Randy Houser's debut single, "Anything Goes," tells the story of lost love and the self-destructive behavior that it all too often leads to.
"I think that it's something that everybody's dealt with in their lives, and if they haven't, they're probably going to," he said during a recent visit to CMT's offices. "That sound is definitely a place that I've been in my life. When I sing that song, I go back there every time, that same emotion comes up -- it's that empty place."
"Anything Goes" is the title track of Houser's first album for Universal Records South. Another highlight of his debut project is "How Many Times," featuring harmony vocals by Vince Gill.
In this interview, Houser talks about co-writing Trace Adkins' "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," paying the bills with music and how a Mississippi boy with nothing but an air mattress and a '92 Cougar made it in Music City.
CMT: I know David Letterman likes "Anything Goes." What's the story behind your appearance on his show?
Houser: I know the song did move him. He actually invited me to come play it on his show, so we went and played the song on his show. He really loved the second verse to the song -- actually had me sing that verse twice! It was really cool, and everybody ... was really good to us. You could tell that he enjoyed having us there, and they let us know it.
Dallas Davidson, Jamey Johnson and you co-wrote "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk." What was it like when that song took off?
That was our first cut in Nashville by a major artist, so our first song was that big of a hit. It was strange for all of us. It was kinda like strapping on a wild horse and ... hang on! It was pretty crazy, but it was an amazing thing to see. We all write a lot of different things, and all of them have a different purpose. Some of them are strictly so we can pay the bills, and some of them are things that we have to talk about. And that was one of those things where ... we had to pay some bills. (laughs)
You started writing songs at 15 or 16 because you hated playing cover material in bands.
I had done that for so long. Writing was also one of things that I had to do, just to express myself. A lot of the time, I couldn't verbally say some of the things that I needed to say, or I didn't have another outlet to express my feelings. I wrote a lot of poems and stuff when I was a kid. I didn't like playing in covers bands, but I did it for a long time. Slowly, I'd just build up enough songs where I could play a night of my own songs. They were horrible for years -- and some of them still are. (laughs) I just didn't want to be a cover band. I wanted to play Randy Houser music. I'll still cut outside songs, but they have to really be something. Sometimes when you hear an outside song, you feel like the person has been living with you, or living inside your brain, which is the case with "Anything Goes." How could those guys know what I'm going through that well? Because they have -- that's how.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I sure don't. I was always one of those people that thought the next song was better, and I always forgot about the one before. Sometimes I think the people that remember the first song they wrote probably didn't write a whole bunch after that. The only reason they remember is because Grandma put it in a shoebox for them. Grandma didn't do that for me. (laughs)
You cited Waylon Jennings and the Motown sound as sources for your kind of country. What do those sounds mean to you?
I think it's the rawness and the grit of those things -- not overproduced -- broken down right to the soul of a human. It's almost like when you go see a songwriter's night when a guy's just sitting there with his guitar. You're not trying to accentuate everything with bells and whistles. It's just a man and his guitar ... like Waylon with broke-down production. And the Motown stuff was just pure soul, period. Back in that time period, I think there was a lot of that in country music, and I'm hoping that we can get back to some of that. I don't know if it's possible to take that huge step back, production-wise, because people are so used to hearing big productions. My record has a lot of big-production things on it, but I think there's a way you can get around that and be really expressive.
I read that you showed up in Nashville with nothing but an air mattress and a '92 Mercury Cougar.
Speaking of air mattresses, I walked through Wal-Mart last night and saw the new fancy air mattresses they have. I was like, "Damn!" I did not have anything like that. I had the one that I would have to pump up with my foot. It had a little piece in there and you'd step on it. About every two days, I'd realize I was lying on the floor with no air.
So how does a guy with nothing but an air mattress make it in Music City?
You've got to be definitely willing to work harder than the next guy. I'd say that a lot of it is luck, and I've been really fortunate. ... I think being prepared is the main thing. If you're going to be in the right place at the right time, and somebody comes in to see you, and they're interested, you've gotta have the next thing to give them. I think being prepared is definitely a lot of the luck.
Watch Randy Houser perform "Anything Goes" and other songs on CMT.com's Unplugged at Studio 330.