Album Review – Randy Houser’s “Magnolia”

Tag Randy Houser’s Magnolia as yet another entry into the evidence file that the era of Bro-Country continues to wane, and it’s slow but steady expiration has allowed the latitude of some established artists to return, giving them the ability to select and record the material of their choosing, and reuniting them with their more natural sound and their own voice instead of being tethered to keeping up with certain fickle trends infecting radio.

Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings, Dierks Bentley’s The Mountain, Blake Shelton’s Texoma Shore, and a select group of other recent mainstream releases all showed a return to the more established and natural sounds of artists, and something that’s at least akin to country music, even if this sonic shift paralleled a lull in commercial performance.

Whether you think Magnolia by Randy Houser is any good depends on your perspective. But from the perspective of an album released in the mainstream where often you’re just happy to get through most of the songs without suffering a drum machine, it’s pretty great. It’s Friday, January 11th, and the first real release day of 2019, and already Randy Houser may have put out one of the best country records you’ll hear from a major label all year. As much as a commentary as that might be on the quality of country’s mainstream these days, credit is also due to Randy Houser.

Randy was never a candidate for the second coming of Guy Clark. He’s a guy’s guy who likes to get drunk on bass boats and co-write with Dallas Davidson. “Heady” would never be a word you would use on Houser. Lest we forget, his John Hancock accompanied Jamey Johnson’s on the embarrassment that is “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” though time surely has cleansed that sin from his portfolio by now.

Randy Houser is also old enough that he comes from the era when country music singers actually had to be able to sing to sign a record deal, and sing well. You also at least had to be able to construct coherent sentences to receive a songwriting contract. Among all the other things the Bro-Country era took from us, it was the ability to hear generational voices like Randy Houser’s do their worst on songs specifically constructed to make them stand out, instead of the melody-deprived pseudo-rap exercises set to hip-hop beats that pervaded the Bro-Country era, and linger on radio today.

Randy Houser not only co-writes all twelve tracks of Magnolia, he sings the shit out of them. You’re almost caught off guard by the power, soul, and potency in his voice in songs like the emotional “Good Place to Cry.” The warble and control he exhibits in “What Leaving Looks Like” is spellbinding beyond the quality of the lyrics and story. Where the hell has this been? Why would anyone supersede this version of Randy Houser to record some B-level Bro-Country material that’s going to be unsuccessful on the radio anyway?

“I started sort of paying for the album out of my own pocket because I honestly thought that once they heard what I wanted to do that they would drop me,” Houser said in a recent interview. “Thankfully, that was not the case. In fact, the label’s reaction was quite the opposite. It’s tough to try to be everything to everybody. I think that it had to fall back down to me making music for me and for fans—not necessarily what everybody expects … It started to feel like that it wasn’t about music as much anymore as it was just entertainment. That’s not who I am. I was getting caught up in making a show bigger and bigger because that’s what’s expected on those huge tours that I was doing. I got rid of a lot of tricks, tracks, lights and stuff and just wanted to come back to the music. Let’s start it from there again and see where it goes, you know?”

That’s not to say Magnolia isn’t without material to second guess. “New Buzz” feels very much like trend chasing, even if the production by Keith Gattis keeps it grounded. “Nothing On You” co-penned with Jaren Johnston feels pretty listy and rehashed. Remember, it was guys like Randy Houser who helped set the table for Bro-Country with list-like lyrics and an over-reliance on buzzwords like “backroad” and “beer.” It’s not his fault that it all became so prevalent and overdone, but it still injures songs if they remind you of these worn out trends.

The degree of country-ness of this record is also a fair concern, not because Houser veers into the whole R&B/hip-hop territory, or comes out with blazing arena rock guitars like Jason Aldean. It’s a country record, but one that brings a lot of soul to the tracks, really centering everything around Randy Houser’s voice, which is smart with how spectacular it comes across. Consider it the Stapleton effect. The red bearded one’s non-radio success with material he wrote himself is one of the underlying reasons a record like Randy Houser’s Magnolia is able to see the light of day, and you hear those influences come through. Though this project is styled more soulfully perhaps, it’s still a Randy Houser record, at least indicative of his early career.

This record isn’t deep, but it’s deep for Randy Houser. The way he sings this record, even the simple and silly songs sound meaningful. You don’t feel stupid listening to a song like “Mamma Don’t Know” or “Whole Lotta Quit.” They’re fun.

Magnolia might not be great. But it’s great for Randy Houser, and great for a mainstream release, which means it’s great for country music, even if it may not be great for you. The trend of country music reverting back to quality continues, and now Randy Houser has contributed his exemplary voice to this movement.

1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)

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