Black Music Matters Festival

Randall's 'Willn'" to do his way nowPrint article

By Dan MacIntosh, November 1999

Jon Randall is pictured on the cover of his new Eminent recording "Willin'" wearing a flashy gold suit. But this particular wardrobe selection is strictly borrowed property and not the kind thing you'll ever expect to see in Randall's closet.

When asked if he owned it, Randall's answer says a lot about his character.

"That suit probably cost $7,000," he marvels. "If I had $7,000, I'd rather buy a couple of guitars."

You see, Randall has a philosophy about the music business. In his mind, a musician is either a star or an artist, and rarely do these two extremes meet.

By listening to Randall's new album, which skates clear of the mainstream with its overt bluegrass elements and extremely honest songwriting, it doesn't take long to figure out just which camp this guitarist/songwriter belongs in.

After hitting the road with Emmylou Harris barely out of his teens, Randall, 30, has dedicated himself to playing the kind of tradition-soaked music he so dearly loves and hasn't looked back. Like the character in the Lowell George song that is his new album's title track, Randall is a road warrior, if ever there was one.

Though reluctant to complain, Randall says one of his chief complaints about his previous residency on a major label, Asylum, was that they frequently had him flying all over he country to meet radio folks and press, which meant he ended up doing almost everything except play music.

In fact, two weeks before his label debut, the two decided to scrap the whole deal.

He's on a smaller label now. But you wouldn't picture him as a happy soul after listening to this new recording.

One recognizes right off the bat how many of these songs are sad ones. It would be so easy to make the broad generalization that such writings reflect the moods of a man who is currently going through divorce proceedings with Lorrie Morgan (Together, they recorded the semi-hit "By My Side" in 1996).

But while such a statement might be partly true, much of this 'down' vibe can be attributed to mere coincidence. That's because "Willin'" wasn't all written and recorded in one narrow time frame.

"Some of these songs, like 'Lonely Street,' I probably wrote six or seven years ago," explains Randall. "The record was actually made over a long period of time. I call it the accidental record."

Much of this album was recorded as a way for Randall's producer, Brent Truitt, to break in his new recording studio. "We were just learning how to use the gear and learning how to become engineers," Randall says.

"I would call Roy Husky, Jr or John Cowan, and we would just sit down and cut basic tracks on things that I was writing that I knew I wasn't going to get to do on a major label."

While he was right about the fact that these songs would never appear on a major label, he probably never dreamed that they would be the foundation for his next solo release.

"At that time, RCA (his label for his first album) did not want me to cut sad songs. I never understood why, though, because 'He Stopped Loving Her Today' is maybe the greatest song ever, and what about a song like 'Mama Tried'?"

But before he knew it, he had the beginnings of a full scale release.

"It just kind of happened that we turned around one day and realized we had about six tracks done. And it was music that I really loved because we weren't trying to make a record."

"There were no boundaries where we had to worry about format. I think this record is very versatile. It touches upon a lot of musical influences."

Randall isn't just blowing smoke with his statement about the variety on this new one. From the faux '50's ballad style of "Sweet Loretta," to the blues-y sound of "Walk the Line," to the tragically sad "Can't Hurt Anymore," Randall reveals many of the contents from his wide-ranging bag of tricks.

But no matter how Randall tries to slice it, his stuff always comes up sounding country. Much like what happened with Vince Gill recently, he was told that one of his singles for RCA was "too country."

"That's when I pretty much threw my hands up."

He then put his hands to making the kind of music that gives him real satisfaction.

Next to much of what's on the radio these days, this new album is very much a country album. Maybe it's because you can actually hear mandolins, acoustic guitars and fiddles way up at the front of the mix. And though it clearly contrasts with what modern radio loves, Randall is hesitant to characterize it as pure country release.

"This record isn't really a country record to me," he admits. "It's kind of strange, because a lot of people go 'This is a great country record.' To me, there are some bluegrass instruments, and it's very acoustic-driven, but if I was asked to make a traditional country record, this wouldn't be the one."

It's still a country mile (pardon the pun) away from the majority of what's coming out of Nashville these days, though. Country radio is closer than it's ever been to becoming merely just another twist on pop and rock music.

"You've got a lot engineers coming in from Los Angeles that are mixing records," notes Randall. "Also, a lot of the studio guys have been coming in from Los Angeles in the last few years, and that's what's bringing in a lot of that '80's pop sound to what's going on."

The ghost of Elvis looms large (which means he must have been in his '70's Vegas period) over this album. The song "Breakin' The Rules" has a character visiting Graceland, and the song "Lonely Street" is nearly a sequel to "Heartbreak Hotel."

And while that's a lot of Elvis stuff for just one disc, the King almost inhabited one more song on this collection.

"We had another track that Roy (Husky Jr.) was playing some great flat bass on, called 'You'll Never Be The King,' but we thought, 'No, that's maybe a little too many Elvis tunes for one record.'"

Nevertheless, the Elvis Factor shows up in yet one more obvious place, the album cover.

"When I showed up at the photo shoot," he recalls "and the wardrobe had that gold jacket, I said, 'Man, I'm putting this on.'"

The name for the album ("Willin'") was chosen because it was, by far, the best cut on the record to name an album after. But this hard luck Lowell George song also somewhat paralleled Randall's own career struggles in places.

Randall is dedicated to getting through the tough places in his life in one piece - if only by shear will alone at times.

"I've kind of been kicked around by mainstream country, and I've had some friends do some pretty crummy things over business deals in the last year, so 'Willin' is kind of where I'm at right now. It should have maybe been called 'Determined.'"