Randy Houser’s Regressive Country Wins Big At SRO Ryman Debut

Randy Houser
Ryman Auditorium
March 20

Randy Houser makes his debut at Nashville’s Mother Church. Photo by Sean O’ Halloran

At 46, Randy Houser defies all odds. His last hit came in 2015, the heroic “Like A Cowboy,” which was nominated for the coveted Country Music Association Song of the Year Award. Stocky, sweaty, and without a major label, to many on Music Row, the man who was making his Ryman Auditorium headlining debut would be well past his prime.

To the sold-out crowd, with tickets so hard to come by the head of Sony Music Publishing had to walk in the back door, Houser took the stage at the famed Nashville venue as a conquering hero. Standing ovations for the power-baritone, with a voice that grips like thick-tread industrial tractor tires, erupted the moment the denim-clad songwriter walked onto the hallowed stage. Affable, humble and clearly thrilled by the response, he explained he wanted to start with a new song. With little fanfare and a lean four-piece band, he kicked into “Still That Cowboy,” a hard midtempo that suggested people like him endure no matter what.

Merely a few back lights on stands behind Houser, there were no production tricks. Harkening back to a time when country stars came, played hard and sang truth, Houser’s show spoke more of Merle Haggard’s prime, or Waylon Jenning’s – suggesting an era where songs that contained adult lives were created to give people of a certain age music that held their reality.

Call it regressionist country, but for Houser, it is vital and potent; far more compelling than the same six tropes and 20 allusions (with brand names!). Houser graduated from chasing radio to creating a path beyond Music Row’s conventional wisdom of how careers are built.

A Mississippi-born and -raised songwriter, responsible for Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” and Justin Moore’s “Back That Thing Up,” Houser’s more natural environs are a sultry intersection point of swampy funk and Southern soul that invokes Leon Russell or the swelter that defines Muscle Shoals. John Henry Trinko’s keys moved from holy roller sanctification to B-3, evoking clouds of steam to bare bones juke joint-playing.

Randy Houser performs at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville March 20, 2022. Photo by Sean O’ Halloran

Like Willie Nelson, who found the sound in his mind by eschewing the game, Houser’s country now seems a better fit. Whether the middle-aged people raising glasses, the yowling-along 6’5” teenager in the third row who would not sit down or the senior citizen in his Veteran ball cap, this crowd came seeking something. Not flash, not a party, not something crazy, but – perhaps – someone who understands trying to stretch paychecks to the end of the month, making love stay and honoring the pain of things falling apart.

When fellow secessionist Jamey Johnson walked onstage and Houser noted his friend having been asked to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry over the weekend, the crowd lost its collective mind. Johnson is a gravel-voiced, low-impact, high-intensity vocalist – also an outlier. The pair clearly called an audible, playing a slow and almost erotic escape ballad “Evangeline” from Houser’s 2019 Magnolia before Johnson’s 2009 Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association Song of the Year “In Color.”

Honest, straight-forward, the lived-in voices offered a communion with the audience. People stood, swaying throughout, suggesting there’s a place in this world for unadorned country. For working people, who may not do TikTok, SiriusXM, Spotify or Apple Music, these songs offer a refuge and a rallying point.

Yes, there were hits – “How Country Feels,” “Runnin’ Out of Moonlight,” “We Went,” “What Whiskey Does” – and covers – a romping take on Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee,” a Dierks Bentley duet on Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt’s honky-tonking “The Whiskey Ain’t Working.” Crowd-pleasers, they landed as intended.

But the harder than recorded version of “No Stone Unturned,” heavy with the details of Houser’s search for self after a career that’s taken a more difficult path, and the slow blues “No Good Place To Cry” was where Houser demonstrated his truest self. Notes attenuated for emotion, throwing maximum heat from the quiet and growling at the top of his register, he brought the sort of witness to his vocals that transcends genres.

For Houser, the songs and the music are his life. No turning back, no choice – only forward motion, facing what’s ahead and forging a sound that may – without fanfare – also carry a lot of true believers blinking from the harsh light of Music Row’s faux neon to a country music that truly moves them.