Randy Houser remembers exactly where he was when he decided to throw it all away. Following a string of populist country radio hits, he became fed up with how he was expected to perform them live: shored up with various computerized bells and whistles that were meant to help him compete with his peers and their outsized live shows.
“We were playing along to all these tracks,” Houser says. “I walked out there one day and felt like I was a freaking puppet. I called my manager and said, ‘Take all these damn machines back. And all these little screens. I don’t want to do this anymore. I said, ‘See that 18-wheeler? You load that shit back on that truck and take it back where you got it.’ And they did.”
Seated in the great room of his house about an hour southeast of Nashville, he’s relaxed and bright-eyed, absentmindedly petting his dog Hawk, who’s nosing around his feet. A tornado blew through the neighborhood a week prior, giving Houser and his wife Tatiana quite the scare. In hindsight, it serves as a metaphor for the sweeping change the singer-songwriter has made to his career with the new album Magnolia, a record that shifts the focus back to Houser, his lyrics and his unmatched voice.
After breaking out with the one-night-stand ballad “Anything Goes” in 2008 (David Letterman was an early fan, inviting him to perform on the Late Show), Houser made They Call Me Cadillac. A collection of Southern rock, blues and classic country, the sophomore album showed Houser to be a superb writer and vocalist, but failed to make a major commercial impact. That changed when Houser signed with Broken Bow Records in 2011, who flooded Houser with songs he mainly didn’t write, like “How Country Feels” and “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight.” Slickly produced and radio-ready, they earned the Mississippi native his first Number Ones.
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“Like a Cowboy,” off How Country Feels, stands as the high point of that period. Written by Houser and frequent collaborator Brice Long, the road ballad reminded Houser’s hardcore fans that he hadn’t lost his grit and soul. Which he demonstrated with an unexpected solo performance of “Cowboy” at CMA Fest’s stadium concerts. In the end, he says he regrets nothing about that album.
“Having those hits [on How Country Feels] bridged a lot of gaps for me. It showed me a lot about myself and those years, and showed me what I don’t want to do. I really love having hits, but I want to be able to make music that reflects me as much as anything,” he says.
That wasn’t the case with its follow-up Fired Up. The album failed to resonate with either fans or the artist himself. Houser says he knew it was a dud.
“I had made an album which is exactly what you all think [a modern country] album should be, and nobody gives a shit — and I know why: because it sucks. And you know why it sucks? Because it sounds like everything else,” he says of Fired Up. “I recorded a lot of songs that I really have nothing to do with, and I didn’t feel anything for. It was weird being asked about that album, because I didn’t have much of a connection to it. I hate to say that, but that’s the truth.”
“I got caught up in this wheel, which is easy to do.”
There’s no such issue with Magnolia. Houser, who produced the LP with Keith Gattis, co-wrote all of the album’s 12 songs (a vinyl release culls it down to 10), collaborating with kindred songwriters like Travis Meadows, Jaren Johnston and Hillary Lindsey. Many of them recently joined Houser onstage for an album preview at Third Man Records in Nashville, where he took full advantage of Jack White’s facility’s straight-to-vinyl pressing and captured the performance live.
Such an outside-of-Music-Row approach to Magnolia — he also shot a dramatic short film based around the LP’s songs — was important to Houser and, ironically, his team at Broken Bow Records, whom he figured were sure to drop him for not making another country-radio album.
“It was just, hey, I gotta go do me. Not be chasing something that has already happened,” he says. “That’s what I was made to do. I did that in my career and then I got caught up in this wheel, which is easy to do.”
Magnolia is Houser slowing that wheel to a crawl: many of the album’s best songs are mid-tempo and ballads. “No Stone Unturned,” which leads off the LP, embraces a wandering spirit. “Our Hearts,” a beauty of a duet with Lucie Silvas, is a defiant but hushed love song. And “Running Man” applies to both life on the road and the indescribable desire to keep moving, free of any roots.
But it’s “No Good Place to Cry,” the oldest song on the LP, that is the heart of Magnolia and showcases Houser at his best. Arguably the recorded country vocal of this young year, it recalls a time of upheaval and loneliness. “That was written during a lot sadder time in my life,” Houser says somberly. It’s a spine-tingling performance that puts him neck and neck with Chris Stapleton.
Houser’s a fan of the Grammy-winning singer and the “New Nashville” class. “I love what Stapleton does,” he says. “I am very inspired by Jason Isbell and his writing, and I love everything that Dave Cobb does. And I wish Jamey Johnson would make another record. But he’s just not ready to write a song yet.”
Despite its often subdued vibe, Magnolia is by no means a maudlin listen. Houser, one of the genre’s most gregarious artists, cut some party songs for the LP — but his type of party songs. “High Time” relishes a smoke and a cold one on the porch, “Mama Don’t Know” celebrates wild women and “Whole Lotta Quit” is his “Take This Job and Shove It,” a rollicking clock-out anthem that finds Houser rhyming “lotta quit” with “don’t give a shit.”
That about sums up Houser’s mindset right now. While he’s never going to quit, he certainly doesn’t give a shit either.
“I think when I turned 40 my middle finger started going up,” he says, “and kept getting stiffer and stiffer.”