Jon Randall has roamed a lot of highways trying to find his audience over the course of 20 years in the music business. A gifted tenor vocalist with pure bluegrass instincts and a modern country-rock edge, he has been a sideman for the likes of Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Lyle Lovett, and Lee Ann Womack. During that time, three critically lauded but weak-selling albums left his solo career dead in the water, until he renewed his focus on songwriting. Now best known as the award-winning co-writer of Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss's hit "Whiskey Lullaby," Randall returned to the recording scene as a solo artist with the 2005 Epic album Walking Among the Living.
From a Musical Family
Born Jon Randall Stewart, he was introduced to music by his father, a full-time Dallas policeman and part-time bluegrass musician. Randall told Country Standard Time that both parents played music in their spare time and made it a family event. "We would go to bluegrass festivals all over Texas and Oklahoma…. My dad started teaching me chords when I was about six and bought me a guitar…. I grew up playing bluegrass and listening to murder ballads," he added, "so, it's made me tend to write on the dark side sometimes."
Randall's father was also passionate about songwriting, which rubbed off on his young son. Randall observed, "Looking back, I started trying to write songs as soon as I could put chords together. I wanted to say my own thing. My dad wrote songs and he was a big influence in that area. He wrote some really great songs. That's kind of how we ended up co-writing 'North Carolina Moon.'… When I was in high school, we had written a couple of songs for my bluegrass band. He had written this chorus…. I found it in my notebook a few years ago and sat down and finished the story up, so it turned out to be pretty special."
Discovered By Emmylou Harris
After playing everything from traditional country to ZZ Top covers in various high school bands, Randall set out for Nashville where, after a short-lived stint with a bluegrass band called the Prairie Dogs, he became a sideman out of necessity. "When I moved to Nashville, I had gone on the road with Holly Dunn as just a rhythm guitarist and harmony singer," he remembered. "Then Emmylou [Harris] called. She was looking to put this acoustic band together…. When she asked me to join the band I said, 'Yeah, I'd love to be in your band, but I don't play that well.'… Then she said, 'Well, start woodshedding because you're going to now.'… So, I actually went to school in the back of a tour bus with all these legendary guys showing me stuff. I learned on the fly and on the stage."
Winning a Grammy for his contributions to Harris's 1992 disc Live at the Ryman, Randall's pure bluegrass-based voice and youthful good looks eventually attracted the attention of RCA, where he was signed, and he shortened his name to Jon Randall. However, rather than developing new young talent, the label had other plans, which in the mid-1990s included turning out quick hits from tried and true songwriters and performers. Despite pockets of support, RCA put Randall's 1995 debut, What You Don't Know, on a promotional back burner and it quickly faded from notice. A second album, titled Great Day to Be Alive, was planned but never saw the light of day. His only composition for that aborted project, "By My Side," a duet single with country superstar Lorrie Morgan, made it to number 18 on the charts. Later that year Randall and Morgan married, but they divorced in 1999.
Career Hampered By Bad Luck
Stylistically, Randall's 1998 move to Elektra/Asylum seemed a natural one, and his album Cold Coffee Morning boasted a strong traditional country feel and guest appearances from Morgan and Willie Nelson. The title track became a minor chart single, and then misfortune struck. "Asylum went out of business before my summer tour," recalled the artist, "and we were really relying on their tour support to get out there." His streak of tepid luck continued at the independent Eminent label with the Americana-flavored offering Willin'. Full of Randall's own reflective compositions and guest harmonies, courtesy of Emmylou Harris and Kim Richey, the disc garnered strong reviews before that label bit the dust.
Randall bided his time touring with Sam Bush's band, and cut two albums, Glamour & Grits and Howlin' at the Moon, for the Sugar Hill label. He performed as Patty Loveless's duet partner on her Mountain Soul and Bluegrass & White Snow albums, but the artist's chief source of income now came via his work as a sideman and back-up vocalist for Lyle Lovett, Linda Ronstadt, Earl Scruggs, John Cowan, and many others. Through these endeavors Randall earned a living, but made little progress as an individual artist. "I had some really great fun gigs, but I just kind of got sidetracked," he recalled.
Songwriting Saved His Career
During the early 1990s Randall had a five-year publishing deal with Sony Tree. By 2003, he was tiring of life as a sideman and was ready to settle down and write. When music publisher Ree Guyer-Buchanan asked him to stick around Nashville and write for her company Wrensong, Randall couldn't resist the opportunity. "I made a commitment…. I got off the road and quit for a year to just stay home and focus on my writing." As Randall saw it, the risk was worthwhile. "I had a great opportunity with a great publishing company to write songs … and not be trapped in the system so much. So, I took the jump. I didn't know what I was going to do in the solo thing. I was still debating, but I wanted to focus on writing."
For the Record …
Born Jon Randall Stewart on February 17, 1969, in Dallas, TX; son of Ronnie and Rosie Stewart; married Lorrie Morgan (a country singer), 1995; divorced, 1999.
Country music singer, songwriter, and sideman, 1989–; toured with country singer Holly Dunn, 1989; hired by Emmylou Harris for her band the Nash Ramblers, 1991–1996; recorded for RCA, 1995; worked as guitarist and harmony singer in bands led by Sam Bush and Lyle Lovett and in various studio projects for other artists, 1995–2006; signed with Elektra/Asylum 1998; recorded for independent Eminent label, 1999; signed with Epic, 2005.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Country Performance By A Duo or Group With Vocal, for Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers at the Ryman, 1992; TNN/Music City News Award, Vocal Collaboration of the Year (with Lorrie Morgan), 1997; International Bluegrass Music Award (as contributor), Recorded Event of the Year, for Livin' Lovin' Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers, 2004; CMA Song of the Year Award (co-writer, with Bill Anderson) for "Whiskey Lullaby," 2005.
Addresses: Record company—Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211, website: http://www.sonynashville.com. Management—Monty Hancock Management, 2 Music Circle South, Ste. 212, Nashville, TN 37203, phone: (615) 255-9000. Booking—William Morris Agency, 1600 Division St., Ste. 300, Nashville, TN 37203, phone: (615) 963-3000. Website—Jon Randall Official Website: http://www.jonrandall.com.
Once Randall committed to writing full-time, fresh opportunities developed. He met John Grady, before he was the president of Sony. After becoming president, Grady brought Randall on board. Continued Randall, "He calls me and says, 'Man, I know where your head is and what kind of records you want to make. I think you should come over here and make it.'"
Prior to Grady's offer, Randall had written a bonafide smash with country legend Bill Anderson, titled "Whiskey Lullaby." Although they had written a classic love-you-till-I die country song, neither Randall nor Anderson thought anyone would ever record it. "We thought it was a guilty pleasure—a country song written just for us. So, we were really surprised when Brad [Paisley] came to the table. We didn't write it as a duet. I thought it was a great idea that they put Alison [Krauss] on that." Paisley and Krauss's rendition of "Whiskey Lullaby" hit number three on the country charts and number 41 on the pop charts. Moreover, it gave Randall an identifiable song to use on his new album for Epic.
Although he was happy to finally make his mark as a solo artist, Randall believed his years as a sideman paid off with the album Walking Among the Living. "Having experience in the studio and working with musicians, that's so much a part of producing a record. When I made my first record, I was really green in the studio. And having to explain what you want musically is a very important skill." That experience gave Randall access to some high-powered guest musicians such as Jessi Alexander, Sam Bush, John Cowan, Bela Fleck, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, and Patty Loveless.
A true songwriter's album, Walking Among the Living blends acoustic bluegrass picking with electric rock overtones, and balances songs about wanderlust and romantic recovery with themes of palpable heartbreak. "Life isn't always mid-tempo positive," said Randall, "and a lot of times bad things do happen and they need to be talked about. I tend to be able to tell a sad story better than I can a happy one."
Randall's music has begun to reach a wider audience. The positive reaction at live shows—especially from those who recognize "Whiskey Lullaby"—has reaffirmed what he has believed all along. "I've always said, 'If I can just get out and play in front of people, I think I can turn them on to my music.' There's been a lot of false starts and I'm just glad we actually have a record and have a tour. I've never had that."
"What You Don't Know," RCA, 1995.
(With Lorrie Morgan) "By My Side," BNA, 1998.
"Cold Morning Coffee," Elektra/Asylum, 1998.
What You Don't Know, RCA, 1995.
She Don't Believe in Fairy Tales, Elektra/Asylum, 1998.
Cold Morning Coffee, Elektra/Asylum, 1998.
Willin', Eminent, 1999.
Walking Among the Living, Epic, 2005.
Country Standard Time, October 2005.
International Bluegrass Music Awards, http://www.ibma.org/ibma.awards/2004/winners.asp (March 3, 2006).
"Jon Randall," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 3, 2006).
"Jon Randall," CMT.com, http://www.cmt.com (March 3, 2006).
Jon Randall Official Website, http://www.jonrandall.com (March 3, 2006).
Lorrie Morgan Official Website, http://www.lorriemorgan.com (March 3, 2006).
Additional information was obtained from Epic promotional materials and from an interviews with Jon Randall in 2005, from which quotations used in this entry were drawn.
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