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Jon Randall walks among the living

By Ken Burke, November 2005

"Today is the most time I've had off the bus in a couple of weeks," Jon Randall reports with a pleased laugh. "And, of course, we're out in the middle of nowhere. There's nothing to see or do. It's always that way. You get a day off next to a highway."Indeed, the 36-year-old singer-songwriter has been on a lot of highways trying to find his audience and build a career over the last 20 years.

During that time, three critically lauded albeit weak-selling albums, left his career dead in the water until he renewed his focus on songwriting.

Now best known as the Grammy nominated co-writer of Brad Paisley's monster hit "Whiskey Lullaby," Randall is touring with old pal Vince Gill while hawking his new Epic album "Walking Among the Living."

"Man, it's been great," Randall reports via phone from Glendale, Pa. "I didn't know for sure that it would be because I'm doing an acoustic opener. It's more of a songwriter's set, and I didn't know how it would go over with this big of a crowd. But it's been unbelievable."Audiences seem to sense that the Dallas native is playing a hot hand. "Yeah, I seem to get an awful lot of comments on 'Whiskey' when I go out front to shake hands and push some records," he admits. "What's really been great is that a lot of people who had never heard me will show up, buy record and say, 'I've never heard you, but I loved it.'"

For Randall, that sort of appreciation has been long overdue.

Born Jon Randall Stewart, his parents played music in their spare time and made it a family event.

"We would go to bluegrass festivals all over Texas and Oklahoma," Randall recalls. "My dad started teaching me chords when I was about six and bought me a guitar. I grew up playing bluegrass and listening to murder and death ballads," he chuckles. "I was six, seven years old singing stuff like 'Little Sadie.' So, it's made me tend to write on the dark side sometimes."After playing everything from traditional country to ZZ Top covers in various high school bands, Randall lit out for Music City where he became a sideman out of necessity.

"When I moved to Nashville, I had gone on the road with Holly Dunn as just a rhythm guitarist and harmony singer," he remembers. "Then Emmylou Harris called. She was looking to put this acoustic band together. (The Nash Ramblers) She had Sam Bush, Roy Huskey, and Al Perkins from the Burritos. Just all the road dogs - great legendary players. When she asked me to join the band I said, 'I'd love to, but you've had Albert Lee, James Burton, and I don't really play lead guitar.' Then she said, 'Well, start woodshedding because you're going to now.' So, I actually went to school in the back of a tour bus with all these legendary guys showing me stuff."Winning a Grammy for his contributions to Harris' 1992 disc "Live at the Ryman," Randall's pure bluegrass-based voice and youthful good looks eventually attracted the attention of RCA, who had him officially shorten his name to Jon Randall.

However, rather than develop him in the Vince Gill singer-songwriter mode, the label had other plans. "When I was talking to RCA about doing a record," Randall recalls, "I had a bunch of songs, and I wanted to do some more writing. But the way the system was run in the mid-90s, they just said, 'Let's get in there and make this record as fast as we can and get it out the door. We need songs from hit songwriters.' I was young and wasn't real confident in my songs - especially with a label that didn't like any of them."

"On my first record, I think it had one song of mine ('Just Like You'). That only happened because I had been on the road with Emmylou Harris, and she actually called my producer as if she were my mom and said, 'This song has to go on this record. It's a great song.' She went to bat for me."

Despite pockets of support, RCA put Randall's 1995 debut, "What You Don't Know," on a promotional backburner, and it quickly faded from notice. A second album was planned, but never saw the light of day. His only composition for that aborted project, "By My Side," ended up as a number 18 charting ' duet single with Lorrie Morgan. Later that year, Randall and Morgan married. They divorced in 1999.Stylistically, Randall's 1998 move to Elektra/Asylum seemed a natural and his album "Cold Coffee Morning" boasted a strong traditional country feel and guest appearances from Morgan and Willie Nelson.

The album yielded two minor chart singles before misfortune struck. "Asylum went out of business before my summer tour," sighs the artist, "and we were really relying on their tour support to get out there."

His streak of tepid luck continued at the independent Eminent label with the fine Americana-flavored offering "Willin'." Chock full of Randall's own reflective compositions and some flat-out compelling vocals, the disc suffered from the company's abrupt demise.

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