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Randy Houser

Magnolia – 2019 (Stoney Creek)

Reviewed by Michael Rampa

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CDs by Randy Houser

Randy Houser is no stranger to commercial success. He has had three number one hits on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. But he became fed up with how he was expected to perform them live: especially the various computerized bells and whistles that were meant to help him compete with his peers and their outsized live shows. He wanted to get back to songs that meant something and that he was invested in.

Fearing blowback of not making another country radio effort, Houser was weary to pitch his fifth album, "Magnolia," to his label. Broken Bow agreed to see what he came up with and financed half the album initially. After a listen to five tracks, they went all in. What they got was an antithesis of bro country gem: The collection is a gritty, raw effort that is both lyrically and sonically satisfying, There are layers of rock, blues and bluegrass within traditional arrangements. Houser's versatile vocal stylings are in fine form throughout.

Most notable is the lead single "What Whiskey Does," a duet with songwriter Hillary Lindsey. With Houser's effective lower register, the hurt is palpable. His range has the ability to reflect the mood and theme of each song. "Whole Lotta Quit" is a growling middle finger anthem to blue collar bosses that embodies the fire of "Take This Job And Shove It." "Our Hearts" is a reaction to s the backlash of Houser marrying a woman 18 years younger. But the mid-tempo number rolls along so pleasantly on acoustic guitar it is far from chastising. Of course, there are drinking songs, but they don't feel obligatory. "New Buzz" throws a curve ball with its jazzy electric keys.

With a hand in writing all the songs, Houser gave himself the outlet he desperately needed to fuel his pent-up creativity. It is one of the most refreshing albums in recent memory not only for what it contains, but what it lacks which includes slick melodies, glossy production and cliched themes. Ironically, the latter were the ingredients that brought him commercial success. It's clear that is not what's driving him these days.