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More than a decade after a stroke, Randy Travis sings again, courtesy of AI

Randy Travis sings again, courtesy of AI
Randy Travis sings again, courtesy of AI 08:25

Even if you're not into country, you can't help but bathe in the baritone that is Randy Travis. His voice goes down like whisky – always has, ever since his first album, "Storms of Life," in 1986.  "I thought if we sold 40,000 copies they might let us make a second record." said producer Kyle Lehning.

They ended up selling four million. "So, I'm a genius!" Lehning laughed.

Randy Travis - No Place Like Home (2021 Remaster) by Randy Travis on YouTube

Randy Travis and that voice helped build Warner Music Nashville into what it is today. "How do you describe the thing that just hits you in the center of your chest and unconsciously makes you feel full, and familiar, and known?" said Cris Lacy, the label's co-chair and co-president. "How do you describe something like that?"

His was a God-given talent … and then, fate took it all away.

In 2013 Travis suffered a massive stroke. He was given just a 2% chance of survival. "I thought we were going to lose him," said Lehning.

Lacy said, "It felt like it could be the end of an era."

Besides the paralysis, the area of his brain that controls speech and language was hit the hardest. Randy's wife, Mary, said, "Music is what he's made of. Music is his heart, it's his soul."

Mary does most of the talking these days. She said Randy know what he wants to say, but it just doesn't come out.

Asked if he'd made peace with that, Randy replied, "Yep. Yep."

Three years after his stroke, with Mary at his side, Travis was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and gave "Amazing Grace" new meaning. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum 2016 Medallion Ceremony - Show
Randy Travis sings "Amazing Grace," alongside wife Mary Travis and Garth Brooks, during the 2016 Medallion Ceremony at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, October 16, 2016 in Nashville.  Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum

In his absence, though, he's heard a lot of AI-generated fakes of his voice. A simple Google search brings up sites that promise to covert anyone's vocal into a Randy Travis sound-alike. "It doesn't sound good, and it doesn't sound real, because it's not," said Lacy.

And that got his record label to thinking. Lacy said, "We started with this concept of, what would AI for good look like for us? And the first thing that came to mind was, we would give Randy Travis his voice back."

There were more than a few skeptics – Kyle Lehning, for one. "It sounded like a parlor trick or something," he said.

But Lehning (with Randy's blessing) decided to try. He and Warner Music started by pulling 42 Randy Travis tracks from the vault, like the original recording of his hit "1982." And then, they stripped away the music, leaving only the vocal.

That was half the recipe. The other half needed to be provided by a donated, or "surrogate," voice. In this case, that voice came from country music singer James DuPre.

James DuPre, Mary Travis, producer Kyle Lehning, and Randy Travis. CBS News

The AI program – the "secret sauce" – takes Travis' voice and overlays it on top of DuPre's singing. It's hardly an exact science.  "It's not about how it sounds; it's about how it feels," Lehning said.

And that is not something a computer can figure out. "Not yet!" Lehning laughed.

He knows Travis' voice almost better than Randy does; they've worked together for 40 years.  This time, though, the task was to take a computer-generated voice and give it Randy's country heart.  "Him being here and him being able to be a vital part of the decision-making process makes all the difference to me," said Lehning.

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In the end, they landed on something they felt worthy of a voice no one but those who knew him best could replicate.

According to Lacy, "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."

Two months ago, Warner Music gathered a small circle of fellow musicians into a recording studio. Randy sat with a Cheshire Cat's grin, and then they hit "play."

Listen to Randy Travis' "Where That Came From":

Randy Travis - Where That Came From (Lyric Video) by Randy Travis on YouTube

The reaction to his first new song in more than a decade was a mix of joy and wonder. 

For his wife, tears. For Randy's country friends, like Grammy-winning superstar Carrie Underwood, there was confusion. ("How? How? How?!?") For Cole Swindell, who just won three ACM Awards, it reminded him of why he became a country singer in the first place. ("For you all to let me hear it, that means a lot. Damn, I'm glad to hear you sing!") And veteran country star Clay Walker was simply over the moon.

Carrie Underwood expresses amazement after hearing Randy Travis' new song.  CBS News

Even Randy's own family hadn't heard it until two weeks ago.

It was perfection ... with a caveat.  "We don't exactly know how to get here again," said Cris Lacy.

The second song they're working on is proving a harder nut to crack. There's still work to be done, and a lot of questions to answer about what this all means going forward.

But revel in this: After a decade-long absence, Randy Travis is back on the radio. His post-stroke debut song, "Where That Came From," was released this past week.

Kyle Lehning and Randy Travis. CBS News

For Randy, it's not just a single, it's a victory. And as Mary says, "It's a life inspiration. Speak kindly, love fully, live completely, and leave the rest to God."

Sounds like there's a song in there somewhere. We can only hope.

For more info:

Story produced by Reid Orvedahl. Editor: Lauren Barnello.

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