As an in-demand songwriter, producer and musician, the 52-year-old Randall is momentarily emerging from the studio’s shadows to release his first solo LP in 16 years on Sept. 10. In proof the universe occasionally has profound timing, a previously unreleased Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers’ concert from the group's 1990 Nashville debut, Ramble in Music City, is being released the same week as Jon Randall, whose very first professional country music gig was playing guitar and singing in Harris’s band.
Despite the considerable gap between this eponymous new release and his last solo effort, 2005’s Walking Among the Living, these nine compositions arrived much earlier to Randall.
“These are songs that I had collected over the last few years that I’ve been writing, that all fit into this one space, sonically and visually and all that,” Randall says by phone from Nashville. “It was kind of pieced together over a few years, really. Then, all of a sudden, I had a body of work.”
No matter its piecemeal origins, Jon Randall is a gripping, cohesive slow burn, as the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter surrounds his gorgeous tenor with support from Music City mainstays Ian Fitchuk, Jerry Roe, Jerry Douglas and Randall’s wife, Jessi Alexander.
The recurring theme of escape — whether literal or metaphorical — undergirds tracks such as “Tequila Kisses,” “Keep on Moving” or the album’s breathtaking acoustic centerpiece, “Acapulco Blue,” an intensely personal song about Randall's formative days growing up just outside Dallas.
“So much of that story [in ‘Acapulco Blue’] is true,” Randall says. “It was the last piece that I needed for the album — I kept feeling like something was missing. I’ve always wanted to write that song, and I’ve tried to approach it before and could never really make it make sense. … [‘Acapulco Blue’] is so personal to me … I’m proud of that song because I didn’t think I’d ever be able to write it. And then when I did, I felt like I got it right.”
Having finally cracked the code for how to reveal more of himself in his art, his experience with “Acapulco Blue” begs the question of whether this marks the beginning of infusing more autobiography into not only his songwriting but into his other creative work.
“That’s a really good question,” Randall says. “I don’t know the answer because I live in so many different worlds, musically and career-wise. I take it as it comes, if that makes any sense. You always dig [out] some personal experience to try to put into song.”
Randall doesn’t honor his heritage only in song. For all of his A-list collaborations with Dierks Bentley or Kenny Chesney, he has remained a frequent artistic partner and vocal champion of fellow Texans who’ve migrated east to try their hand at country music stardom.
From veterans like Lovett or Lee Ann Womack to relative newcomers like Austin’s Parker McCollum or Arlington’s Maren Morris, Randall’s reasoning for his engagement with so many fellow Lone Star ex-pats is simple: “Texans find each other.
“We all kind of look out for each other,” he continues. “We all just stick together, because we grew up with the Texas thing, but we also grew up on the same music and watching the same things. That’s always in there — no matter how commercial we’re getting, those roots are always there.”
As if to underline his point, Randall’s new solo record arrives on the heels of another triumph: The Marfa Tapes, a rough-hewn masterpiece released earlier this year, which he anchors with Lambert and fellow Texan Jack Ingram (who makes a cameo on Jon Randall to duet on the dryly funny “Girls from Texas”).
The record, cut live in West Texas by the trio with a couple of microphones and a pair of acoustic guitars, is a textbook example of what Randall’s talking about — an indisputably Texas work, and one which has found favor well beyond the state’s borders.
The success of the spare, unadorned The Marfa Tapes, which landed at No. 1 on Billboard’s U.S. Folk Albums chart and cracked the Top 10 of Billboard’s U.S. Top Country Albums chart, caught Randall by surprise.
"I take it as it comes, if that makes any sense. You always dig [out] some personal experience to try to put into song.” – Jon Randall
“I think we all were [surprised], in my mind,” he says, just days removed from cameo appearances during Lambert’s recent three-night run in New Braunfels. “I thought we would just sprinkle it out there, and it’d be a fun thing for Miranda’s fans to listen to. But Miranda doesn’t half-ass anything, so the next thing I know, we’re doing [The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy] Fallon and Ellen.
“It’s just fun to think you can sit around a campfire drinking tequila and turn on a tape player and it connects ... to get to hear that song in its rawest form, and [audiences] actually like that.”
Randall’s dance card remains full, and he says the ongoing pandemic will determine where and when and even if there is an opportunity to promote his solo work beyond the initial release. For now, the immediate future contains more work returning him to a supporting role: Randall and along Luke Dick are producing Lambert’s next studio album, which Randall says they’re “in the middle of” completing.
It will be another record, cut in a Nashville studio, bearing his fingerprints, however discreetly. As to whether another 15 years will elapse before Randall again takes center stage, he allows that the serendipity of the last several months — the triumph of Marfa, juxtaposed with his salad days and latest solo effort — may forestall any lengthy droughts.
“I hate to say it, but I do go through that, [wonderinging] ‘Man, who’s gonna care?’ — going through all that stuff,” he says. “To get a little nudge, and feel like Marfa let me feel like I had a little permission to put [my album] out there — it’s inspired me to start doing some more collaborative things, or Marfa-style things that are just a fun way to get to make some music with your friends, and not be in a band where you ruin a perfectly good friendship.”