BACK WHEN HE WAS LOADING AIR CONDITIONERS and heating equipment onto trucks outside Atlanta, Travis Tritt never needed workman's comp. Which goes to show, obviously, that country music can be more hazardous than heavy lifting. At a recent Bristol, Tenn., performance of his No. 1 kiss-off hit, "Here's a Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares," Tritt was smacked in the forehead with a quarter pitched at high velocity by an overzealous fan. "It was real gory," he says. "There was blood dripping down my eyebrows, and we ended up having to cut the show short."

Not that the 29-year-old Georgia homeboy is complaining. Sales of his second album, It 's All About to Change, have reached nearly 2 million. He was second only to Garth Brooks in country record ring-ups last year. And his latest single, "Nothing Short of Dying," is on its way to becoming his seventh No. 1 hit.

Within country limits, Tritt's range is as wide as fat-boy jeans, stretching from crooning heart-tug-gers to growling redneck rock. He got his start early enough, in the children's choir at the First Assembly Church of God in Marietta, Ga., when he was 4. ("We got a standing ovation, and I remember thinking, "Boy, I like this!") The only son of James Tritt, a blue-collar jack-of-all-trades, and his wife, Gwen, a home-maker, Tritt taught himself to play the guitar (he still can't read music) and by 14 was trying out his own songs on younger sister Sheilah, now a Delta flight attendant. After high school, he says, "I did what I thought everybody was supposed to do: I got married and got a job."

The marriage folded about two years later ("We were just too young"), and Tritt paused to take another look at the loading dock—and at his dreams of music stardom. "I didn't want to wind up sitting on a porch when I'm old and wondering if I could have done it," he says.

Quitting his job soon after, Tritt began playing in small clubs around Atlanta, "doing whatever I had to do to get the audience's attention—jumping on tables, kicking things over. Some club owners would go crazy, and I got fired a lot, but I got a reputation that attracted attention. If I got fired from one club, the guy across the street might say, 'I heard you were pulling in 85 people...' "

In 1985 Tritt remarried, this time to a bartender at a favorite hangout. But career frustrations and financial strains took a toll and, he says, "I started to drink too much both on-and offstage. I did real stupid things, like drinking all night and then getting in a car and driving."

In 1984 Tritt approached Danny Davenport, a Warner Bros. Records promotion man and Marietta neighbor, asking for help in making a demo tape. "I didn't want to do it, but Travis was persistent," says Davenport, who was wary of working with a little known performer. "Then he sat down with his guitar and started singing, and it was absolute magic." Warner Bros. eventually agreed and two years ago released Country Club, Tritt's first album.

Since then, Tritt has spent some 280 nights each year on the road, a schedule he hopes to lighten soon. In part, he blames the near constant touring for the breakup of his second marriage in 1989. "We had some personal problems and being on the readjust aggravated them," says Tritt, who wrote "Here's a Quarter" in the wake of the split. "If you ever see me getting married again, you will know that I have been dating that person for a very long time. A very, very long time."

Off the road, Tritt retreats to the same simple split-level home north of Atlanta that he originally shared with his mother and sister following his parents' divorce when he was 14. In the living room hangs a congratulatory note from President Bush, another Tritt fan, and plopped on the couch is Otis, Tritt's beloved year-old beagle. There are few trappings of stardom. In the garage are two Harley-Davidsons, bought at the urging of his friend and Atlanta Falcon coach Jerry Glanville. Next to them stands an '81 Ford pickup with more than 137,000 miles on its odometer, that Tritt bought after high school.

These days, though, there is talk of a bigger home to come, something "like an old Charleston-style plantation house—three stories with a porch all around and fireplaces in all the bedrooms." And there is little talk of looking back. After all, says Tritt, "even a bad night of music beats the best day you'll ever have in the heating and air-conditioning business."

CYNTHIA SANZ
GAIL WESCOTT in Marietta

  • Contributors:
  • Gail Wescott.