BOTTOM LINE Finding his way back to his rootsy, bluesy Mississippi home
You can hear Randy Houser really go for it on his new single “What Whiskey Does.”
He sets aside the laid-back, cool delivery that he, and so many country contemporaries, have embraced in recent years and pours his heart out, reaching for big, poignant notes that convey just how high the stakes are, aided by some aching harmonies from Hillary Lindsey, who co-wrote the song with Houser. The direction change is an announcement of sorts that Houser’s new album “Magnolia” (Stoney Creek) won’t be business as usual. In fact, it will be less music business-friendly than he has been since his breakout hit “How Country Feels” in 2013.
More than anything, “Magnolia” feels like Houser at his most authentic. He isn’t chasing Chris Stapleton’s outlaw-country, Americana train, even though that may have been his best career move.
Houser still drops in some hard-rock riffs and a bit of flash in songs like “Nothin’ on You.” Though his honky-tonk anthem “Whole Lotta Quit” is defiant fun, sometimes he still gets a bit too clever than he should on well-crafted, but emotion-lite tracks like “New Buzz” or “High Time.”
But, man, he yanks at every tear-jerking string on the gospel-tinged “No Good Place to Cry,” with Houser belting out soulfully over an old-school blues guitar groove, as he confesses, “They don’t want to see these tears in my eyes, but there ain’t no good place to cry.” It’s a showstopper that puts Houser’s career on a whole new level, a sign that his artistry is now more important than success.
He follows that with the wrenching “What Leaving Looks Like” and later on the lovely Louisiana road trip “Evangeline,” where he talks about getting a little “two-lane crazy tonight.”
These great surprises make “Magnolia” feel like a left-field debut, only one done by someone with enough experience to pull off every risk he takes.