Jon Randall – Ghosts outside the machine
Devising a new beginning amid failure or catastrophe is such a recurrent aspect of the human condition that it’s birthed thousands of axioms and cliches. After all, valor can come from defeat, and a fair measure of a person’s character may be taken from how that individual deals with defeat.
For Jon Randall, onetime country music Golden Boy candidate, it’s time to measure what he’s got inside. Within a single month earlier this year, he lost his recording contract, his song publishing deal, and his marriage to singer Lorrie Morgan. So forgive him when, in a new song, he says, “I’ve found new ways to cry.” And believe him when he finishes the couplet with the all-important statement, “I found the future I left behind.”
Randall’s new album, Willin’, is everything his previous albums weren’t. It wasn’t made while playing tug-of-war with Music Row executives. It wasn’t sent back to the studio with the admonition to create something more “commercial,” whatever that means. It’s not filled with songs other people wrote.
After years of frustration that culminated in one hellaciously devastating month, Randall is seeking a resurrection. The terms are different: Instead of banking his hopes on major labels such as RCA and Asylum, he’s taking the decidedly closer-to-the-ground approach offered by Eminent Records. The independent-label route gives him a couple assurances he didn’t have when he had to answer to conglomerate boardrooms: His recording will be released, and he will get to do the songs he wants in the manner he wants to do them.
After what he’s been through, he’s more than willin’ to make that choice.
“Man, it has not been my year,” Randall says, laughing with a kind of hard-edged chuckle that resonates with barbed emotions. “People keep talking about how my new record is so sad. Well, you should’ve been living my life.”
That record, Willin’, is too multi-dimensional to simply be described as sad, even though a distinctly melancholy mood runs through it. But it also flashes defiance, anger, forgiveness, tenderness, self-reflection, and courage. It’s the document of a talented musician turning to his music to exorcise what hurts.
Randall didn’t mask his experiences in opaque allegories or purposely obtuse images. He went for raw nerve, mixing distinct details with unfettered commentary and direct emotions. He attempts to put across the contradictory convolutions that go with facing painful turns in life, and he talks about drinking and arguing and being spiteful and pissed off. In other words, he delves deeply into the dark spots Music Row often whitewashes out of country music, and in doing so he’s made the kind of powerful, self-representative album that wouldn’t have been allowed if he were still trying to break into the country mainstream.
“It’s real personal, that’s for sure,” he says, acknowledging that many of the songs deal with his split from Morgan and with the psychological impact of the last few years. “It’s a pretty honest record. That seemed real necessary to me after all that’s happened.”
Willin’ begins what Randall describes as “my rebuilding process.” To get back in touch with who he is, the Dallas native decided to cut a low-budget album as quickly as possible and to get it out with a minimum of fuss. It helped that his manager, Monte Hitchcock, runs Eminent, a label launched last year with Emmylou Harris’ live Spyboy album. Hitchcock used to manage Harris; Randall played in her former backing band, the Nash Ramblers.
Indeed, Randall first gained widespread recognition when he was playing acoustic guitar and singing harmonies with Harris and the Nash Ramblers. In concert and in interviews, Harris regularly referred to him as the band’s secret weapon, partly because he was an unproven foal on a stage of prized stallions.
But young Jon Randall Stewart (as he was known before Music Row encouraged him to drop his surname) proved to be a spirited steed indeed. Twenty years old when Harris hired him, he managed to keep pace with fellow Nash Ramblers Sam Bush, Roy Huskey Jr., Al Perkins and Larry Atamanuik, dashing off fleet solos and soaring in high harmony with Harris and Bush. He was running with the leaders of the pack, and he did so with a nice balance of humility and ability.
By 1996, as the Nash Ramblers were parked after a final tour, Randall seemed poised for a bright future as a solo artist. The woman who lifted him out of obscurity had an enviable track record for finding talent and feeding it into the Nashville star system: Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Emory Gordy Jr. and Tony Brown all went on to greater renown after a tour of duty in Harris’ shadow.
But the road to stardom often is dotted with mines rather than paved in yellow bricks. Three years and three failed albums later, Randall limped away from Music Row, his dreams of mass stardom blown to bits.
“The frustrating part of it is that no one has the guts to stick with anything,” Randall says of his experiences with RCA and, later, Asylum. “We’d come up with a plan, and with a set of songs that everyone finally seemed to agree on, but by time the record was made, they wouldn’t like the songs anymore. As soon as there’s any negative reaction to something, no matter where it comes from, the record company wants to go back in and change everything again.”
He has a right to gripe. As Randall puts it, he devoted more than three years of his life cutting and recutting album after album, and none of what he created ever got a fair shot at being heard. In each case, as soon as radio programmers rejected an initial single, Randall had to go back and try again. Each of his albums was delayed after initial release dates were set, always because the record company thought he needed to add something more commercial to the collection. For instance, two different versions of his RCA debut were cut, mastered and packaged; the second version gained a limited release but didn’t get much promotion.
“There was one part of that whole thing that, to me, typifies what’s wrong with this whole system,” Randall says. “On one of my singles, the head of promotion came back and told us we had to remix the song. He said radio was saying the mix was too muddy. We’re talking about a record that was done by Garth Fundis, who’s one of the greatest engineers in town. But we remixed it for them. Well, at the end of the day, I found out that there was only this one guy at this station in Seattle who said he wouldn’t play the song because he didn’t like the mix. One station! One guy! So they spent $7,000 to change a song for one station that wasn’t ever going to play the damn thing anytime anyway. The whole thing was so ridiculous.”
A second album for RCA received a worse fate. Cut with producer Emory Gordy Jr., it too went through a revisionary phase after the original sessions were turned in. Even after a second series of new recordings and new songs, RCA still never put it out. “After three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars, they basically told me, ‘We don’t like you anymore,'” Randall says. “Meanwhile, a lot of time and a lot of money wasted, and after all the songs we cut, there was nothing to show for it. Nothing we did ever really got out of the gate.”
Set free, Randall received a call from the new executive team hired to run Asylum. However, despite promises that the company would consider alternative ways to promote him if he didn’t get a radio hit, his third album got scrapped as soon as radio rejected his first single.
Now Randall looks to join those who’ve found an audience in the world that exists outside of award shows, radio playlists and video spotlights. Rather than trying to join Tim McGraw and Vince Gill on the charts, he’s determined to follow such personal idols as Guy Clark and Steve Earle in building a musical living that doesn’t depend on consultants and programmers.
“People like Guy and Steve, they’re the ones who inspire me,” he says. “We all wish we could write songs that good. And they can go out and slay a crowd all by themselves. You know, these guys got their asses kicked by the music industry, and afterward they just went out and did what they wanted. And it worked. That’s what I’m after. I don’t have to sell three million records to be happy. I just have to be able to go out and play the kind of music I love. That’s the goal now.”