It was sometime in 2016, somewhere in Arkansas. Randy Houser looked around the stage where he was performing, full of the production befitting a major country music star—big lights and screens, backing tracks to flesh out the sound of his band. He had a sudden realization.
“I just felt like I was singing karaoke,” says Houser. “I walked offstage and I had not had a good time—it felt like I wasn’t the one making the music.”
He called his manager and told him to load up all the extra stage gear and send it back. With conflicted emotions, he let a lot of the crew members go, and returned to the road with a simple three-piece band.
“It was a total reset,” Houser says. “And then as I started writing, I knew there wasn’t going to be any of that big production stuff. My next project had to lean on songs and melodies, not a bunch of tricks and loops. And that was the catalyst for the new album.”
This stripped-down, back-to-basics approach—keeping Houser’s remarkable voice, which the New York Times describes as “wholly different, thicker and more throbbing, a cauldron bubbling over,” front and center—was the guiding force for MAGNOLIA, his fifth album and a return to the rootsy sound he grew up hearing and playing in the tiny town of Lake, Mississippi. It’s a bold direction from an artist with four Number One hits and more than five million singles sold, as well as a CMA Song of the Year nomination for “Like A Cowboy.” But Houser wasn’t interested in using that same formula for success.
“I wanted to find unique sounds,” he says, “which was tough—I recorded some of these songs several times to find the right sound. But I’d reached the end of my rope musically, with the expectations of the world I was in, and it just didn’t feel genuine. The only way to make music I feel like I can be comfortable with is just to dig in and start writing.”
In 2013, Houser released the triumphant How Country Feels album, which spawned four Top Five singles, and followed up with a touring marathon that saw him playing to sold-out arenas on the road with Luke Bryan. Fired Up followed in 2016, a record which, looking back, Houser feels suffered from being rushed.
“With the last album, I just didn’t have time to write very much,” he says. “Though I’m proud of the record, I think it was evident that it didn’t come from my guts. After that, I felt like nobody would get an album out of me just to fill a spot—if I didn’t have anything to say, why the hell would anybody want to listen?”
Houser hunkered down in his friend and co-producer Keith Gattis’ studio in East Nashville to reinvest his energy into songwriting, the talent which earned him his initial success in the business. The result was a musical self-exploration, usually seeing him working alone with a guitar or at the piano, that transformed into a body of work that is raw, refreshed, and pure Houser. “The songs poured out when they had a chance,” he says, “when I stilled myself long enough for that to happen.”
The loose and informal creative atmosphere made it easy for Houser’s friends, some of Nashville’s top writers and artists, to stop by and join in. Such luminaries as the Brothers Osborne, Jessi Alexander, Jaren Johnston (of the Cadillac Three), and rising star Lucie Silvas all contributed to songs on MAGNOLIA.
Houser found that, after all that had happened in his life the past few years, a new kind of music was surfacing. The first sign of a new direction came in a song called “Our Hearts,” which he wrote about his relationship with his wife, whom he married in 2016. “When we first started dating, people had all kinds of things to say,” he explains. “This was me telling people that it was none of their business—that these are our hearts.” Houser wasn’t sure how the team at Stoney Creek Records would react to the more organic feel of this material. “I started paying to record the album myself, because I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have a record deal,” he says. “The confidence I felt after getting the album started and then actually feeling support from the label gave me the push to keep moving forward.”
Listeners got their first taste of MAGNOLIA with the release of “What Whiskey Does,” which Rolling Stone immediately dubbed “a classic tears-and-twang drinking song.” The swampy, bluesy ballad features a doleful pedal steel guitar and harmony vocals from co-writer Hillary Lindsey. (Though Houser concedes that “Whiskey” was the right choice to introduce the album, he admits that he was pushing the dramatic “No Stone Unturned” as the lead single; “I still think that song is something special,” he says.)
He also points to “No Good Place to Cry,” one of the older compositions on the album, as a highlight. “I wrote that about ten years ago with Gary Nicholson, during a terrible time in my life,” he says. “It stands out because I was able to take myself back to that place, and I think you can really feel it.”
Randy Houser says that much of MAGNOLIA was inspired not only by his Mississippi roots, but by love—“not only the newness of it, but the comfort of knowing you’re with someone who accepts you for who you are”—and also from a new sense of maturity. “I turned 40 and a whole lot of that don’t-give-a-damn attitude came out,” he says with a laugh. “This is a really freeing time for me.”
Spending so much time working on his own pushed Houser to new heights as a guitarist; he plays the lead part on many of the tracks. And even recording his vocals, one of Nashville’s most acclaimed singers was more relaxed this time around. “I never felt like I had anything to prove vocally,” he says. “I wanted to serve the songs rather than just show out—to sing them well, but to interpret the lyrics the way I heard them in my head. And it was easy because I was recording my own songs.
“I’m the one that felt these things,” says Houser. “I wasn’t trying to play a character. This is stuff that came from my soul and my own stories.”