of the charts -- and savors it all from his Southwestern Shangri-La

As morning sunlight, glinting like Spanish doubloons, scatters across New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Santa Fe, Randy Travis takes a stroll outside his new main house, guesthouse and stables.

"When we bought this property two and a half years ago, there was nothing out here but tumbleweeds, chamisa and juniper," he notes. "But the views of mountains in all four directions took our breath away."

So Randy and his wife, Elizabeth, started planning the sprawling complex, which resembles an adobe pueblo village. The result looks like a Southwestern movie set. You keep expecting Steven Spielberg and a production crew to roll in and start filming.

"I'm grateful for what I have," declares Randy, walking through a courtyard with wooden crosses jutting from the sand -- placed there long before his "Three Wooden Crosses" soared to No. 1. "Having lived through time in jail, drugs and alcohol, no family life and finally coming to know the Lord makes me appreciate the far better life I now know.

"There were times," he recalls, "that if friends hadn't brought Lib [Elizabeth] and me food, we would've gone hungry. And we once lived in a house trailer that had holes in the floor where you could see the ground!"

Now their home could grace the pages of House Beautiful. "Lib really has a decorator's eye," declares Randy. "Working with contractors and craftsmen, she's created a great home for us. Her skills are a gift."

Others have also zeroed in on Lib's gift. She's been approached about putting her talents to work as a business.

"She's had more than one job offer," nods Randy.

The house has so much style it's hard to take it all in. There are brick and tile floors; an ornate leather and steer horn mirror in the den; tin-type kitchen cabinets; Southwestern artwork; Old West photos; a log mantel; exquisite metal chandeliers; figurines of wood, bronze and marble; a custom leather pool table; saddles and an Indian headdress. And more crosses than you find in most churches.

And Lib keeps adding to her creation. "One of the contractors said if she ever quits going to flea markets we might be able to completely finish this job," laughs Randy.

Lib smiles. "I go to the flea market almost every week we're here in Santa Fe," she admits.

Randy goes, too. "I went with Lib this weekend and we came back with a table for the house."

The couple's fascination with Santa Fe started 15 years ago when Randy played a show there. "After sound check," he remembers, "me, Lib and some guys in the band walked around downtown Santa Fe. We fell in love with the city.

"One time Tammy Wynette, her husband George Richey, Lib and I spent the day here before an Albuquerque show. We shopped, had lunch. It was a fun time."

"Four and a half years ago, we bought a house here. We thought it would be a vacation house, like we have in Maui. But, between gigs, we found ourselves coming here instead of Nashville. So we decided to sell our Nashville house and build our primary house here."

Randy and Lib have come a long way since they met when he was 16, after he'd run away from home. He entered a talent contest at Country City U.S.A., the Charlotte, N.C., club Lib co-owned, and later started working for her. "I'd clean up the place in the morning, cook until the kitchen closed 'bout 10 that night and then I'd sing until 2 a.m. And in between sets, I'd operate the mechanical bull." He chuckles. "I threw so many people -- I had a big time."

Randy was also having a big time heading toward a life of crime.

"The last time I went to court I was about 18," he explains candidly. "I'd been in there so many times and my record kept building up -- driving under the influence, outrunning policemen. I even slammed into a chief of police's car during a high-speed chase. Lib kept me from going to prison for five years by telling the judge I was working full-time, not running with the same crowd, not drinking, not using drugs. He released me into her custody."

Lib became Randy's manager. She sold her club and they moved to Nashville, where she started managing another club, The Nashville Palace. Randy was a regular performer, as well as dishwasher and cook. In 1985 he was signed to Warner Bros. Records, and he and Lib married in 1991.

After more than a decade of chart-topping success, Randy hit a slump in the late '90s. During this time, he turned out an inspirational/gospel album, Inspirational Journey. He followed it with another, Rise and Shine. "Three Wooden Crosses" was the first single from that second CD -- and it knocked Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?" out of the No. 1 slot on the country charts.

"After 9/11, the climate in America was ready for a song about God and hope," explains Randy, "and one with the message that when you leave this earth what matters is what you leave behind. And the song is like a movie script, with so many twists and characters."

And it may actually become a movie script. "There have been discussions about making it into a TV movie," notes Randy. "It could be something pretty special."

The follow-up to "Three Wooden Crosses" is also special. "Pray for the Fish" is an upbeat, good-natured look at washing away sin. "It gets a tremendous response from people when we play it live," notes Randy, "and we've gotten lots of letters about how unique it is."

Randy's also working on a CD of hymns and a new country album.

His journey to success and peace with God has been a series of what some might call miracles. The latest is how "Three Wooden Crosses" came his way.

Michael Peterson, who hit big with his debut single "Drink, Swear, Steal & Lie" and followed up with the No. 1 "From Here to Eternity," had the song "on hold" for his next album. A producer of Michael's CD, Kyle Lehning, is also Randy's longtime producer.

"One day Michael brought the song to Kyle," explains Randy. "He said, 'I think it will work for Randy and his gospel album.' Michael thought that much of the song, and I am so thankful he brought it to us." The Lord truly does work in mysterious ways.

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