In this collaborative series with The Nash News, we’re excited to present songwriter interviews both to our audience and to theirs, to further share our love of songwriting and songwriters with country music fans. Take a look at the full series.
Jon Randall has a wide range as a musician. The Grammy, CMA, and ACM winner has toured with acts like Emmylou Harris as a part of her band, produced and played on studio records for the likes of Dierks Bentley and Miranda Lambert, had songs he’s written recorded and made hits, and recorded music of his own. On his self-titled solo album Jon Randall, it wasn’t so much a conscious effort to step away from his collaborative efforts and create a record of his own, but a discovery that many of his solo writes through the years something in common.
“When we started looking down all the songs that I had recorded, there was a little bit of a Texas theme, a little bit of a wandering spirit theme, a lot of storytelling songs, and I just felt like there was a thread between this body of work,” he says. “Originally I wanted to do just an acoustic singer-songwriter record, just real basic, but the song “Driving to Mexico” had been the demo that turned out like a record – it was one of those moments in the studio where everybody was looking at each other going, ‘Woah, what just happened?’”
“That song stood out,” he continues, “when I played songs with people like Jack [Ingram], Miranda [Lambert], my team here, everybody was like, man, that song has to be on there somehow.” But it stuck out a bit, he shares, as the only non-acoustic track. He went back into the studio with his world-class group of studio musicians, and recorded “Keep on Moving,” “Tequila Kisses,” and “The Road.”
Something notable about Randall’s record is the amount of solo writing that appears on it. Though many writers start their careers writing songs alone, Nashville is a big believer in the co-write – in the 90s, between two writers, and now, typically three or even more. It can yield really incredible art, with each collaborator bringing their strengths and filling in for each others’ weaknesses, but it can have limitations as well. “Co-writing can become a crutch sometimes,” Randall says. “I have to try to not co-write with myself, if that makes sense. I have to try to find the language that I’ve always used when I write songs because that’s your point of view and that’s your story the way that you tell it. I took me a while to find that guy again.”
For Randall, that’s a penchant for darker songs – “I grew up a bluegrass kid, so I was singing all the death and murder songs when I was six years old,” he laughs. “I was always drawn to the darker, plus then growing up on old school country, you know.” His musical background, however, is diverse – hippie jazz, New Grass Revival, his sister’s classic rock records, the French music Emmylou Harris would sometimes play hanging out evenings after shows on the road.
“I tend to write dark ones, I feel like I can tell you that story in a way that you can connect to,” he continues. “It’s hard to figure out how to make something fun without being cheesy, it’s just an art, and I feel like I’ve hit it a few times really well, but it’s hard sometimes for me, because I’m a ballad singer, and I get lost in that sometimes.”
No complaints here. The darkness, storytelling, and Texas roots find a welcome home on Jon Randall. There’s a lot of texture to the record – deep acoustic guitar tones that feel like rich leather, pedal steel like a coyote howl on the wind, empty space that pulls from the magical expanse of the southwest. It’s mature like a smoky mezcal – Randall is an expert lyric writer, producer, and musician, and even on messy themes like coming of age and complex loves, Randall is deft, subtle, and intentional. “Velvet Elvis Buzz,” co-written with master of melancholy Travis Meadows, paints a romance narcotic – while pop country artists have been for years now called women their favorite buzz, the song leans into the minor key to reveal the grittier side. (Grammy nominated songwriter, also Randall’s wife) Jessi Alexander’s haunting background vocals and the occasional squeak of fingers across the frets perfectly balance the raw with the polished, complementing the complexity and duality of the lyrics.
“I love to write lyrics,” Randall says. “It’s really about language – what is this character in this song, who are they, how do they talk? I love trying to find some kind of different language that sets the tone for how the character of that scene is telling that story.”
Character is forefront on Jon Randall, from the down-on-their-luck protagonist of “Streets of Dallas” to the limitless youth of “Acapulco Blue” and the behind-the-scenes realism of touring life on “The Road.” Randall proves to be masterful with nuance throughout – shiny moments threaded with sober melodies and vocal lifts that give hope to difficult times.
As both a writer and producer, he shares that those processes are sometimes intertwined. “A lot of times when we’re writing, I really am thinking about arrangements, and what would be cool when we get in the studio, but every now and then we fly by the seat of our pants and see what happens, so it depends on the situation and who I’m working with,” he says.
As a writer and producer, Randall has approached it from all sides – sometimes working with the artist to choose songs, writing for the record, and producing it in full; sometimes simply having a song he’s written recorded by an artist and their producer. For Dierks Bentley’s The Mountain, for example, Randall was called in because Bentley was looking to draw on the bluegrass feel of the Randall-produced Up on the Ridge. “We wrote specifically for that record,” Randall recalls. “There was a whole group of writers that went up and we all wrote in Telluride, camped out there for like a week and wrote all those songs.”
Honing in on a sound is challenging production work, working hand in hand with the artist and studio musicians to create a cohesive final product. “A lot of times I’ll call the writers and ask for the work tape, because I want to hear what happened the day you wrote it, see if I catch anything, or a hint of something that didn’t make it to the demo,” he says. “I work with a stellar cast of musicians, so it’s just a collaborative process once you get in there and start guiding the ship.”
You can hear his most recent work at the helm on his collaboration with Miranda Lambert and Jack Ingram, The Marfa Tapes, and on Jon Randall, out September 10.