The first time I heard a Randy Howard song it was being sung on Hank Williams III’s debut album Risin’ Outlaw from 1999. “I Don’t Know” was the name of the tune, but the name “Randy Howard” really didn’t resonate as anything other than yet another country songwriter I barely knew about, until I saw it re-appear on Hank3’s 2006 opus, Straight to Hell in the form of the song “My Drinkin’ Problem.” Doubling back and seeing this same name twice, that’s when I decided some digging might be worthwhile, and discovered the criminally overlooked musical contributions of the “All American Redneck.”
Nowhere near a household name, and only respected by the peers who knew of him, Randy Howard was the quintessential country music undiscovered underground cult hero. When we talk about the country music underground, the historical perspective usually focuses mostly on recent memory. Hank3 and others are given credit for forming a DIY collective in country where there had never been one before, but Randy Howard was one of the forefathers of forging true creative freedom, and using that freedom to cover subjects once thought to be taboo in country, while speaking out about the troubles and travails country artists face on Music Row.
Though Hank3’s Straight to Hell is cited as the first major label CMA-based album to carry a Parental Advisory sticker, that’s only because Randy Howard’s All-American Redneck from 1983 was released before Parental Advisory stickers were even around. Nonetheless, the album’s salty language made it the very first country release officially sold with a warning, and just like Hank3’s Straight to Hell, it somehow made it out to the public through a major label.
The Warner Bros. released All-American Redneck was not Randy Howard’s only record, but it was his most lasting. The title track became a cult hit, and the fans who knew of Randy regarded him as a country music folk hero. But as often is the case when talking about country music Outlaws and renegades like Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck, and David Allan Coe, spectators and even many fans tend to focus on the sharp-edged language and bellicose chest-puffing of some of the most popular songs, while beneath the hardscrabble surface are examples of excellent songwriting, tearful balladry, and an overall well-rounded, enjoyable, and at times inspiring musical experience.
The song “All-American Redneck” was a rambunctious and crude country music rumpus in a similar vein of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother,” yet leaving little to the imagination with F-bombs and other bawdy language that marked one of the first times many country music fans had heard adult language in country except for maybe David Allan Coe’s XXX albums. “All-American Redneck” was taking offensive slang and assigning it as a badge of honor—something that was pretty groundbreaking in the early 80’s. Meanwhile a song like “My Nose Don’t Work No More” about snorting certain substances reinforced Randy Howard’s renegade image, even if the song was more of a cautionary tale if understood correctly.
Yet core fans of Howard’s didn’t stop listening there. “Atlanta’s Burning Down” might be the most emotion-laced song that uses the romance of The Civil War as a backdrop that there is behind The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” “Julie I’m Getting Married” is an A-list country love song if I’ve ever heard one, embodying a tearful sentiment that’s unfortunately all too true for many. “God Don’t Live in Nashville Tennessee” was a country protest song before country protest songs were chic, and spoke directly to Howard’s personal experience in the business. And “I Don’t Know” is one of the most delightfully-confounding songs in the history of country music. It says so much by doing its best to not say anything at all.
Randy was a songwriter first, and it would be a stretch to call him a crooner. You listen to All-American Redneck for the songs—including his cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia On A Fast Train.” The album is also excellently-produced, pure vintage country by Howard’s long-time collaborator Paul Hornsby.
Randy Howard was killed on June 9th, 2015 in his log cabin home in Lynchburg, TN in a shootout with bounty hunters. They were serving a bench warrant stemming from a DUI Howard had been charged with that was likely going to be dismissed after the blood test came back proving he was below the legal limit. Randy Howard is gone but his music lives on for eternity, especially All-American Redneck for not just its pure country enjoyment and well-rounded songwriting, but its influential impact on the futures of Outlaw and underground country music.
Two Guns Up.
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Note: The album All-American Redneck is officially out of print, but the majority of the songs, and many of Randy Howard’s best tracks can be found on The Best of Randy Howard.