Stagecoach 2009: The education of Randy Houser
One of the more surprising hits on country radio this year has been "Anything Goes," sung by Mississippi-born musician Randy Houser. At a time when country programmers are enamored of songs from male singers cheering for lifelong romantic commitments, the title track from Houser's debut album is unusually frank in its depiction of a guy who goes off the deep end after his girl leaves him.
Another morning after
A crazy night before
I'm searching for my blue jeans
On a stranger's bedroom floor . . .
Whenever everything's gone
"Pop country is what's been hip here for the last 10 years," said Houser, who makes his way west for a performance Sunday at this weekend's Stagecoach country music festival in Indio, where Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Reba McEntire and Kid Rock top the bill. "We're just not into it. We're trying to make country cool again."
"We" refers to a group of songwriters who independently arrived in Nashville several years ago, became friends and have started making a splash with country that goes against the feel-good-all-the-time vibe that's characterized the commercial side of the genre in recent times.
That group includes Jamey Johnson, whose debut album, "That Lonesome Song," picked up three Grammy nominations and won song of the year honors at the Academy of Country Music Awards earlier this month. The two of them, along with a third songwriting pal, came up in 2005 with "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," a No. 1 as recorded by Trace Adkins. That opened the doors that led to Houser getting a record contract of his own.
"Anything Goes," which gave him a Top 20 country hit with his first single, was one of the few songs on the album not penned by Houser -- it was written by Brice Long and John Wayne Higgins -- but he sings the aching ballad with a strong, colorful tenor.
"Most people go with a big ol' up-tempo single ditty for their first single," he said over lunch recently. "I didn't want to do that. At the same time, it was tough for me to put a song out there that I didn't write as my first single. But those guys had really written a great song, and I sure didn't mind it getting on the radio."
Houser's a beefy fellow with a love for Harleys. He thundered up on one at his manager's office, dressed in a camouflage jacket, blue jeans, motorcycle boots and a black knit stocking cap. Not one of your standard-issue new generation "hat" acts. Rather, he looks like the kind of guy you wouldn't want to cross in a bar at closing time -- if it weren't for the goofy, big-kid smile that erupts periodically during conversation.
He'd played music growing up in Lake Mississippi, a town of about 500 outside Jackson, and moved to Nashville with the idea of making a living with the songs he was writing, inspired to an extent by his guitar-playing father.
What often happens to newcomers who exhibit a modicum of talent for songwriting is that they're directed to schedule writing sessions with more established composers. Part of it was an education, but the conventional approach to musical craft didn't always suit Houser's idea of how songs should be written.
"It's almost more of a creative writing class," Houser said. "When you start out co-writing, you learn about the process, you learn how you get to the next point in a song, if you're wanting to write for the [radio] format . . . I'd rather not write a song, I will not write a song unless it's something that I want to say, or something that I need to say. I'd rather sit at the house or build my motorcycle or do something else."
Houser's own approach comes through clearly on one of the album's standout tracks, "Lie." It opens with a scene of a cad named Joe who tells the women he meets that he's a movie star in town to buy the bar they're in, then he's off to Mexico the following day to shoot a new movie. Naturally, he gets the girl.
It's a colorfully drawn slice of single life with the ring of authenticity. Houser based it on a friend who always surprised him with how popular he seemed to be with women.
"One night I noticed he had this really, really hot chick cornered at the side of the bar. I couldn't figure out how he had her cornered up. So I started listening to the conversation, and," Houser paused, and started chuckling, "she asked him what he did for a living.
"The funny part is, I knew what he did for a living because I worked with him during the day at La-Z-Boy, so when she asked him, he looked at her just as serious as anything and said, 'Oh, I'm an ARCH-ee-teck.' I did tell him, 'If you're gonna lie about what you do for a living, at least learn how to say it."
What makes this song utterly fresh is the second half, in which the singer tries to concoct similar tall tales until he arrives at the perfect come on -- one that sounds an awful lot like every other song on country radio of late.
I'd go up and I'd say, 'Hi
Honey, whatcha doing for the rest of your life? . . .
I bet you didn't see me as the marrying type
Let's take it slow I don't just want one night . . .
Yes a man has got to do what a man's gotta do
"It's just fun," he said. "That's one of the exciting thing about writing songs: getting to turn things around like that to get a rise out of people. Most of the things I write come from experiences like that, just like that old boy in the bar, or things that I've lived through."
Photo by Christopher Berkey/For The Times