On The Beauty and Dilemma of the New A.I. Randy Travis Song -…

The trauma of losing the voice of Randy Travis in 2013 after his near-fatal stroke is something the country music community is still attempting to recover from, tempered somewhat by the grace that we still have Randy with us to fete and celebrate in the country music community that he’s been so integral to.

It’s the voice and music of Randy Travis that were the catalyst for the neotraditional resurgence in the ’80s that brought country music music back to its heart. Over the years, we’ve been graced with opportunities to hear unreleased tracks from Randy stored up over the years, while the promise of more unheard Randy Travis songs recorded in his heyday are still out there in the offing.

But in lieu of Randy being able to sing new, original songs due to his continued aphasia, he has partnered with his old label Warner Music Nashville to release a new song called “Where That Came From.” Written by well-known country songwriters Scotty Emerick and John Scott Sherrill, and produced by long-time Travis producer Kyle Lehning with Jerry Douglas, “Where I Came From” sounds like a Randy Travis song written and recorded in his heyday.

The release of the song came with ample teases of Randy appearing in a studio, flashes of microphones in the foreground and background, with Randy sitting there with headphones on, seeming to enjoy the whole experience.

It is important to note that even though Randy is non-verbal, those close to Travis assure that he is still 100% cognitive, aware, understanding, and even communicative both through simple visual affirmations, as well as writing or typing out things he wishes to communicate.

Also, Randy Travis has shown some elementary ability to sing through the years since his stroke, including renditions of “Amazing Grace” and “Forever and Ever, Amen.” However impaired these performances may be, for some it still feels miraculous how far Randy has come. In the case of certain brain injuries and stuttering (Mel Tillis), there are instances where people are not able to easily talk, but are much better at singing since these two functions are handled by different parts of the brain.

But that is not what is going on with “Where That Came From.” Though there has been absolutely no disclosure whatsoever so far, clearly Warner Music Nashville and the Randy Travis camp are using some sort of version of AI to create the performance from Randy Travis. This presents a moral conundrum, and one that up to this point is unprecedented in the music space.

From one perspective, the idea that while living but unable to sing full formed songs, Randy Travis can dictate and sign off on the production of new Randy Travis music feels miraculous. In an idyllic sense, this is the kind of thing that technology and AI can rise to and enhance our lives. How is this any different than a prosthetic or robotic limb being added to a paraplegic? This is technology replacing what has been taken from us.

But in another sense, this is technology creating the facade of an authentic rendering from Randy Travis, when most of us know he didn’t actually sing this performance, while some might be outright duped into thinking he did, especially due to the way the song is being marketed. Despite the remarkable rendering of Randy’s voice in a new, unique song, it goes without saying that it means something different if you know he didn’t actually sing it.

The nuance, the pauses and breaths, the inflections, the imperfections, and the indefinable soul—these are all the things that go into making a song, and a country song especially. It’s inherently human. And though algorithmic enhancements can attempt to emulate such things to fool the senses, you still inherently know what you’re listening to is not real.

Nonetheless, we can still enjoy “Where That Came From” as country fans and as Randy Travis fans as the closest thing to Randy Travis that’s possible. But the biggest dilemma of this release is the lack of disclosure from Warner Music Nashville about what’s going on. As Saving Country Music said when addressing the onset of AI in the music space in early 2023:

“There should be labeling on music so you know where it came from, just like food. It should be marked 100% certified organic, or have a list of the artificial ingredients that went into making it so that way consumers can make informed choices. The insistence by the industry for proper musical labeling should start right now, today. Because AI is here, and powerful, and will corrupt the music landscape in quick order if it is not addressed.”

We all know that Randy Travis did not sing “Where That Came From” in real time, but that it was taken from previous performances cobbled together by technology. Nonetheless, it sets a bad precedent to not disclose this to the public. It’s not the song, but the sort of surreptitious wink-and-nod aspect of it that in some ways has drained the sentimentality out of the experience.

“Where That Came From” actually makes for a great discussion point about AI and music, and so we need to have that discussion as opposed to allowing it to be part of the technological AI creep that eventually could, and potentially will, replace all carbon-based musical performances with technology so the industry can streamline production and cut costs.

Meanwhile, it seems that more of this music from Randy Travis is coming. There was some confusion that “Where That Came From” would be an EP or an album, not just a song due to the wording of some of the marketing. Video teases show Cole Swindell and Cody Johnson in the studio, perhaps alluding to upcoming collaborations. They also seem to be teasing that eventually they will disclose how all of this came about, and they likely will. But doing this in arrears sets a bad precedent.

As Saving Country Music was finishing this article, Billboard disclosed that it will be officially revealed “Where That Came From” was constructed using AI via a segment on CBS Sunday Morning airing on May 5th. Cris Lacy of Warner Music Nashville is quoted as saying in the report to air Sunday, “It’s Randy Travis. Randy’s on the other side of the microphone … It’s still his vocal. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to make music … And to deprive him of that, if he still wants to do that, that’s unconscionable to me.”

AI promises to forward potentially promising, but potentially catastrophic developments for the music industry and everything else in life. Asking audiences to suspend disbelief as Warner Music Nashville has done here will only aid an abet the latter outcome if we are not careful.

But placing all of those discussions aside, it is heartening to hear a new Randy Travis song, graced by the closest thing we can get to the original Randy Travis voice that we all fell in love with, and saved country music in the 1980s.

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