Randy Travis’ song was released the inspirational label World Records. It became the first Christian label released to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Country Singles chart. It was Travis’ sixteenth No. 1 single in total. It is also his highest charting single to date on the Hot 100.
The story recounted in this song is symbolic of Travis’ own conversion. He explained to Christian Music Today: “I came from a background that was heavy with drugs and alcohol and arrests. I’ve heard people speak about how a vision or something hit them, like a light turned on, right then and there. For me, I was into my early twenties, and I went to bed one night and just started reading the Bible. That’s how the slow process of coming to understand that I needed to know more about the Word of God began, and then coming to the point of accepting Christ and water baptism.”
Four wildly diverse characters, a destination, a melody … just enough intrigue to let songwriter Doug Johnson know he was on to something. He just wasn’t sure what.
“One night, I was sitting around the house,” Doug begins, “and I came up with the characters – a farmer, a teacher, a preacher and a hooker – on their way to Mexico. I thought it was a really odd grouping of people, but from that, the first verse and the melody of a song just kind of came out.” Doug says he knew there was something special in the characters and the situation. “I just had to figure out what was going to happen.”
The mysterious scenario instantly grabbed Doug’s friend and fellow songwriter, Kim Williams. “That was one of the best opening lines to a song I’d ever heard,” Kim recalls. “I remember telling Doug that I didn’t know where this was going – but I couldn’t wait to find out!”
“That’s how it was for both of us,” Doug chimes in. “We just said, let’s jump into this thing and see where it takes us.”
Once Doug devised the image of three wooden crosses by the road, Kim delved into a file of old notes to complete the moral to the story. “I found a hook I’d written for another song that I never finished,” says Kim. “It went: It’s not what you take, it’s what you leave behind. That’s what we wrapped the story around.”
Then there was the question of which character would survive. “I think we both knew that it would be the hooker,” says Doug with a laugh. “It seemed to fit in with the theme of forgiveness and understanding that we were going for. I am always moved by messages of mercy, and by stories of outcasts who are saved by love.”
Fans were also moved. “Three Wooden Crosses” became the first song released on a gospel music label to hit No. 1 on the country charts.
“The people definitely made it a hit,” says Doug. “They requested it over and over. You also have to credit Randy Travis. He has such a great storyteller voice and he really put the song across.”
Adds Kim, “I’m just amazed at how the song unfolded. It was like the little engine that could.”
“This song was just meant to be,” says Doug. “I don’t think anyone could have messed it up.”
“Three Wooden Crosses” reached number one on May 24.2003