When Randy Houser sang the ballad “Like a Cowboy” at Vanderbilt Stadium in July 2015 during Luke Bryan’s Kick the Dust Up Tour, the video camera zoomed in on his face during a powerful, elongated high note.
Houser’s mouth was so wide open that the fillings in his teeth were visible, and his head was tilted back just enough that it almost seemed as if his face had disappeared. The physical image matched the sonic wallop: Houser was committed to the emotion in the song, and every piece of his bronchial channel was unobstructed, allowing 100 percent of that feeling to find its way into the speakers.
“I’m totally immersed when I get into it like that,” says Houser at his publicist’s office near Nashville’s Belmont University. “I’ll sort of disappear into it and close my eyes, and just let it fly. It is a leap of faith. It’s almost like you open your mouth and whatever God intended to come out, comes out, good or bad.”
The good far outweighs the bad with Houser, who’s highly regarded among his fellow country artists.
“He undeniably is the best male vocalist we’ve got in country music,” enthuses Chris Janson. “That dude can sing his butt off.”
Houser gets a chance to demonstrate that on “Song Number 7,” a title Janson co-wrote with Justin Wilson (“Kiss You in the Morning,” “Later On”) and Ben Hayslip (“It Goes Like This,” “When She Says Baby”) in early 2015. It’s actually single No. 2 from Houser’s new album Fired Up, released to radio via Play MPE on March 11, the same date the album went on sale. At the time, Fired Up’s lead single, “We Went,” rested at No. 1 on Country Airplay, creating some anticipation for “Song Number 7.”
In reality, the new single was song No. 2 during the writing session at This Music, the Nashville publishing company that represents Hayslip. Wilson, who was running late that day, had been playing Coldplay’s “Paradise” repeatedly for a couple days, and as he sat at a red light on Grand Avenue at 16th Avenue, just two blocks from This Music, he was running through potential song titles. He toyed unsuccessfully with “Album Cut,” but it morphed into “Song Number 7,” which he thought had some potential, especially because he could envision the same sort of ringing echo in the chorus that’s key to the Coldplay song.
“I was stuck on this repetitious thing — ‘Song number seven, seven, seven,’ ” says Wilson. “The Coldplay song, it was like, ‘Para, para, paradise.’ I was listening to that for like two days, and I wanted to do something similar to that. Obviously not copy it, but something similar to it.”
When Wilson arrived at This Music, Hayslip and Janson were already 10 minutes into working on another song, “Before I Ever Knew Ya,” so he dived in with them, and they crafted it quickly. As Janson and Wilson packed up, Hayslip started aimlessly noodling around on the guitar, and he locked into a chord progression that resonated with Wilson. The sound was perfect, announced Wilson, for this title that he had concocted: “Song Number 7.”
“Ben just stopped,” recalls Wilson. “He looked at me, and he goes, ‘We’re writing that right now.’ ”
Hayslip’s progression became the foundation for verse No. 1, which kicks off with a reference to “song No. 1,” an unnamed hit that gets everybody in a fictitious party setting to sing along. The writers developed the story sequentially, ending the first stanza with a woman at the party cozied up to the singer on song No. 3 of the CD.
At the chorus, Wilson broke out into the “Song Number 7” title and the “seven, seven” echoes that cement the hook.
In verse No. 2, the couple gets lost in itself, and the surroundings become more important — the reflection of the stars in her eyes, the smell of hickory and a poetically described Georgia evening: “the midnight blue behind a red-dirt moon.”
“I come from red dirt,” notes Hayslip. “I think [that phrase] gets overused sometimes, but from guys like me who actually come from that, you want to write about it because you love it so much.”
Through the first two minutes, “Song Number 7” could be perceived as a one-night stand, but at the bridge, the writers called on music’s nostalgic capabilities. In a short three lines, they reframe the song as the story of a well-established couple hitting repeat on song No. 7, effectively reliving the night they met.
“We didn’t want to just make it another random back-of-the-truck-bed hook-up song,” says Janson. “We’re all three happily married, so we wanted to infuse that in it.”
Janson’s “Buy Me a Boat” hadn’t yet broken out, and while he had ambitions as an artist, he thought “Song Number 7” was ideal for Houser. Wilson, meanwhile, has a range and a tone similar to Houser, so they had him sing lead on the work tape with Janson and Hayslip chiming in on the “seven, seven” echoes. They arranged a quick demo session for both of the day’s titles at Luke Wooten’s Station West, and since Wilson’s publisher, Magic Mustang, is under the same BBR umbrella as Houser’s label, Stoney Creek, it didn’t take long for the song to get into Houser’s hands.
“When you hear it you can’t help but start singing along with it,” says Houser.
He already had six songs finished for Fired Up, and producer Derek George (Joe Nichols, Chase Bryant) booked Sound Stage for another round to make sure the writers let them keep “Song Number 7.” It came together so fast that Houser was still learning the song during the tracking session, which relied heavily on drummer Lonnie Wilson and bassist Michael Rhodes to fatten up the midtempo foundation.
“I remember as we were listening to the demo, Lonnie looking at me and giving me a wink like, ‘Yup, this is a big one,’ ” says George. “We all had a discussion after the demo was over that we had to toughen it up a little bit.”
Russell Terrell sang the echoes on the finished version, and Houser rifled through the final vocal in George’s basement studio, tapping into that full, unobstructed emotion on the “song No. 7” hook in the chorus.
“When he can just really milk a big, ol’ long word, that’s where Randy lives,” says George. “That’s his whole wheelhouse, so it was a really easy vocal to get.”
BBR CEO/president Benny Brown initially sequenced Fired Up with “Song Number 7” in one of the first four slots, where iTunes shoppers would be more likely to preview it. But Houser, according to George, convinced Brown to make “Song Number 7” track No. 7 on the CD.
With the CD fading as a medium, it brings the song’s long-term future into question. Spotify, for example, does not number the tracks in a playlist. Will listeners relate to the message in 10 years when streaming is dominant? That was never a concern for the writers.
“I just try to write songs that are hits right now,” says Hayslip. “We’ll worry about the future later.”
Things are looking great for the single today. It debuts at No. 43 on the current Country Airplay chart, even though the tracking period closed just two days after its official release. Houser, who thinks the emotion is far more important than that pesky numbering system, figures that even when the CD itself is nostalgic, “Song Number 7” will still ring true to people, whether they see it as the seventh song in a CD or a playlist.
“It’s got a chance,” says Houser, “of hanging out awhile.”