When Randy Houser decided to go back to basics for his fifth studio album, Magnolia, out Friday, he wasn’t sure how his label, Stoney Creek, would feel about the change.
“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,” he says. Thankfully, that was not the case. In fact, the label’s reaction was quite the opposite.
“Whenever they saw that passion, they said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to open up a little budget and see what you come up with.’ I played it for them and they said, ‘Let’s go finish making the record.’ They were really onboard from day one. Stoney Creek has always been a solid place for me to be as an artist.” Houser has recorded for the label since his third studio album, 2013’s How Country Feels.
Houser, who produced the album with Keith Gattis and co-wrote every track, strived to straddle the line between being radio-friendly and maintaining his own musical integrity.
“It’s a tough to try to be everything to everybody,” Houser tells Billboard. “I think that it had to fall back down to me making music for me and for fans — not necessarily what everybody expects.”
Houser compares his emotions going into the recording of the album as matching those of Dusty Chandler, George Strait’s character in 1992’s Pure Country. It was time for him to slow down things a bit — and focus on what brought him to the attention of the fans of country music in the first place — those blues-laden vocals that made such early hits as “Anything Goes” and “Boots On” so memorable.
“I feel that my live show was sort of getting out from under me, just in the fact that there was so much going on stage. It started to feel like that it wasn’t about music as much anymore as it was just entertainment,” he says. “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?”
The project heralds a return to Houser’s traditional country and blues style and is a nod to his Mississippi roots, down to the album title.
“I was probably six years old when my grandmother died, and she was buried down in Jackson under a tree. I remembered looking up at that tree and how beautiful it was with all of those big shiny green leaves. I just thought it was odd,” Houser says. “I remember asking my dad what kind of tree it was. He told me a magnolia tree. That was the first kind of tree that I ever knew what kind of tree it was. There’s not a song on there called that, but the album title resonates as a sort of return home. It’s not just a Mississippi record, it’s sort of signifies a return to myself.”
First single, “What Whiskey Does,” featuring Hillary Lindsey, peaked at No. 36 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart in December. Magnolia is chock full of similarly emotional moments for the singer, including “No Stone Unturned,” which he will perform on Good Morning America on release date.
“I think that is the song that’s probably the most closely related to my life right now. You know, it’s about self-discovery and just the life of a traveling man and I’ve always been, sort of a seeker in my lifetime. I never have really known how to sit still very long. I wrote it with my brother-in-law, Dallas Davidson, who’s a lot like me. It sets the tone for the album because it’s a look inward. That song covers both that and my need to geographically go check stuff out, look around. That’s just about living life and being on the go and that being just who you are.”
Magnolia closes with the romantic “Evangeline,” written with James Otto. “I was reminiscing about all the things we did in junior college. We would take off from class at Central Community College where I went to school for a couple years. We would just take off after class and drive down to New Orleans and spend all night, hang out, then drive right back in the early morning and be back for class. Those memories stay with you. I know they have with me.”
In addition to the album, Houser will also release a documentary on the making of Magnolia, that includes live performances and a narrative. He feels that it’s a story that deserves to be heard. “I was sort of lost there for a little bit. I didn’t know exactly what it was that I wanted to do,” he says. “I just knew that what was the status quo out there, what was sort of the popular [thing], there’s just too much of it. I didn’t want to be in a situation where I was making another one of the same albums that everybody makes so they can just stay in the cool kids’ corner. I had to go off and make an album that felt like me. Then, I could really come back and hold my head up and be proud of what I’m doing. This is what I’m going to continue to do.”