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Jon Randall walks among the living

By Ken Burke, November 2005

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Touring with Sam Bush's band and working as a sideman/back-up vocalist behind the likes of Lyle Lovett, Linda Ronstadt, Earl Scruggs, John Cowan and many others, Randall earned a living, but made little progress an individual artist.

"I had some really great fun gigs, but I just kind of got sidetracked," says the singer-songwriter.Eventually he decided to take a stand."It ends up that about two years ago, I made a commitment. I got off the road and quit for a year to just stay home and focused on my writing."

As Randall saw it, the risk was worthwhile. "I had an opportunity with a great publishing company to write songs - and very freely write songs - and not be trapped in the system so much. So, I took the jump. I didn't know what I was going to do in the solo thing. I was still debating, but I wanted to focus on writing."

Once he committed to writing full-time, fresh opportunities developed.

"That's how I met John Grady, before he was the president of Sony," continues Randall. "His office was next door to our publishing company. We got to be friends, and he followed my career from the Emmylou days and on. So, we'd sit and have coffee and talk about music. A year later, he's running Sony, and he calls me and says, 'Man, I know where your head is and what kind of records you want to make. I think you should come over here and make it.'"

Prior to that, he had written a bona fide smash with country legend Bill Anderson titled "Whiskey Lullaby." "I really enjoyed sitting down and writing a dirt country song with a legend of country songwriting, and digging into the way he approached the craft," says Randall of the '60s/'70s recording star. "We got to know each other really well, and I realized that he was not afraid to write sad songs by any stretch.""So, when I had that idea about 'put the bottle to your head and pull the trigger,' he loved it! And he had an idea to write a song called 'Midnight Cigarette.' We sat there and messed around with them until we realized that we could totally marry the two ideas. So, he came up with that first line and then the song just wrote itself from that point on."

Although they had written a classic love-you-till-I die country song, neither Randall nor Anderson thought anyone would ever record it. "We thought it was a guilty pleasure - a country song written just for us. So, we were really surprised when Brad (Paisley) came to the table. We didn't write it as a duet. I thought it was a great idea that they put Alison (Krauss) on that."

Paisley and Krauss' rendition of "Whiskey Lullaby" hit number 3 on the country charts, number 41 pop. Moreover, it gave Randall an identifiable song to use on his new album.After debating whether or not to use the song, he and co-producer George Massenburg recorded it at the Capitol Tower. "I had this small window to get out to L.A., and I had the flu real bad," remembers Randall, "and we were recording it live. So, we had to do several passes before I got through a vocal without going all to pieces. But it turned out kinda cool. Because I am a little crusty and I had to make it a little more intense."

A true songwriter's album, "Walking Among the Living," blends bluegrass picking with rock overtones á la Little Feat. Lyrically, it balances paeans to wanderlust and romantic recovery with themes of palpable heartbreak.

"Life isn't always mid-tempo positive," says Randall, "and a lot of times, bad things do happen, and they need to be talked about it. I tend to be able to tell the a sad story better than I can a happy one."Randall feels his years as a sideman have definitely paid off for this album. "Having experience in the studio and working with musicians, that's so much a part of producing a record. When I made my first record, I was really green in the studio. And having to explain what you want musically is a very important skill. So yeah, thank God for a lot of experience leading up this record."That experience also gave Randall access to some high-powered guest musicians who are used to good effect in back-up roles such as Jessi Alexander, Sam Bush, John Cowan, Béla Fleck, Vince Gill and Patty Loveless.

"Really, it's all people that I have worked with. Patty and I, we did a duet on her 'Mountain Soul' record and a duet on that Louvin Brothers tribute album, and I've known her for years. Vince is the same thing. I went out on the road when I was 19, and he was just getting his band's together."

Randall is grateful for Gill's offer to tour and promote the Epic album to a wider audience, although he remains cautious.

"I've always lived on the left side of things and there's always a little bit more of a struggle to deal with a record out of Nashville because they're so driven by radio. That's just the way that wheel turns."

However, the positive reaction at live shows has reaffirmed what he has believed all along. "I've always said, 'If I can just get out and play in front of people, I think I can turn them on to my music.' There's been a lot of false starts, and I'm just glad we actually have a record and have a tour. I've never had that. Now, I do."

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