Randy Houser’s fifth album has been heralded by many websites and magazines as a ‘back to basics’ return to the bluesier Mississippi infused days of his roots. The title itself, ‘Magnolia’, is a nod to his home state and he even went as far as telling Billboard magazine, ‘“I started sort of paying for the album out of my own pocket because I honestly thought that once they (Stoney Creek, his record label) heard what I wanted to do that they would drop me,” he says. Thankfully, that was not the case. In fact, the label’s reaction was quite the opposite.
“Whenever they saw that passion, they said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to open up a little budget and see what you come up with.’ I played it for them and they said, ‘Let’s go finish making the record.’ They were really onboard from day one. Stoney Creek has always been a solid place for me to be as an artist.”
The ‘back to basics’ tag is a little bit of a misdirection, a bit of smoke and mirrors PR to be honest because whilst there are plenty of songs on ‘Magnolia’ that will appeal to fans of rootsier, bluesier music in Houser’s post-charts, post-Stapleton guise the album is not without tons of commercial appeal and catchy choruses. It is quite simply the best piece of work Randy Houser has produced, being a blend of old and new, which suits him perfectly. Freed of the constraints of chasing a chart sound surrounded by younger, fresher faced, cleaner cut male competitors, Houser has done exactly what fellow artists like Lee Brice have done and made music that sings to their souls and reflects who they are and where they are in their lives now – husbands, fathers and middle aged men with a penchant for a bit of weed. Houser is 43 years old, Brice 39 – these guys have to make music that reflects that and not worry about the Wallens, the Dickersons and all the other younger male artists taking Country music off in a thousand and one different directions. ‘Magnolia’ is a reflection of the acceptance that whilst the chart days might well be over (First single, the stunning ‘What Whiskey Does’ peaked at 36) for artists like Houser and Brice, the critical acclaim and tour revenues are still there and worth pursuing.
‘Magnolia’ opens with the first line of ‘No Stone Unturned’. ‘I made it up to Nashville and played the part..’ Houser sings, pushing his bold, new (older) agenda from the off. The duality of the album is reflected in this song as Houser takes a step away from chasing a radio friendly / billboard chart sound whilst still somehow managing to produce an insanely catchy song. The melodic guitar line is augmented by keyboards and a military-esque drum beat wrapped up in a drifter’s lyrics about someone out in the world, still looking for themselves. Add in one of many cheeky references this album carries to being stoned and you’ve got a wonderful mix of musical gravitas and lyrical reality wrapped up in a song that would work on radio amongst all the hand-claps, snap tracks and fresh faced young men with floppy hair. There are other tracks on ‘Magnolia’ with similar commercial appeal. ‘Nothin’ On You’ is a lighter, radio-friendly song made to be on a beer commercial with a hand-clap drumbeat that is supplied, thankfully, by REAL drums and not a machine somewhere. If this song had been on Houser’s previous album, 2016’s ‘Fired Up’ it may well have succumbed to a more poppier production but here on ‘Magnolia’ it comes across a super mix between Houser’s staple sound and a sort of Springsteen-esque, ‘Born in the USA’ type feel. Similarly, one of our album highlights is ‘Running Man’, a quiet, restrained song that carries the sort of urgent beauty that Springsteen’s ‘Tunnel of Love’ album was full of. It’s still dripping in melody but there’s an age, a quality and an experience to it that only comes when an artist throws off the shackles of expectation and pressure and just writes the music that is in their soul.
‘Our Hearts’, a track that features the lovely vocals of Lucie Silvas, is another very commercial sounding, radio friendly song that HAS to be released as a single at some point. It has a slightly darker arrangement but then changes tempo halfway through, adding layers of instrumentation from strings, guitars, banjos and keys to create something of a beautiful monster of a song all centered around Houser’s gruff, earthy, organic vocals. ‘Running Man’ and ‘Our Hearts’ are probably my favourite two songs on ‘Magnolia’ for very different reasons. Two very original songs. Two songs grounded in a reality that can only be found when you don’t try and second guess your audience but instead just write the music of your soul, so congratulations to Randy Houser for doing that.
‘Magnolia’ is an album that carries a serious emotional punch across a number of songs. ‘What Whiskey Does’, featuring Hillary Lindsay, ‘No Good Place to Cry’ and ‘What Leaving Looks Like’ are all weighty ballads that showcase Houser’s deep, rich, plaintive vocals superbly in this post-Stapleton landscape. Melancholy abounds and that’s OK because not everything has to be about trucks, shorts, beers and Friday nights when you are 43 years old like Houser is. These are songs with meaning and depth sung by a vocalist who believes in what he is saying, isn’t that refreshing?!
There are still some big fun moments on ‘Magnolia’, it’s not all heartbreak and gloom. ‘Whole Lotta Quit’ is a fun, bluesy foot-stomper of a bar room number whilst ‘New Buzz’ brings the tempo down a little but still plays big with its funky guitars and driving drum beat. ‘Mama Don’t Know’ ramps up the sound levels, being all slide guitar and southern feels with its devil-may-care attitude and Mississippi steamboat blues and ‘High Time’ is all about chilling at the weekend with some booze and some smokes. The latter is another of the ‘poster-child’ songs on ‘Magnolia’. Clever wordplay and clever melodies combine to create the type of song that can only be birthed through an artist’s calm assurance in what they are creating. ‘High Time’ is another song destined to be in Houser’s live set for years to come and will become a real fan favourite as it’s extended musical outro and jam session brings all sorts of live possibilities to the table for Houser to play around with on stage.
‘Magnolia’ is simply a triumph of confidence and calm assurance. Its quieter moments are stunning and the rowdier ones dripping in bluesy fun. An album like this can only be delivered when an artist is at the peak of their musical powers: tunnel-visioned on birthing the project that has been bubbling inside them for years. Houser, now older and wiser and less bothered about what other artists are doing around him, is lucky that his record label, Stoney Creek, allowed him the time and space he needed to create an album of this much worth, so kudos to them also. Whether ‘Magnolia’ sells or not is almost an irrelevance because when great art is brought into the world, it is there for all to enjoy for all time. ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ didn’t do that well at the box office and yet has gone on to be regarded as one of the best films of all time. More recently in Country music, Ashley McBryde’s ‘Girl Going Nowhere’ album hasn’t exactly set the charts alight with sales figures but has been, rightly, nominated for a Grammy – sometimes great things take time to filter through and this might well be the case with ‘Magnolia’. Houser is now perfectly placed to begin the second phase of his career with an album that places him front and centre as one of Nashville’s biggest voices and most authentic performers, if that doesn’t translate into sales because it’s not what the kids are buying these days, screw em!!
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