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'How Country Feels': Momentum builds for Randy Houser

Admired but under-recognized country singer reflects on fatherhood, first Billboard No. 1

By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music

Randy Houser / ©Stoney Creek
Randy Houser (©Stoney Creek Records)

Randy Houser sits in a conference room quietly strumming his guitar and reading lyrics off his phone that he's simultaneously trying to sing and cram into his brain.

"On top of spaghetti," he sings to himself, "all covered with cheese/I lost my poor meatball/When somebody sneezed."

Five verses later, with the fate of the meatball secured in his memory, Houser is satisfied that he's ready to perform for the patients at Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville later that day.

That kind of charity work has taken on new significance since Houser became a parent to his son West last March, but his 2011 marriage to wife Jessa and the baby's arrival haven't softened his edges. While there may be a few more love songs than usual on his recently released third album, "How Country Feels," there's also tougher material, like "Power of a Song," which includes a verse about a woman fleeing an abusive relationship, and "The Singer," about a flawed musician and the woman who loves him despite all the times "she'd pick him up off of the ground."

There's also the most brutally autobiographical song Houser has ever recorded, "Route 3 Box 250 D." The title was the actual address of Houser's childhood mobile home in Mississippi, and the lyrics about his mother's husband with "a mean streak in his blood" are pulled straight from his own memories. "When he took to drinking, he'd take it out on us," the lyrics say. "I could hear my mamma crying/And that made it hard to sleep." The song goes on to describe a pond where Houser says he'd go to fish and "get away from whatever hell was going on at home."

He calls the song his "therapy," and he recorded it as a demo "just to kind of get it out of my system. The recording ended up being something pretty special," he adds. "On my records, I usually try to put something on there [that's] personal, something that shares a little piece of my life and where I come from. This is maybe the most transparent I've ever been."

He doesn't intend to sing that song onstage unless fans demand it, explaining, "I don't want to take people to a sad place every night." He jokes that he'd have to introduce it by asking the crowd, "'Hey, y'all, anybody feel like doin' some cryin' out there?"

That's not to suggest the album is dark. The balance of the 15 tracks on "How Country Feels" are sunnier, more upbeat, good-timing songs. That includes first single "How Country Feels," which last week became Houser's first-ever No. 1 hit on Billboard's Country Airplay chart and has sold nearly half a million downloads. The closest he'd come previously to the top of the chart was "Boots On," which peaked at No. 2 in 2009. Houser jokes that the song "fumbled at the 1-yard line."

Reacting to having his first No. 1, Houser says, "It's crazy. I can't believe that here we are after all these years. I'm completely humbled."

Houser says he decided to be less "selfish" on this album than on his sophomore set, "They Call Me Cadillac." The new project was specifically geared toward pleasing his fans. The critically acclaimed "Cadillac," meanwhile, is one Houser now calls "an artsy-fartsy record," albeit one he's equally proud of.

"I wanted to try to make something that I thought was relevant in a different way," he says of his second album. "I'm not saying that's never going to happen again. As artists we like to make music for different reasons at different times. This time, I really wanted to not make the record for me; I wanted to make it for country music fans that listen to radio every day ... I wanted a record that people would crank up in their trucks."

Bing: Hear music and see videos from Randy Houser

The new album includes some noteworthy collaborations. Houser, an accomplished songwriter whose tunes have been cut by Trace Adkins, Justin Moore and Chris Young, co-wrote the song "Along for the Ride" with Zac Brown, who helped him finish it when Houser ran into a bit of writer's block. They also started another song that Houser says may make his next record. Fellow country star and Houser pal Lee Brice has a songwriter credit on "Absolutely Nothing." And Houser duets with 2008 "American Idol" top 10 finalist Kristy Lee Cook on "Wherever Love Goes."

"She sang the fire out of it," Houser says of Cook. "I was very proud of her. I don't know if everybody down here in Nashville and the rest of the world knows what a great singer she is."

The same can certainly be said of Houser, who is hands down one of the best male vocalists in Nashville. At a recent Nashville press conference, Dierks Bentley said of Houser, "It's kind of ridiculous how good a singer he is."

But until now, radio and the Nashville music industry have been slow to catch on. Even Houser is reluctant to have his talent described in those terms.

"I hear those things and it's so embarrassing to me because when I listen to anything I do, all I hear is every flaw," he says. Told that he's hard on himself, Houser retorts, "Well, yeah, and I probably should be.

"It's really hard for me to hear accolades," he continues. "That's when I want to duck under a table. I didn't do [music] for that. I do it because I really enjoy it. I love playing music, recording and writing, and hanging out with fans. People telling you you're good, or patting you on the back is not what I got into it for. That freaks me out a little bit."

Houser may not yet be a household name, but he's hardly new to the game. His first charting single, "Anything Goes," was released in 2008, and he was nominated for a CMA Award for New Artist of the Year in 2009, the same year his "Boots On" clip earned Video of the Year nominations from both the CMA and ACM. In 2011, he earned another ACM nomination, this time for New Solo Vocalist of the Year.

In late 2011, he switched from a record label where he felt he was languishing to Stoney Creek Records, part of the label family that also houses Jason Aldean and Thompson Square. At his previous label, Houser says, "We tried several things and we just weren't having any success. I can't really blame anybody for that. That's just the way things happen sometimes. Artists change labels all the time in this town."

Houser was attracted to Stoney Creek, he says, because "a lot of labels around town that have so many artists on their rosters that nobody gets the attention that they deserve. I really needed to go somewhere where I would get the time and attention that you really need to make a career.

"I do feel a difference in the momentum now, and I think part of that, internally for me, is just that I'm in a better place personally than I was before," he continues. "I know how to appreciate things so much more now. I'm really blessed to be able to do what I do, and I think that God probably wanted me to have whatever's coming to me in a time that I would be able to appreciate it."

Among the things he's appreciating most is his new family, which has already started to subtly influence his art.

"It has affected my music, but not in the way that I'm writing songs about lollipops and baby bottles," he says. "It's more [that] there's things I won't sing about anymore because I have somebody that I need to teach right from wrong. Some of the themes that were on my last record I'm not writing about anymore. There's things that I'd rather [West] not know that I thought were OK. That's the biggest change is what I won't say."

Veteran entertainment journalist Phyllis Stark has been reporting extensively on the music industry for two decades. As a freelance writer, her work appears regularly in numerous publications and sites. She previously was Nashville Bureau Chief at Billboard magazine.

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