Jamey Johnson and Randy Houser Walk Into a Bar …
How do you get two of country music's fastest rising stars to dish dirt on each other? Give them some whiskey. The Boot did just that recently with Jamey Johnson and Randy Houser, longtime friends who have shared parallel journeys from struggling songwriters to acclaimed recording artists.
Jamey, a three-time Grammy nominee and two-time Academy of Country Music Award winner, has won over fans and critics alike with his gritty, raw throwback to the outlaw days of country music. The 33-year-old Alabama native's 'That Lonesome Song' album topped no less than a dozen critics' 'Best of 2008' album lists and just recently hit gold sales status, on the strength of its first single, 'In Color,' a song that paints a heartfelt picture of a true story about his grandfather.
Before Jamey found monumental success on his own, he wrote for other artists around town, including Trace Adkins, who has both Jamey and Randy, along with Dallas Davidson, to thank for his novelty, million-selling hit, 'Honkeytonk Badonkadonk.' It was that song that finally put Randy on the songwriting map, after years of playing in clubs, struggling to make ends meet. And once Nashville took notice of the 33-year-old Mississippi native, it was soon discovered that he also has some seriously powerful pipes. With a voice reminiscent of Brooks & Dunn's Ronnie Dunn, Randy crafted a debut album that proves his talents stretch way beyond his pen. His first single, 'Anything Goes,' was a runaway radio hit that David Letterman loved so much, he booked Randy on his show when it had only been out a few weeks.
The Boot caught up with this talented twosome at Loser's, a dark, smoky bar near Nashville's Music Row that boasts a jukebox full of strictly country music. Under the neon beer signs and posters of Hank Wiliams, we shared a lot of laughs as we presented the two musicians with questions sent in by our readers.
Deanna from Hulaco, Ala., asks: "Randy, what's one thing about Jamey we don't know? And Jamey, what's one thing about Randy we don't know?"
Randy Houser: I can think of a lot of things about Jamey that you all don't know that you ain't gonna know! [laughs] But I guess I'll tell them about that 'Star Trek' collection of yours. I think most people out there ought to know that ... and that you'll never find a more loyal friend than Jamey.
Jamey Johnson: They say the same about a Labrador retriever. I'm the group dog. I ain't never asked you to sit or heel. I have drug you out by your collar a few times. And that would be the thing about Randy most people don't know. Behind that innocent little giggle, there's a bear. The first time I met him was at a writing round. Nobody really felt like writing, so we ended up just hanging out, drinking and telling stories. The first story I ever heard him tell was about him and another guy whupping an entire bar down in Mississippi. My first lesson about Randy was: Don't poke a bear with a stick. If you ever set that dude off, he'll demolish a whole bar just to get at you.
RH: And then one of the first things I learned about Jamey was, he's quick to pull a gun out on your ass. You can ask Rhett Akins. When I see you around other people that don't know you, you come across as mean, but you're not.
JJ: I'm not a mean guy at all.
RH: Jamey's probably one of the sweetest souls that ever was. The circle is very small, and once he realizes you belong in that circle, he'll take on that bear for you.
Karen from Greenville, S.C., wants to know: "How long have you two known each other?"
JJ: We've known each other awhile. I've got a photo collection of all of Randy's ex-girlfriends at my house. I'm gonna quilt that into a blanket, if I can find a bed big enough to cover it.
Sarah from Orange, Texas, asks: "Randy, did you let someone special slip through your fingers? Is that why you have the songs 'How Many Times' and 'Anything Goes'?"
RH: I've had them get away and I've given them away. There's times where you let somebody into your life, and then you find out that person ain't exactly who they presented themselves to be in the first place.
JJ: You change, too. You start thinking you want that, and then something happens.
RH: I firmly believe that every six years, a person goes through a serious change. Think about it: At 6, you start school. At about 12, you start hitting puberty. And then it goes on. You start hitting these different mental levels, and people change. I think that's part of the reason the divorce rate is so high. People start thinking, "Damn, this ain't the person that I got involved with." I haven't gotten married, because hopefully if I do, I'll know this in advance.
JJ: If staying together was easy, everybody would do that. And if divorcing was any easier, everybody would do that ... I'm divorced. I can tell you, it ain't a walk in the park.
RH: I know Amy, your ex-wife, who I love dearly, and I know you do, too. She was a great friend. But you start taking different paths, and one person usually can't handle that path you're supposed to take.That's what God had planned for you, was to do something else. And sometimes, that person can't handle mentally what you're heading for ... and you can't handle them not handling it.
John from Abbotstown, Pa., writes: "Jamey, your lyrics are powerful and poignant. Most songs it feels as if you know the emotions first-hand. What's the one piece of advice you would give to budding songwriters?"
JJ: Quit writing because it's Thursday and you have an appointment. Start writing because you have experienced life and you want to share what you've learned with other people. It's too easy to fall into the trap in Nashville -- you want to set your schedule, to write with people every day. After a while, you run out of material, and you go in and write a song just because somebody came up with a neat hook. You end up writing this whole song that you really don't know that much about, and you're just piecing together things from all over the place that really doesn't mean that much to anybody. But if you come at it from just a slightly different approach, you can take that same line that you and your co-writers thought was cool, apply it to something personal and end up with a way better song than if you'd done the opposite.
Songwriters tend to be the most guarded people, which is kind of odd because they are also the people who are expressing so much. A lot of songwriters have a problem with breaking down that wall and exposing part of themselves. They choose to remain faceless, nameless or anonymous, and they are afraid that element of their creativity is gonna go away if they let people in too much. The most prolific songwriters that I've been around have found a way to take that wall out of the way.
Tamara from Chicago asks: "Randy and Jamey, what have been your greatest musical moments?"
RH: The Opry was definitely one, for obvious reasons. But one of the most important times in my life was the first time that I remember seeing my daddy get onstage and play music with a bunch of guys. All of them playing something different at the same time and all becoming one, and me soaking that in at 5 years old and going, 'That's my daddy up there, and he's a part of something.' All those guys are pouring out their soul on each instrument they're playing and singing, and you put that together and it all comes out as one sound. That affected me more than anything, and it made me do what I do today.
JJ: As far as times that were pure magic -- the Opry, 'Letterman' and 'Leno.' Beyond that, the really magical moment for me was when we got done with the 'Lonesome Song' album. That was a marathon day for us. We had already all but given up on any recording of anything, and I was fixing to have to make a phone call to somebody and explain to them why we spent so much money and walked out of the studio without any recording. But we ended up making a whole album that night. We didn't just walk in there and record a bunch of songs that we thought were hits. Who gives a s--- anyway? I didn't have a record deal at the time. We just walked in there, catching up and trading stories and telling jokes, passing a bottle of whiskey and a football. After a couple hours, we were passing the bottle and drinking the football. [laughs] But when we walked out of that studio, I knew we had just done something very special. That would be one of my magic moments.
Rita from Madison, Wis., wants to know: "Randy, how did you come across the video of the little boy, Drake, singing 'Boots On,' and whose idea was it to feature him in the official video?"
RH: Vickie Vaughn is a photographer, but she's also a fan of our music ... She's Drake's nanny, and she comes to all our shows and takes pictures. When my album came out, she bought it and plays it in her car all the time. She keeps Drake every day, so Drake got hooked on that song. She kept telling me, "You're not gonna believe what Drake does every time I play that song in the car. He gets in the car and says, 'I want to hear the boots song! I want to hear the boots song!''' She kept telling me about it,but I really thought she was blowing a little smoke. Well, then, she said, "You don't believe me, do you? Well, I'm going to videotape it." So she set a video camera up in her car one day and cranked it up, and he had one of these flyswatters that were shaped like guitars from a charity event we did with his daddy, Dillon Dixon. Well, Drake picks up that flyswatter guitar, and when 'Boots On' comes on, he goes to town and does exactly what she had told me he was doing! It was incredible.
As far as the video that you see now, 'Boots On,' we actually use the footage that she shot that day. Some people at the label thought, "Let's just use you, and we'll incorporate Drake's video footage in there." So that's what we did, and I think it's cute.
Kim from Cleveland wants to know: "Would either of you ever consider going clean-shaven?"
RH: Downstairs or upstairs? [laughs]
JJ: Are we going hippie or prep? I've already been clean-shaven for most of my life. You can't have a beard in the Marine Corps. I think I looked that way for so long, I've just never had a chance to let my hair down. I don't really give a s--- what anybody thinks. It's not about them. If I decide to wake up tomorrow and cut it off, I will. If I decide to wake up tomorrow and just wash my damn hair and go to work, I'm gonna do that, too.
RH: I've seen Jamey when his hair was short and cute! [laughs] But we're the kind of people, we do the hell what we want to do. I don't think it should be an issue.
JJ: We wrote our first song together before 'Crossroads.' We had been talking for the longest time about performing together. When they first approached me about doing 'Crossroads,' I didn't really care to do it. It seemed to me the focus was to be on pairing yourself up with a rock artist that has been influential in how you came to be a country artist. I really can't say that there were that many rock influences on me that we could approach to do that show. Most of the rock influences that I've had are either dead or they're so big you don't just call them up and say, 'How about coming in to do a video with me?'
It's no big secret out there that I'm a huge Waylon Jennings fan. So my response was, 'If you can get Shooter Jennings to do it, I'm in.' Well, the day after we wrote that song, I mentioned it to him and he immediately said yes. Shooter and I have the same influences, it's just he takes them in a rock 'n' roll direction. I take the same thing and go into a traditional country direction, but that is the crossroads between country and rock.
Letha from Stockbridge, Mich. asks: "Given that both of you are accomplished writers yourselves, what does it take to consider cutting another writer's material?"
JJ: You've got to blow me away.
RH: That happened to me on my first record. The first single I released, 'Anything Goes,' is probably one of the best-written songs I've heard in a long time. It takes somebody knowing who you are. Sometimes writers know who an artist is and what they want to say and how they sing. I will never be opposed to cutting a song if somebody nails my life and what I'm going through. And when I first heard that song, it affected me like that. It was really hard to release a first single of a song that I didn't write. I had to throw down my pride and go, "You know what? These guys wrote a song that really affects me right now." But I had to feel that lyric and sing it as passionately as I can. Otherwise, I won't cut songs that I didn't write.
JJ: We went down to Key West and cut a session down there recently, and I told the guys, 'I'm not even gonna cut a song just because it's a good song.' Good songs are fine -- you've got to have that to make an album. But the best thing I could possibly hope for is something that I want to go out there and present to people as representative of me and where I am right now. There's nothing worse than being out there every night singing a song in your show that you don't really like, or that just doesn't have that much relevance in your life. I need to put together my show with songs that I feel like I can relate to the best, because it's my job to go out there and take that very song and deliver that to those people who came there to see us perform.If you don't connect to it on some level, how can you expect them to connect to it? There's not a hit big enough to cross that border.
Sarah from Orange, Texas, writes: "Randy, I've met you at meet-and-greets on special occasions, and I hope you really know who I am, but I realize you meet so many people. So do you guys remember your fans?"
RH: I'm sometimes not good with remembering names, but I remember faces. But, to be honest, it is really hard.
JJ: When you get done with a show and go out to meet your audience, that's the best part of the show. When you actually shake the hand of the person who spent their hard-earned money to come see your show. You know, I've framed houses. Hell, you've framed houses. We've worked hard. I don't have a rich uncle that sponsored me into getting a record deal. I came to town and I worked my ass off. I have sweat, bled and worked to the damn bone for everything I've got. I know how much money it costs. And when somebody I know swings a hammer for seven bucks an hour and pays 20 bucks to come in to my show -- that man had to work at least five hours, after taxes and everything else, just to afford for himself or herself to come see that show.
RH: Usually, the ones we remember are the ones we remember what they had to do to get there. "Man, I just left Afghanistan, and I came over here to see you play." I had a guy the other day in Kansas City who told me I was the first country song he heard on Afghan radio. And I remember that guy. I can't remember his name, but I remember him asking me to go tell his wife how much he needed a motorcycle, and stuff like that. But you know what? It's not small because, hey -- I've got an extra motorcycle. If I can figure out who he is, I'll send it to him!
JJ: I've got this sweet lady that comes out to a lot of our shows, and we used to call her Hazel because she looks like Hazel Smith.
RH: I know who you're talking about!
JJ: Her name's Theresa ... But every time I see her, she tells me to call her Hazel, just because that was the first way I could associate her. Your real fans don't mind when you don't remember them by name, because they get it. That's half the reason they come to the show, because there's so many people that come out to see you, and they want to be a part of it. We remember our fans every time we write a song. We remember our fans every time we take the stage.
RH: And we remember the part Hazel/Theresa is to our show. When they come out, they're just as much a part of our show as we are.
Blake from Charleston, W.V. asks: "Jamey and Randy, were you more nervous playing the Opry or playing on Letterman's show?"
JJ: The Opry, obviously.
RH: First time I walked out on the Opry stage, Vince Gill was there. He kind of "daddied" me through the whole thing. My knees were knocking. I walked out there, and I was literally shaking. They say it's the spirits or the ghosts. And out of respect for that whole establishment, I was really really nervous. The 'David Letterman' show, I was really really nervous, but it was not the Grand Ole Opry.
JJ: He's the only way, by the way, that I got booked on the 'Letterman' show. David Letterman fell in love with that song, 'Anything Goes,' and booked Randy. My manager [who is also Randy's manager] jumped on the chance to get a foot in the door right there. I have you to thank for that.
RH: I think that was on your own merit.
JJ: Whatever her name was that made you cut that song in the first place. [laughs]
RH: Thank God for what's-her-name. [laughs]
Michael from Nashville writes: "You'll be performing together with Jerrod Niemann on May 28 at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, in a show billed as the 'Traler Park Revival Show.' How did you come up with that name, and what's with the misspelling?"
JJ: This whole thing kicked off around 2003 or 2004.
RH: I think it was 2004, or sometimes I can't remember if it was 1904.
JJ: Six of us decided it was time to get a writer's room. And I knew of this space that was available at the United Artist's Tower. It was on the fifth floor -- room 504, I think. Me and Jerrod and Rob [Hatch] went to go do the lease on the place that day, and the landlord said, "What's the name of your company?" Hell, that's the first time it hit us that random people can't just come here and rent this space. You've got to have a company. So Jerrod and Rob -- when I looked at those two, the first thing I could think of was a trailer park. I told the guy, "Well, we're the Trailer Park."
RH: Some other writer from outside came in and said, 'So this is a trailer park, all right.' Well, [he] took a damn Sharpie and wrote "Traler Park" and left the "i" out, and hung it above the door. And so that's why you get the spelling for T-R-A-L-E-R Park without the "i."
JJ: Also, when they put our name on the directory of the building, the guy misspelled it there, too! "T-R-A-L-E-R." It was an entity that was just meant to be. So we started doing shows and calling them 'The Traler Park Night.' We couldn't even afford to pay the bands. We would book this all-night entertainment gig, and the bands would split the tips, or if we managed to get paid something from the door, we'd split that up among the band members. Everybody would take home about 10 bucks. But those shows got to be, no matter where we did them, we were packing the place out from the stage to the bathroom. It was really special for us.
Fast-forward a few years, and me and Randy were going to do this benefit for the Opry. This is a perfect opportunity right here to make this a Traler Park night and make it special, and have it at the Ryman.
RH: At the place that we consider one of the most special places on Earth. We came from little small clubs, and for us to think about we have the opportunity to bring that Traler Park show to the Ryman -- this is the mother church of country music. So we actually called it the Traler Park Revival. There probably will be a few people saved that night ... and a few people will probably turn down Jesus that night. [laughs]
JJ: That night, it wouldn't be out of the ordinary for us to hear a couple gospel songs break out. It wouldn't be out of the ordinary to see everybody take the stage in the middle of somebody's set without even being invited. You'll never know what to expect. It's gonna be a fun night. For us, it's gonna be a reunion of sorts. Everything about every trailer park I've ever been to has been impromptu, improv, ad-libbed ...
RH: Since you say impromptu, all I can envision is the night we had the Halloween party.
JJ: The Traler Park Pimp and Ho party!
RH: The Traler Park Pimp and Ho party was the start of it. My vision of the whole thing is my keyboard player, who was dressed in a Superman suit. His wife left him that night, took his wallet -- and him traveling up Trinity Lane without a ride in a Superman outfit ... I love those memories.
*All photos by Brian Kaplan for Universal Music Group and The Boot