Jon Randall is one of Country music’s top songwriters and producers having worked with the likes of Dierks Bentley, Emmylou Harris and Maren Morris to name a few.
Earlier this year Randall released ‘The Marfa Tapes‘, a special set of recordings showcasing his collaborations with Miranda Lambert and Jack Ingram. He followed that with his self-titled album, his first in 15 years, in September.
I spoke to Jon recently about his new album, to discuss ‘The Marfa Tapes’ and find out what it’s been like to work with the cream of the Country music stars…
Your self-titled album came out in September. Tell me a little bit about putting it together and why you decided to put it out now…
I’ve actually been sitting on it a little while. It really all centered around the song ‘Streets of Dallas’, which I had written quite a few years back. I decided to record it and had Jerry Douglas come play dobro on it. It started there. Over the next couple of years I would write a song and it slowly became a theme. All of a sudden I had a body of work and a group of songs to finish up the idea. I sat on it for a while. I wanted to put it out before quarantine but we put Jessi Alexander’s record out and then I was gonna put mine out, then quarantine happen. Before that, and up until recently, I’ve been producing so many records, which has been great. I love getting to work in the studio with my friends but my project kept getting pushed back because I was working on other projects and working on other things. Really and truly, having ‘The Marfa Tapes’ come out and being able to throw some of my own music out behind that… Miranda is that one that said ‘look, your last record is 15 years old, and you’ve got a body of work. You just need to put it out after we roll through the cycle of ‘The Marfa Tapes’. People are gonna want to hear some new music’. She really inspired me as well as Jessi and Jack, and a lot of my friends around me. It took a while for me to get it out there but it’s fun to have some music out there now.
I can imagine it’s been hard to find the time because it sounds like you’ve been so busy…
(laughs). I stay pretty busy knock on wood. I’m very lucky. Things are gonna even out a little bit now. A lot of the artists I work with and a lot of artists I write with were told, ‘we don’t know when we’re going to tour. It may be 2022 before we even can look at booking dates’. Around December/January, the promoters started going, ‘well, I think we’re gonna be able to start booking some stuff in the summer of 2021’ and then everyone was like, ‘oh, no, I gotta make a record!’ because everybody was just in limbo. We were all scrambling around here and I got pulled in to work on a lot of records during this time. It’s been a fun blast of a year and then having ‘The Marfa Tapes’ and having my record on the back of that, it’s been pretty fun really.
‘The Marfa Tapes’ is such a special record and it’s amazing to hear you, Miranda and Jack in your element without any production or studio flourishes. What was the concept behind that album?
We had started going down in 2015 to Marfa, Texas to this ranch out there. The first year we were there we wrote a lot of songs in five days. We were just pouring our hearts out and we’d never really written songs together as the three of us. We’d written separately, but not the three of us, and it was just magical when it started happening. We went down another year and over a span of five years we had 20 something songs. We were sitting and listening to these songs on the little work tapes and that’s when the idea (came). We were going to put out the actual work tapes off of the phone but the cows were so loud. There was one trip we were there that they were, I guess, weaning the calves or whatever and it was chaos, and the wind was blowing so hard. We couldn’t get the quality enough to where people could enjoy it. We thought, ‘why don’t we bring cameras down here and film our process and our vibe together, and put a series of these songs out?’ We just put up three microphones, Brandon Bell put up a couple of microphones and Miranda would always make me drink a couple of tequilas because she knew I’d get into production mode and want to go, ‘hey, let’s do that again’ or ‘hey, let’s try this’. She was like, ‘no, we’re gonna go straight up, one pass. This is how we wrote it. This is the thing’. It really was about trying to let people in on that moment and the energy between the three of us.
You mentioned that when the three of you come together it’s magical and the material you’ve created together has been so special. What is that dynamic like?
It’s interesting because we really do all kind of do the same thing. We all play guitar, we all write melodies and we all sing. Every now and then we can get (into it) with, ‘it’s got to be this’ only because we’re fighting for it to be as great as it can be. It’s not like get intense with it. We all have the same bar of what we think a great song is so we’re all striving for that together. We’ll get up in the morning and we’re having a cup of coffee, I’ll pick up a guitar and just start strumming a chord, and next thing you know somebody just starts singing the first line of a song. It’s so organic. That’s what I love about it, it’s not contrived. Even the first time we went there, we were like, ‘hey, we’ve never written together. We might not write any songs. We might just sit around the campfire and tell stories for the next couple of days’ but once we found out that we had that collaborative energy then it just starts flowing. Miranda is right when she says this, but she’s like, ‘we have to not write songs’ because everything somebody says somebody else will turn into a song and we have to go ‘Whoa, no, no. We’re gonna go get Mexican food. We’re not gonna write another song right now’. It’s fun because we have that flow now.
‘Tin Man’ is one of the best songs to come out in Country music in years. Was that the start of this project?
We did write that on the first trip down there but we had also written ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘Wind’s Just Gonna Blow’ and ‘Breakin’ a Heart’… all those were written during that same timeframe. ‘Tin Man’ did come out of that and I love the way that (Miranda) was able to translate that to a studio album, and still maintain all of the vibe that we had when we wrote it.
Moving from ‘The Marfa Tapes’ to your record, sonically the material on your self-titled record is so different. What influences did you draw on for that material?
Every song I’ve ever written starts with just me and an acoustic guitar. I came out of the acoustic world. I toured with Emmy (Lou Harris) and played acoustic guitar and sang with her and did all that. A lot of my songs in their basic form are pretty much done. My thought for doing tracks on anything was if you were watching a movie, what is the soundtrack underneath that story? If I’m telling you that story, what is that vibe that you need, that’s in the picture of the story? That’s the way I always try to approach it. What supports this song that doesn’t get in the way that just makes it look like the soundtrack of the story you’re telling?
You have the instrumental track ‘Ranchero’ on the record, which is so powerful and caught me off guard a little. How did that come about?
I just came up with that riff one day, that little idea on this old vintage guitar I was playing around on. I grew up playing bluegrass music so I grew up flat picking and playing like Tony Ross and Clarence White style guitar… Doc Watson. Not that I’m like those guys but I grew up on all of that so that influence has always been in my guitar playing very, very heavily. It’s funny because when I wrote the song, people laugh at me and they’re like, ‘why did you name it ‘Ranchero’?’ Ranchero was the main street that we lived right off of, and it ran perfectly east and west. it was a real wooded area and when it would rain, and the steam would come off the road and the sun would come out there would be tarantulas running all over the road. You couldn’t help but run over about 10 of them before you got to the house. Tarantulas would be everywhere. That little riff reminded me of all those little tarantulas running around on the street in the summers when I was a kid. I called it ‘Ranchero’ because it fits the theme. I did a little thing where I doubled the guitars, which you would never do in bluegrass, and for bluegrass guys it’s not that complicated of a tune. It’s just kind of a cool little riff and, and really the B part is a little more of a rip off of like something Michael Hedges would do. It’s like Tony Ross in the A part and Michael Hedges in the B part. It was just fun. I just wanted to throw a little thing on there. It’s like a singer-songwriter version of ‘Eruption’ (laughs).
I was looking over all the work you’ve done with other artists and you’ve produced some of Dierks Bentley’s best work like ‘Up on the Ridge’. What’s it like working with people like Dierks who are at the top of the genre?
It’s funny because sometimes I feel like when I’m doing an interview or I’m talking with people it, it tends to get name droppy. I don’t mean to but what I tell people is you have to realise that I came to Nashville in ’87. I was really young and I had record deals and right when I signed my first deal was when Keith Urban, Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney, and these guys all signed their first deals. Later on when I had my second round of that I’m on a label with Miranda and Dierks had just had his first record. I had met Dierks before he even had a deal. We were hanging out at a sports bar with mutual friends. A lot of my business relationships come out of old friendships, people that I’ve known for 20/30 years. They know what I do musically and they know what I bring, and we know how to read each other. When Dierks calls me, it’s my old buddy calling me and going, ‘hey, man, can you help me on this record? I think you’re the guy to help me put this thing together’. I have gotten to work with so many incredible, very successful artists, but most of those relationships are tied way back, or somehow they’re connected with someone I know from way back.
Do you have a preference between singing, songwriting and producing?
Not really. It just depends on the project. Every day I wake up and it’s a different job for the day and I like changing hats. I think if I got stuck in one thing too long, I’d get a little bit stir crazy. One of the things that I do really appreciate is how diverse my world is. How I step in and out of different worlds musically, and it really helps me stay fresh just as an artist. One day I’m writing with a mainstream artist and the next day I’m writing with an Americana artist or I’m writing with a bluegrass buddy, or I’m recording some one-off weird thing with Miranda. Every day is some different thing, or somebody might call me to come sing on a record they’re working on. I just feel like there’s so many opportunities in so many different little worlds of music and getting to work with all my Texas buddies. I’m deeply rooted in Texas, obviously. Every day, it’s a little bit of a different job. I just love making music, whatever that means that day.
That’s the dream, isn’t it? A lot of artists don’t get that opportunity and they get put into that little genre box. I hadn’t realised until I did my research for this interview that you had been responsible for ‘RSVP’ with Maren Morris, which is just a million miles away from ‘Up on the Ridge’ with Dierks Bentley. That’s mind blowing…
(laughs) It’s fun. That’s what I love about it is getting getting to change it up like that. It’s funny because Maren, she’s like, ‘I can’t believe that’s the first song we wrote together’ (laughs). I think she thought too, if we got together to write, we would write something dark and spooky with the strings on it. We were working with a couple of other great writers that day too and so I got to be on the fun side of that track.
Even on the ‘GIRL’ album, it’s one of the more sonically different songs on there. It really does stand out…
Yeah. Well, she can sing anything. You can write anything with her and it can all work. It was fun to get to step out and do that. One day I might be writing an instrumental with somebody and the next day, I just never never know. I’ll take it as it comes. It’s fun.
What else is coming up for you and will you be coming to the UK soon?
I would love to. I miss it. Early on when I was touring with Emmylou Harris, we played the UK a lot. When I put out my first solo record, my built in audience was in the UK and in Europe. I got to come over there and play quite a bit over the years. Now that there’s new music and the world’s opening up a little bit, I’d love to think that I can get over there at some point. As of right now, Luke Dick and I have been lucky enough to work on Miranda’s new record so we’re trying to get her new record finished up. I just got Parker McCollum cut a track, up on Apple with him, that we just finished wrapping up. I’m getting all my production stuff. There’s a couple of things coming up that I’m going to be doing. I’m just being me, I don’t know, I’ll pick up the phone and say yes (laughs). That’s pretty much my thing (laughs).
Jon Randall’s self-titled album and ‘The Marfa Tapes’ are out now. Watch Jon perform ‘Ranchero’ below: