By Brian Ives
Randy Houser has just released his new album, Fired Up, and things are looking good for the country singer-songwriter. “We Went” is on the top of Billboard‘s country airplay charts, he’s about to go on tour with Dierks Bentley and Cam. Oh, and he’s recently gotten engaged, so there’s that too.
Appropriately, Houser was in a good mood when he came to the Radio.com studios in New York, and spoke about the new album, his financé Tatiana, and the subject of “bro-country.”
You started out as a guy writing songs for other people; now other people write songs for you. Does that make you overly critical of other writers’ songs?
I probably am fairly critical when it comes to those things. I’ve had to step outside of myself a little bit because I don’t make my living strictly as a songwriter anymore, I have to also entertain people. I tend to write things that are more close to me and the personal kind of songs.
And I get a little more critical about things that I write myself, probably more than I am of the things that others pitch to me. But they have to be true to me. If I’m gonna record a song, they have to feel like something I would’ve written.
Do you think you would have been happy if your career went a different way, and you were working as a songwriter for other people?
I don’t know; I started playing music live at such an early age; that was probably my first love. I really didn’t have much of a story to tell back then, so I sang covers and played in cover bands and all those things that you start out doing when you’re learning how to play to entertain a crowd. So I think that that’s probably my first love is out there playing music live.
But would I have been happy as a songwriter? Sure, I would. When I moved from my little town down in Mississippi to Nashville, my whole goal was to be able to make a living doing what I love, and that’s making music, in any capacity. I just kinda just closed my eyes and blindly jumped into this pool of… whatever the hell happens is where I’m gonna be.
Not many artists are actually from Nashville; it seems that they mostly move to Nashville.
Not very many are from Nashville. That’s true. It’s a really cool town, and it reminds me a lot of this city too, because people come here to New York to follow their dreams. There’s not many people that I meet that are from Nashville. There’s people that move from a very rural, small town to follow their dreams of making music or acting. Nashville’s become a hotbed of artists of every type, these days.
Tell me about the song “Senior Year.”
That’s definitely a personal song to me. “Senior Year” just sorta came about, one night I was sitting with my buddy, Rob Hatch. We were just at his house, and he was putting his son Henry to bed, and the first lines of the song kind of fell out. I was just playing one of his guitars, and I was just singing the first line, “Friday night, ride around, make a loop through the Sonic at the edge of town.”
That’s what we did, on Friday and Saturday nights. I grew up in a little town called Lake Mississippi, and it was so small we would actually go to the next bigger town, which was Forest, Mississippi. And that’s you did; the loop was about a half mile, and you’d ride to the Sonic, and that’s where you turned around. And all you did was you made loops to the Sonic, and then you’d maybe stop at a parking lot of a grocery store and hang out and hide some beers behind the seat.
And that was just small town life, but it was so rich, you know what I mean? There’s nothing I would trade for where I grew up and how I grew up and the things that I got to experience. It was really kind of a wholesome way to grow up. I admire the kids that are still growing up where I did, because I see that, even in a bigger city like Nashville, which I love too, the kids are presented with so many options, and it’s awesome, there’s so much to do, it’s great. But I still think it’s important to have to invent your own fun.
That’s what we did. Hanging around, yup. And that’s the funny thing, everybody would gather up after that and go to somebody’s house, and their mom would feed ’em. Every one of them. We’d be like fifteen kids. So it’s just a cool way to grow up. “Senior Year,” that was a fun song to write.
The song starts with programmed drums. The way country music is produced has changed so much in the past five years or so. Now everyone uses programmed drums.
Well, I don’t mind programming those things or hearing loops or things like that. There’s also a drummer there. It really hasn’t taken much getting used to for me. I think it’s cool. Don’t get me wrong, I do love acoustic drums and the sounds of natural instruments being played, and I love ’em on records. I come from that kind of place. But I don’t have a problem with dressing it out a little bit.
The thing is, there’s a song there. There’s a songwriter in there. It’s a frickin’ song; it’s just whatever you do beyond that, that’s dealer’s choice, you know?
Traditionalists get upset about that. But as you say, if you can still play it on acoustic guitar, it’s a song.
Absolutely, it’s still a song. It seems like there are critics out there [who feel] that if you’re making a living in country music, they’re pissed at you. But if you’re making music that radio wants to play, it’s actually music that fits what people do in the audience that we’re trying to target.
Those people will talk about my buddy Luke [Bryan] and his music and “bro country” and all those things. Well, let me tell you something. The reason that music is so popular is because that’s what people do. Everybody’s not a music critic. People actually do just what I was saying: we ride around the Sonic, and we go park trucks, and we drink a beer, and we sit on the tailgate. Everybody can say what they want; there’s a reason that stuff is so popular. Because that’s what happens.
I think sometimes we can get into a place where music gets so serious that it becomes unreal too. And it seems like sometimes the more people stick a knife in your gut and make feel this thing, “It hurts so bad” is almost as unrealistic as anything [else] I’ve heard.
So I think that there’s a lot of criticism out there that’s over the top. Just lighten up a little bit. It’s music. With the technology we have today, you can find what music you’re looking for; quit d—ing on the people who are making their own kind of music.
Luke was at least honest, by saying that he’s not “outlaw country.” And he still does those farm tours, so he gives back to the community.
He was a farmer. And he is way more country than any of those people. Okay, I wanna explain my thoughts on that. So when you think about Willie and you think about Waylon and Johnny Cash — and those guys are my heroes, and they’re also Luke’s heroes. The thing that bothers me about that is what Luke’s done is almost what they’ve done. It doesn’t sound like what they did, but what they did musically was take everything that they heard growing up, and they put it into this one thing, and it became what they do.
That’s exactly what Luke’s done. He’s taken all the hip-hop and all those things that he’s heard, country and southern rock and all those things and put it into one thing. And we wouldn’t be talking about it if it wasn’t something new, and blazing a new trail. That’s what happened. That’s the reason we’re even talking about it. So people just need to lighten the hell up.
Luke’s following whatever he wants to do musically, what his gut says, and that’s what people should do. For other artists to bag on another artist’s art is the most hypocritical thing you could possibly do, as far as I’m concerned, to do with music.
I love everything. Willie’s my favorite of all time, obviously, but I love what Luke does, and I love Jamey Johnson, who’s like my brother. I like it from one extreme to the other. Different music for different moods and different times; that’s what it’s about.
Talk about “Song Number 7,” which Chris Janson co-wrote.
“Song Number 7” is just a fun sort of—I think it’s about as poppy of a song as we’ve cut on this record. It’s straight down the middle; it just talks about listening to a record with a girl, and when you get to song number seven’s when things heat up usually. So it’s fairly simple, and guess what number it is on the album. Number seven.
Another change in country music is that it seems a bit racier now; it’s hard to imagine Alan Jackson or George Strait singing that.
Maybe things have changed. I think that we can get away with more and more and more. But then again, in the ’70s, those guys got away with a lot more than we do. Like Loretta Lynn had the song “The Pill.” “Stand by Your Man,” Tammy Wynette. In some ways, if you sang about those subjects today it wouldn’t be quite as accepted.
Back then, there weren’t 24 hour news channels. If someone came out with songs that were as controversial today, they’s be on the news that night.
Oh yeah, and there’s also more anonymity with the comments and things like that. People will just say whatever the hell they want to, and it turns into a big storm of bulls***. That’s just what happens.
I know you’ve gotten engaged recently, and you wrote “True,” which I guess is about that. How has gotten engaged informed this album?
I absolutely wrote that song about [my fiancé] Tatiana. I wrote that song after a week and a half of knowing her. So that first lyric just fell out. Everything that I thought that I could want, she gives me. Life is a lot better. And very easy-going and peaceful. I don’t have to worry about anything with her. It’s all cool. She accepts who I am, she loves me to death, I love her, and she doesn’t give me any crap. It’s awesome.
How did you meet her?
One of my best buddies is Dallas Davidson, the songwriter. He’s married to Tatiana’s sister, Natalia. They were having their baby, and she came over to visit when the child was born. So we met then, and I sorta kidnapped her. Almost literally. It worked out good for me.
Tell me about “One Way.” I know Chris Stapleton co-wrote that, and obviously he’s getting a lot of attention lately.
Man, I’m a huge fan of Chris’s, and have been for years. We’re written songs together; I think he moved to Nashville probably a year after I did. We spent a lot of time around each other and publishing companies, and he’s one of my favorite singers. Maybe the best singer that I’ve ever heard in my life, he’s just that good. He also was the guy who sang the demo on “Anything Goes,” which is my first single I ever had out.
It was amazing to watch his album top the pop charts.
Boom! I couldn’t be more proud. This is a guy that’s been beaten around doing different things in bands and stuff around Nashville for a long time and just deserves everything great that’s coming his way. And Morgan, his wife, too, she’s amazing. She’s one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard, too. My lord, they’re gonna have the most talented kids on the planet.
I wanted to ask about one of your older songs: “How Country Feels.” When you sing about an “asphalt farm,” to me, that’s saying that you can love country no matter where you’re from.
Well, that’s exactly right. I always say is that country music these days is the country’s music. I think it is. We can go anywhere in almost any city, and there’s a lot of people that love country music. It’s just changed so much.
And then here in the Northeast is really, it’s crazy. This is my favorite area to come to play music. It just is; the fans, it seems like the fans are more excited because maybe it’s newer, it’s more fresh. So there is a different spirit. And out west it’s the same thing.
I think that sometimes in the Southern states, they’re so bombarded with country music. There are great fans there, of course. But there’s a different energy where everybody doesn’t sound like this. It’s more unique I think to the fans.
As we were saying, most country artists move to Nashville, they’re not from Nashville. Do you remember your first day in Nashville?
Wow. My first day in Nashville. I remember moving my stuff into the little duplex that I moved in with my buddy. I remember the day we moved in, it was this place off of Whitebridge Road. Nashville’s changing so much these days, but back then it was right next to this park with heroin needles laying everywhere and homeless guys, so at that time it was a bad part of town.
And I remember being a little bit… not scared, but where I come from you leave your front door open and there’s no danger. Nobody’s gonna mess with you. Obviously, where I come from everybody’s packing. But when I moved in I was a little freaked out. It was hard to sleep. I had an air mattress. I think in the first three days I’d blown the engine up in my car. But you can’t make a move like that and have it go all that smooth, you know.
But God, what an exciting time. I do remember the first couple nights being in Nashville and going downtown to Broadway and realizing that this is where I live now, and I can go hang out. It was a huge deal for me. The biggest thing about it to me was to be able to go hear new music. It was just like, it was all these songwriters, people that do what I do, and they love what they were so passionate about music and writing songs and playing their instruments as good as they possibly can.
And where I grew up I was, at that time, the only person that was into it like that. There were guys that I played in bands with, but they weren’t gonna go try to make a career out of it. That’s all I wanted to do; that’s all I lived and breathed. So to move to a place where that’s what most of the people you meet are there to do and they share the same passion as you, man, it was — and still is — like, “Hey, I’m home.”
So, what was the first song that you got placed on an album?
“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” [for Trace Adkins].
And you wrote that with Jamey Johnson and Dallas Davidson. Talk about that song.
Well, we’d written a bunch of songs before that one. You have a guy like Jamey who’s at one end of the spectrum, and Dallas is at the other end of the spectrum as songwriters, and then there’s me thrown in the middle somewhere.
So we had a group of guys that were songwriters, and Lee Brice and Jerrod Neiman, all that group of guys. They referred to us as “The Trailer Park.” Because we were mostly a bunch of kids who grew up in trailer parks. And so we wrote songs together all the time. We did everything together. We went out, we all met up at the bars together, we all did everything together.
And nobody cared [about us] then. There was no [publishing] deal. There’d be a lot of times that we’d spend writing these very serious country songs: “Oh, we gotta hit ’em right in the gut!” We’d try to get those songs recorded, and nobody’d give a s—. And then we get half plowed one night, and we write a silly song about a girl’s butt. Sometimes it pays to just not take yourself so damn seriously.
And then your next one was “Back That Thing Up” for Justin Moore. I’m sure that at that point, everyone was asking you to write more songs about girls’ butts.
Yeah, so whenever I’d go out to co-write with somebody, they’d bring me any kind of idea they had about writing a song about a girl’s butt. So that was another one. And it got recorded too.
Talk about the tour with Dierks Bentley and Cam.
“Somewhere on a Beach.” Dierks Bentley, he literally is one of the coolest people I know. Just great, great guy, humble. He connects with his fans in a way that you rarely see at that level.
And I remember, I think the first time I went out with Dierks, we were out with Miranda Lambert, and we spent probably three or four weeks out on tour with them and got to know him and his band and everybody, and we became instant buddies. And then later on, I think the next year, he asked if I wanted to go do a fall tour with him, and we did. We went out for probably two months and did a fall tour, went all through Canada, just had a blast.
And it’s just another one of those things that just naturally, it’s a natural fit with his band and crew and my band and crew and he and I, and everybody just sorta—it’s a big love fest. We all worked together well, and we love each other’s music, and he’s so great. So we’re very excited to be going out and hanging out with him again.
And Cam, God, I love her voice, I love what she’s about, I love her music. And so I’m really excited to be out as a part of this tour. I think it’s a really good package.