GRAMMY, CMA, and ACM Award-winning artist Jon Randall has recently released his extraordinary self-titled collection – his first solo album in 15 years. Here, we interview Jon Randall about the project, The Marfa Tapes and his relationship with Texas and Nashville.
Hi, congratulations on the new project! What was it like, after all this time, releasing a solo album again?
I didn’t think I’d ever really release anything that wasn’t collaborative. It was kind of fun to get to put some solo music out.
Yeah, it’s kind of weird, I guess, because it’s been such a long time.
Well, I’ve just been working as a producer, helping everyone else make records. I would record a few things up for myself and then I would go start working on another record. There was no time to focus on myself and then I got to the point where I was like, ‘Man, I really do want to put out some music’ – just because it’s fun to make your own music. Once I wrapped up some of these other projects I was working on, I was able to put some stuff out yet. To answer your question, it is a new world out there for releasing music. You don’t have to have a big major label behind you just to get it out for people to hear.
What I loved about the project is it felt so free. It was so authentic, it wasn’t too much production and allowed the songs to speak for themselves but also let production come in where it needed to. It was very much ‘this is who I am,’ a take it or leave it kind of approach, which must be very refreshing.
Yeah, thank you, I’m glad, that makes me feel like I did my job because that’s exactly what I was going for. The little spark for everything was that song called ‘Streets of Dallas,’ it was me and Jerry Douglas on dobro and I kind of wanted to do a record of just really acoustic stuff, but there were a couple songs that just needed that lift and I didn’t want to over overpower it. I definitely wanted the vibe to be underneath that, so I was trying real hard to blend those two thoughts together.
You talk about Dallas and I know you grew up around Dallas. Everyone talks about the Texas country music scene being so different and so unique. What does Texan country music mean to you?
Well, it’s funny, Texans still think we’re our own country. There is a pride that comes with that mentality that we are our own region, because it is such a big state, it’s pretty diverse musically, as well. A lot of great artists have come out of there, and so, there’s a lot of pride in that. It is kind of the regional stories of the people I know and the people that I grew up around and seeing Guy Clark for the first time on Austin City Limits and knowing that you’re in the bloodline of your heroes. I think that’s where the pride for that comes from and where that influence comes from.
Obviously, you’ve been in Nashville now. How have you blended the two?
Well, it’s funny because I grew up playing bluegrass and being a bluegrass musician. I moved up here with some bluegrass musicians because there was a scene in Texas, but all of our heroes were in Nashville, all the cats that we were listening to. We thought that’s kind of where we’re supposed to be. When I did move to town and I met all the Bluegrass people, I realised ‘oh man Guy Clark lives here’. I thought Guy lived in Houston, but Townes Van Zandt lives here, Steve World is here, Rodney Crowell lives here, Gary Nicholson, all these guys. Kristofferson came up, and Willie and Waylon and all those guys, because it was such a songwriters’ town and it was a great place. I think one of the guys said, ‘man, you got to move to Nashville because they love hippie poets there’. That’s how they kind of got here, so when I got it, it kind of felt like I had permission to be here a little bit. If I was hanging out with those guys a little bit, I always have gone back and played in Texas, I’m probably in Austin once or twice a month. I’m in Dallas all the time, so my roots are still split in between the two places.
People always forget that Nashville has so many influences more than just country.
I think a lot of guys came up from Texas and tried to do major label deals and then they hated themselves. They hated Nashville and they hated the labels. It is way beyond Music Row. There’s just so much more here. There’s so many musicians from all over the world, we just have all kinds of fantastic musicians and different music. It’s great because you can reach into those worlds and and learn things from playing with musicians from other parts of the world and sometimes make music together and people that are in different genres are all cross-pollinating. I understand there’s a little bit of mainstream sell out, but there’s so much more to offer than that.
I think that’s what you kind of take away from this record. You look at ‘Tequila Kisses’ and I feel like it’s almost got a more edgy, darker rock side to it and then you’ve got the ones that are much more stripped back and feel more outlaw country. I guess, when you were working out which songs were going to go on this record, how did you kind of go about selecting them? These are the songs that hadn’t found a home, but you write more every day and you’re writing all the time, so there must be 1000s of songs that haven’t found a home elsewhere.
Yeah, I mean, a lot of it was when I started looking through the songs that I was saving and the ones I’d recorded, there became a little bit of a theme in Texas and traveling as part of that theme. It’s a movement record for me and that’s how I kind of was able to tie a little bit of Texas, where I grew up some stories about people I knew, and then I also just love records that you want to roll the window down and drive the backroads on. It started with ‘Streets of Dallas’ that I wrote, because I’d been co writing so much and then I was like ‘I don’t know if I can write a song by myself again’. I decided to write a song by myself and I’m going to just write about something. That got the wheels rolling for me to find that guy again, that used to only write by himself, I found that writer again. A few of those songs were from that journey as well.
Obviously, you had ‘Girls in Texas,’ which was cut by Pat Green, obviously the rest of them have been songs that haven’t been cut, why did that song stick with you as one which you wanted to cut?
So, I produced that record for Pat and I had been working on the road with Lyle, so I got to come do the duet with Pat. It became such a huge song down in Texas, I kind of wanted everybody in Texas to know that I had written it. I love patent law, but come on, it’s really my song. I also had to make it up to Ingram for letting that song get away and not doing it together. We did our version of it, you get me and Jack and it’s still growing, no matter how you slice it.
For this record, you also gave up the reins of production. How did that feel, being a producer yourself?
It’s actually very comfortable with Brandon, we’ve worked on so many records together. I had a pretty clear vision of things. but I need someone outside of myself to make sure we’re getting the sounds right, the vibe and the feeling. Brandon and I have worked on so many projects together, he’s just my partner in crime and when we’re in the studio, it’s very, very comfortable to to have him behind the glass.
I just wanted to briefly talk to you about The Marfa Tapes, it’s one of my favourite records of the year – the transition from ‘Ghost’ to ‘Breaking a Heart’ is magic. How special was that project? I just love it, because it’s a return to the way people used to record records? How special was it to record and spend that time just recording in that way?
Oh, it was really awesome. What’s cool about that record is we didn’t set out to write a record. We were in Marfa writing songs as friends, we were going deep and we were trying to impress each other and do our best Kris Kristofferson and all that lyrically in writing. For us to come back full circle and realise, ‘gosh, guys, there’s a whole body of work here’. If we go in and record everything with bands, it loses what was special to us. Miranda was like, ‘let’s just record it,’ it’s a little bit scary to do that, but once you commit to it, and you just go, ‘Hey, man, this is the deal’. You realise that when people listen to it, they feel like they’re sitting at the campfire with you or they feel like they’re in the room listening to you, you are being a part of it. That’s what kind of made it special and the fact that they’re two of my best friends in the world, and we got to make some music together, it was a dream for us.
It was songs that we had written between 2015 and last year, we had about 20 songs, we would go to Marfa every year. It’s a little getaway, but the three of us can’t help once the fire is gone and there’s a tequila, somebody starts playing the guitar. The next thing you know, we’re writing a song and we can’t help ourselves. It’s really kind of a neat thing, because when we first went down there the three of us had never written together. I’d written with Miranda, I’d written Jack, but the three of us had never written together. So, we didn’t know if we could write songs, we just were going to go hang out. We ended up writing like nine songs in like five days. We had a body of work and we would have just put out the the phone work tapes, but the cows were so loud on some of it and and the wind was blowing so hard. You can manipulate some of that a little bit, but it was more fun to go film it and show us how we are together working.
Well it was such a special finished project, so thank you and thank you for your time today!