October 28, 2021

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‘Marfa Tapes’ Bring Jon Randall to Center Stage

“That sounded great,” Randall assures them.

One of the stumbling blocks among creatives is the uncertainty of the work. A gravedigger knows he has done the job when a box fits six feet underground. An accountant can clock out when the books are balanced. But in entertainment, every rule is breakable, and every standard is subject to the whims of the audience.

It feeds an unending sense of vulnerability among the creative class, and that’s one of the reasons the Academy of Country Music named “Tin Man” — penned by the three Marfa artists — song of the year in 2019: It exposes the ultra-fragile nature of the human heart.

It’s also one of the reasons that many of Nashville’s musical creators turn frequently to Randall. His soothing, reedy voice conveys a level of comfort and makes it easy to embrace the heartache and turmoil that inform his material, whether he’s working as an artist, a songwriter, a musician or a producer.

“I grew up a bluegrass kid, so at 6 years old, I’m singing every lyric to ‘Little Sadie,’ where he kills his lover and throws her in the river,” says Randall. “You know, they sound happy, but they’re all dark songs. So I’ve always been drawn to those darker melodies and the darker lyrics. ‘Whiskey Lullaby’ [which Randall co-wrote with Bill Anderson] is a great example of that in my mind. All that internal, artistic stuff that I dig around in, it can be pretty dark.”

Ironically, as America crosses its fingers about emerging from a year of COVID-19 bleakness, Randall’s fortunes look rather bright. He produced the current Parker McCollum single, “To Be Loved by You” (No. 46, Country Airplay); directed a forthcoming Chase Bryant album, Upbringing, that finds the singer-songwriter in commanding voice after a 2018 suicide attempt; is in the middle of production on Lambert’s and Dierks Bentley‘s next solo projects; released his own EP, Neon Texas, on April 2; and has a full album arriving this summer. And there’s a spare track, “Keep On Moving,” that exudes the Random McNally wandering spirit of a creative soul following his own compass, even if it leads to a lonely place.

“When I am in a dark spot or depressed, whatever we call that, I really want to be left alone,” explains Randall. “Before I was married and had kids and all that, it was not uncommon for me to just disappear, and no one had any idea where I was for a couple of days. I wasn’t in a hotel room getting all drunk and weird. I’d just get in the car and disappear.”

That sense is deep in The Marfa Tapes, recorded by Randall, Ingram and Lambert with producer-engineer Brandon Bell (Zac Brown Band, Steep Canyon Rangers) in remote Marfa, Texas, midway between El Paso and Del Rio. It was in that isolated getaway that the trio penned “Tin Man” during a shadowy valley in Lambert’s life, and the 15-track collection — cut with atmospheric wind gusts and border patrol aircraft authenticating its mostly outdoor locale — conveys a sense of weighty experience. When the guitars stop and the silence overtakes them, the artistic uncertainties flare up again in some of the post-performance chatter.

“I loved keeping a lot of that stuff in there just because that’s how we are with each other,” says Randall. “[We’re] letting everybody kind of see just how our groove is and how our friendship rides musically, and [that] our friendship and our music go together.”

Randall’s national introduction came through his membership in Emmylou Harris‘ former band, The Nash Ramblers, a stellar ensemble that included mandolinist Sam Bush and bassist Roy Huskey Jr. A 1992 appearance at the then-dilapidated Ryman Auditorium inspired the building’s renovation. Harris, whose career has been marked by sharp artistic turns and unpredictable choices, encouraged Randall’s individuality.

“I learned to be very open-minded musically,” he says of his time in The Nash Ramblers. “She gave me a great piece of advice: ‘You just have to make your music the way you make your music and let it live or die. It’ll find where it’s supposed to go. And if it doesn’t, at least you did it on your terms.’ “

Randall admits he didn’t always follow that advice, but the looming wave of releases — solo work, the Marfa trio and his productions — show his adaptability to a range of song styles and collaborators. He operates as a leader on his own material, a friend in his collaborations and an advisor in his production efforts, which occasionally feature background contributions from his wife, singer-songwriter Jessi Alexander (“I Drive Your Truck,” “Drink on It”).

Now that it appears that pandemic isolation may be heading to a close, Randall’s associates are all itching to hit the road, and the breadth of his recent creative efforts are coming in a wave as they start launching music to support their live dates. For Randall, his projects provide an overriding sense that he is now following Harris’ model, making music that reflects his personal journey through the emotional tumbleweeds of an uncertain occupation.

“Getting to put music out on my own again after kind of helping a lot of other people do it, it’s been really good,” he says. “I feel like I’ve been given the go-ahead by the universe and by my great artist friends. I mean, all of these people I’m working with are fans of my music, and they’re like, ‘Man, you’ve got to put that out.’ It feels good to have that permission.”

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.

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