Randy Houser spent the first four years of his recording career — which contained two albums and a pair of hit singles — establishing himself as one of country’s burly tough guys.
But now, after only one of his three singles from 2010’s “They Call Me Cadillac” eked its way into the country Top 40, he’s back with “How Country Feels,” a buoyant, hook-filled outing that seems to have the Mississippi native angling for Nashville’s softer, feel-good center.
And yet to hear the singer tell it, his new album’s lighter, upbeat mood is less a product of commercial calculation than a reflection of where his life is at right now.
“It has a happier vibe because I’m a happier person than I was on my last album,” said the 37-year-old Houser, who got married and became a father during the past year. “I wanted to make a record that was something fun for people to just put on and listen to. I wasn’t trying to change the world.
“Usually I depend on myself to write everything, but now I have a little boy,” he went on to say, speaking by phone from Panama City, Fla., after playing a benefit show for the Children’s Advocacy Center. “I’m learning how to be a daddy and a husband. I didn’t have as much time to commit to the writing. I had to rely on other folks more.”
Houser also sought creative direction from fellow Mississippian Derek George, who is a more pop-conscious producer than he has used on his previous recordings. “Derek is a fairly slick producer who knows how to do all the tricks,” he explained. “He’s not into them so much that he goes overboard, but he knows how to get those hooks and sounds tricked out for radio. He definitely brought a more modern touch to what I do.”
In the absence of any clear inheritors to the thrones of Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, Houser’s decision to lighten up and apply more of a sheen to his new album’s 15 tracks already seems to be paying off. The record’s lead single and title track sits at No. 2 on the country chart and is almost certain to secure the top spot by month’s end.
Houser’s recent makeover also seems to be widening his already considerable audience.
“It’s all sorts of people from all walks of life,” he says of the faces he sees in the crowd at his concerts now. “I’m talking about everybody from hard-core biker dudes to 14-year-old girls. Mothers and grandmothers, too. It’s all types, and that’s what’s really gratifying to me, that broad fan base.”
The question, of course, inevitably arises: Is Houser’s new album as satisfying, both in terms of sonics and substance, as its predecessors? Or has his music suffered from a dumbing down of approach? He uses the word “fun” to describe a handful of the album’s tracks in the song-by-song commentary included in the record’s press kit. And from lines about rolling in the hay to grabbing a Slim Jim and a Mountain Dew and living the “everlastin’ summer,” there’s certainly no shortage of stock country signifiers among the song lyrics — less than half of which were written or co-written by Houser.
But then there’s “Route 3 Box 250 D,” which rivals anything he’s done — a pitch-perfect but hardly idyllic coming-of-age ballad that questions, among other things, whether God hears prayers.
“There’s a time when you’re making a record when you should share a little bit about where you come from, and that’s that moment on the album,” he said of “Route 3 Box 250 D,” which also sports a great sweeping melody. “It’s a very personal song, and I just needed to get it out. I guess you could say that writing that one was therapy for me.”
The song also proves that regardless of how much varnish is applied to Houser’s rich, purling baritone, you can’t entirely cover up the blues, gospel and R&B influences of his native Mississippi. “I don’t think you can get rid of this drawl,” he said, with more than a hint of pride in his voice. “I think it shows up pretty definitely in my singing and my writing.”
Friskics-Warren is a freelance writer.
Randy Houser is scheduled to perform Friday at Rams Head Live in Baltimore.