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Randy Travis taught me country

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
July 11, 2013 -- Updated 1442 GMT (2242 HKT)
Randy Travis performs during the 2013 CMA Music Festival on June 7 in Nashville. Randy Travis performs during the 2013 CMA Music Festival on June 7 in Nashville.
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Country music's Randy Travis
Country music's Randy Travis
Country music's Randy Travis
Country music's Randy Travis
Country music's Randy Travis
Country music's Randy Travis
Country music's Randy Travis
Country music's Randy Travis
Country music's Randy Travis
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Strangers are baffled when they learn LZ Granderson loves country music
  • LZ heard Randy Travis when he was 16 and was blown away by his voice, lyrics
  • When he asked his partner to get married, LZ says Travis' "Forever" was the soundtrack
  • LZ: Travis has had terrible struggles and his hospitalization is more sadness

Editor's note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and was a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) -- Of all the parts that make up my somewhat quirky life, there are few things that raise a stranger's eyebrows faster than discovering I love country music.

Not a "I like that one song by Lady Antebellum" kind of love for country music either. Mine is a "Barack I would love to join you and Michelle for dinner next Saturday, but you see I have tickets to see Eric Church so ..." kind of love.

When did this love affair begin? January 24, 1988. The night I met Randy Travis.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

Back then, it wasn't uncommon for families to gather around the television, and mine had done so that night to watch the American Music Awards. Michael Jackson was receiving a special honor, and Whitney Houston was scheduled to perform. At the time, those two were the most popular singers on the planet but for me, the night belonged to Travis.

I had never heard of him or his mid-tempo ballad "Forever and Ever, Amen" before the show. Everyone knew who Kenny Rogers was, but usually the only country music you heard in my house was the theme song to the "The Dukes of Hazzard."

But something about the purity of Travis' voice captured me.

And even at the relatively immature age of 16, I found his portrayal of never-ending love so beautifully constructed by the lyrics of "Forever" that to this day, it eclipses almost every other love song I have heard.

Ex-ricin suspect sings Randy Travis song
Singer Randy Travis pleads not guilty

In fact, when I put together a brief video asking my better half to marry me, "Forever" was the only song I put on the soundtrack.

That's why I was so sad to hear Travis was in critical condition in a Texas hospital. He was an unlikely voice of my youth. About as unlikely as you could be.

Instead of listening to the latest from L.L. Cool J or Public Enemy, I would go to the record store and play his song "Diggin' Up Bones" over and over again. My friends would snicker and mock the twang in his voice. What they couldn't understand was that the various inflections in Travis' voice were the commas in the stories that he spun. Stories so universal that a white adult man from a small town in North Carolina could touch a skinny black kid in Detroit without ever meeting.

When I'm in the car singing "Forever and Ever, Amen," I imagine someone 1,000 miles away is cranking that song up in the car and for three minutes and 31 seconds, we're connected.

"They say that time can play tricks on a memory,
make people forget things they once knew.
Well, it's easy to see
It's happening to me
I've already forgotten every woman but you..."

Complete strangers can stand silent next to each other in an elevator and not even look each other in the eye. But at a concert, those same strangers could find themselves dancing and singing together like best friends. That's the power of music. And when you've experienced this magical bond with strangers, there is even a greater connection to the artists that provided the vehicle for that bond.

That's why it's hard for to see Travis this way.

We've all watched once-beloved music icons such as Jackson and Houston fall from grace in similar fashion -- ensnared by drug abuse, publicly humiliated, fighting for and sometimes losing their lives. As Travis lies critically ill in a hospital bed, those of us who count ourselves his fans, pray his story doesn't end in the same way.

But we've watched the declining grip he's had on his life for a handful of years now.

The bitter divorce.

The uncontrollable drinking, the arrests.

And now this. It's just sad.

Because of Travis, I learned Waylon Jennings was the man who sang "The Dukes of Hazzard" theme song.

Because of Travis, I have developed lifelong friendships with some amazing people who work in and perform country music.

Before Travis, I used to think "soul music" had one certain sound.

Because of Travis, I learned that wasn't true.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

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