Since Chris Stapleton stole the CMA Awards in November with his breakout performance, country music is slowly shifting its focus not only to a more traditional sound, but back to actual singing. Which makes this new Era of the Vocalist particularly good for Randy Houser. If Stapleton is the booming, outlaw voice of country's resurgence, Houser is his equally soulful but smoother country-radio counterpart.
With four Number One singles under his belt, Houser is finally hitting his stride. But it took a long three-album journey to get there. His 2008 debut Anything Goes made a dent with its magnificent title track, a lonesome tale of a one-night-stand, and the Number Two hit "Boots On." But Houser's 2010 follow-up They Call Me Cadillac was largely neglected, a blow to the Lake, Mississippi, native, who believed he made an album — a bluesy roadhouse record full of swamp-rockers and vulnerable ballads — that reflected his true self.
Regrouping in 2013 on a new label, Stoney Creek Records, Houser altered his approach. He wrote less, cut more outside songs and courted radio with accessible sing-along anthems like "How Country Feels." The title of his third album, the song became his first Number One.
"It's given me a job," says Houser of How Country Feels. He's seated at the bar at Brown's Diner, a Nashville come-as-you-are beer-and-burger joint, sipping a Bud draft. "Before that I was making my living as a songwriter. I had plenty to do, but that last album moved things in another direction for me. That's part of the reason that it was three years to the next album. It gave us a reason to be so busy that I didn't have time to get started on another record."
Just last week, Houser celebrated his fourth chart-topper, "We Went." Another blast of radio country with a car-chase tempo, it's the debut single off Fired Up, his new album that combines the grit of They Call Me Cadillac with the pop sheen of How Country Feels. Although wildly overloaded with 17 songs (taking bang-for-your-buck to the extreme), Fired Up gives Houser ample room to show off his elastic voice.
On "Hot Beer and Cold Women," written by fellow Mississippian Travis Meadows and the Warren Brothers, Houser conjures the magic of "Anything Goes" and "Like a Cowboy," a 2015 CMA Song of the Year nominee. "Little Bit Older" mines the same working-for-the-man theme as Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It" and boasts a boozy, payoff chorus. And new single "Song Number 7" is tailor-made for Houser's summer tour opening for Dierks Bentley.
"He's one of my favorite country singers of all time. He's so good and so believable when he sings. He has all the moves with his voice: he can curl it, straighten it out and growl," says Bentley, who also sees the comparison between Houser and Stapleton. "He and Chris have unique differences, but Randy has that soulful thing going on too. There's a lot of similarities."
When Stapleton released Traveller in 2015, a collection of stripped-down, voice-forward country songs, Houser was immediately transfixed. (In fact, Houser cut a Stapleton song, "One Way," for Fired Up.)
"Can you imagine how much I love that album? He came along at a time where we were all needing something like that, bad. And we tried with our Cadillac record, a record for adults, but nobody gave a shit," says Houser, who also raves about Jason Isbell's 2013 Southeastern LP. When he plays "Song Number 7" — which uses a track list as metaphor for a romance — he says he's thinking of riding around in his truck with his fiancée, listening to Isbell's slow-burning "Cover Me Up."
"The biggest focus on the album for me is my live show. I wanted to think about this record in those terms"
Houser is proud of his catalog and especially the material on Fired Up, but he doesn't hide the fact that he longs for more artistic freedom. Like Stapleton said of Traveller, he wants to make country music that may not be suitable for all ages.
"I do want to write radio songs, but I don't want to limit myself to thinking about it every time I go in a room to write. It's constrictive. It makes you color in lines, because you start thinking about, 'I have to write a tempo [song], and I can't say the word 'fuck' or I can't say 'shit.'' Sometimes, those words are great ways of getting something across. They're the real words," he says. "Since I finished this album, I've been writing my ass off, writing stuff that I don't know what I'm going to do with. It may be stuff my people are going to [hear] and go, 'What the hell are you thinking?'"
Which is why Houser relishes the untethered freedom of the live show, where he's able to go off script and let his voice lead. At last year's CMA Music Festival, Houser turned in the pinnacle performance of the nightly concerts at Nashville's football stadium, if not the entire festival. Wrestling with in-ear-monitor problems, making it difficult for the singer to hear himself in front of roughly 60,000 fans, Houser called off the band halfway into "Like a Cowboy." He finished the song by himself, just voice and guitar, and provided the often by-the-book CMA Fest lineup — well planned-out for a future TV special — with a bona fide spontaneous moment.
"I was aggravated, I couldn't hear myself in my ears, I didn't have any monitor. Finally, I had to break it down to its simplest form and that was a guitar. It leaned me toward doing what my instincts told me to do in the first place," says Houser of the performance. "I wanted to live in the moment."
The night before the March 11th release of Fired Up, he again went against the grain, performing an intimate solo show for SiriusXM, backed by a gospel trio. Instead of singing only new music and likely singles, he wove in deep cuts like the R&B-tinged "Ain't No Good Place to Cry" (watch the performance below), the humorous "Lie," off Anything Goes, and his CMA Fest showstopper "Like a Cowboy."
"The record version [of "Cowboy"] is pretty unbelievable, but in the live show, he takes it up a whole other notch," says Bentley. "He hits some notes that are ungodly."
With the release of Fired Up, Houser envisions his concerts becoming even more communal experiences, thanks to the new album's collection of rockers like "We Went" and nostalgic ballads like "Senior Year."
"The biggest focus on the album for me is my live show. My head is so wrapped around that right now. It's my favorite thing to do. I have the most control there and sometimes control means being out of control. Nothing is set in stone there. It can go haywire and be perfect. I wanted to think about this record in those terms," he says.
Although he headlined his own We Went Tour in the fall, playing mid-sized arenas and civic centers, Houser spent years building a crowd in bars, clubs and on the fair-and-festival circuit. His biggest taste of fan engagement came opening for Luke Bryan last year, including his first-ever stadium shows.
"After going out with Luke and watching all these people sing along and have a great time all night, I wanted to add more of that to my show," he says.
"I think people are learning more about me, but I don't think we've gotten there by any stretch of the imagination," Houser continues, pausing to close his eyes and drink his beer.
Onstage, that's how he often delivers his greatest vocal moments: eyes tightly shut. At times, it can feel as if you're watching a private performance.
"When I get in that moment, I'm not thinking about what other people are thinking. I'm closing my eyes and pretending I'm by myself and letting my voice fly out for the right reasons — instead of editing myself or worrying about what people think. And it's served me well," he says. "I sing loud and proud and that's just the way it's going to be."