Long way around

Jon Randall is thinking about moving back to Dallas, coming home after 12 years in Nashville spent working on other people's projects while watching his own fall apart. Well, he doesn't say the last part, but it's not too hard to finish his sentence. It's a story that's all too familiar: Everyone in Nashville came from somewhere else to be a star, and most of them end up moving back there, broke and broken. Ask Houston Marchman, the local singer-songwriter who wasted six years trying to catch on before he finally caught on to the fact that only a lucky few leave Nashville on a tour bus instead of a Greyhound headed for home. In a town built on clichés, it's the biggest one of them all.

So when Randall mentions his travel plans early in our conversation, he seems to fit the stereotype with room to grow. After all, he's been through two failed record deals -- first with RCA Nashville, later with Asylum Records -- only managing to learn a first-hand lesson in what he calls "classic Nashville industry crap." Yet while Randall may not be a household name, he's never hurt for work in Nashville, spending the better part of this decade as part of Emmylou Harris' backing band, the Nash Ramblers, and becoming one of the city's most popular session musicians, adding his guitar and tenor to songs by Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, and Randy Scruggs, among others. Failure hasn't made coming back to Dallas a consideration. Success has.

"It's the kind of deal where one day I went, 'You know, I've been away from Dallas for 12 years, and I see my family two or three times a year. This is crazy,'" he says. "So I started going back a lot. I've been hanging out there a lot the last couple of months. If I can get my tour schedule together, I'd rather live there than anywhere else. But it's hard, you know, because you kind of need to be here. If you're doing sessions and stuff like that, a lot of times people just call you and go, 'Can you come over and sing on this thing?' That's part of how I make my living, so it's kind of tough. They're not gonna call you if you live 600 miles away."

Randall may not have to wait by the phone anymore. If his new album, Willin' (released on Tuesday), does as well as he hopes, Randall won't have to rely on session work to get by. The disc -- which features guest appearances by Harris, Kim Richey, and Lorrie Morgan -- is the kind of record the Dixie Chicks might have made if they weren't more concerned with being pop stars. Meaning: Randall's bluegrass background is more than just a paragraph in his press kit, yet unlike Allison Krauss or Ricky Skaggs, he doesn't spend so much time looking backward that he trips over the present. While the cover photo of Willin' marks Randall as another brash product of the Nashvegas assembly line (gold satin jacket, carefully mussed moussed hair, chin pubes), the songs are so quiet, they're almost echoes. He strips the arrangements down until there's nothing left to lose, leading to tracks such as "Can't Hurt Anymore," which features his and Harris' voices clinging to each other over Jerry Douglas' dobro.

But Willin' was more of an accident than anything else, the result of Randall and his buddy Brent Truitt trying to figure out how the equipment in Truitt's Monkey Finger Studio worked. Though Randall was still working on a "real" album for Asylum, he soon realized that the simple songs he was recording at Truitt's studio, usually just the two of them and whoever happened to be around, were the ones he needed to concentrate on. The material he was recording for Asylum was what he thought Nashville wanted to hear, but he didn't want to hear it anymore. The music he was making at Monkey Finger was the reason he moved to Nashville in the first place.

"We used to get in there and just play around because we were learning how to use the gear, trying to set up the studio, experimenting with mikes," he says. "We were basically having fun and not thinking about if this was too cool for a country record. We had no boundaries, because we weren't trying to make a record. And then that ends being the stuff that everybody was like, 'Man, that's the coolest stuff that you've ever cut, because it's you.' It's more me than anything I've done, basically because I wasn't thinking about it. So I decided to finish up that project and put it out as a record, because that's what I do."

He's been doing it for as long as he can remember, ever since his father first put a guitar in his hands when he was six years old. While his high-school buddies were sorting out college applications, Randall (still known as Jon Randall Stuart at the time) was thinking about leaving town for other reasons. Like most of Nashville's population, Randall moved there just out of high school, leaving Duncanville -- or "Drunkenville," as he says with a laugh -- to visit a friend and sticking around for a dozen years. "It was like, 'This is what I want to do, so I'm gonna move up here and get in the middle of it,'" he says.

It didn't take Randall long to get in the middle. Shortly after arriving, he met Carl Jackson, a local musician who was friendly with Harris. Jackson passed along one of Randall's tapes to her, and soon, Randall was a member of the Nash Ramblers, which included former Flying Burrito Brother Al Perkins. "I went over to her house, and we sat around and played a couple of songs," Randall recalls. "There was real good blend, so she hired me. That started things rolling for me. I was kind of the rookie, and there were all these hotshot players and artists."

He spent the next six years with Harris, picking up a Grammy along the way for his work on her 1990 album Live at the Ryman. Randall eventually landed his own deal with RCA Nashville, which released his debut, What You Don't Know, in 1995. The record ended his stint in Harris' band, which dissolved shortly after when several other members also decided to branch out on their own, and began Randall's troubles with the music industry. RCA Nashville shelved Randall's follow-up, recorded by legendary Nashville producer Emory Gordy, before cutting him loose. He quickly signed with Asylum Records, realizing too late that he was making a mistake.

But signing with Asylum turned out to be the best thing he could have done, forcing him to the sidelines long enough to come up with a new game plan. He could have sat around and cried in his beer about the sad state his career was in, and he did, until he turned on his television one night and saw friends like Harris and Steve Earle at the Grammy Awards. It finally clicked, and he knew that Willin' was the record he was going to make, whether anyone else cared or not. A decade after moving to Nashville, he was starting over.

"They cut records the way they wanted to cut records, and they were all at the Grammys, nominated for Grammys," Randall says, laughing slightly. "And I'm sitting over here, goofing off with these goofballs at Asylum Records, going, 'What am I doing?' At this point in my career, I figured I would just go in and do what the hell I wanted to do. And if it bombs, it's my fault."