Country songwriter/producer/guitarist Jon Randall rarely steps into the spotlight himself. He’s taken home Grammy, CMA, and AMC wins working with artists like Emmylou Harris, Miranda Lambert, and Dierks Bentley, but that hasn’t made him a proper household name. Earlier this year, he, Lambert, and Jack Ingram stole away to a remote Texas outpost to record a relaxed album called The Marfa Tapes, but it’s been over 15 years since he released a proper solo album. Now he’s back in the studio himself, self-titling his new album as if to make sure we recognize him, even if he maintains his unassuming posture.
Randall keeps it low-key for this brief set of country-folk numbers, but he’s not genuinely isolated. He brings in colleagues like Shane McAnally and Jerry Douglas (along with Ingram again) to help fill out his sound. The whole record sounds comfortable; everyone settles into their spots with natural ease. That doesn’t mean it’s unpolished, though, as there’s care and precision in the performances and production. Randall’s experience in all aspects of song-making comes in handy here, as he gets the atmosphere he wants around a robust set of songs.
The album opens with “Keep on Moving”, which sets a loose theme for the whole album. Randall didn’t write these songs with a particular album in mind. Instead, he mostly collected tracks he’d been working on over the years, and they gel nicely around ideas about traveling and touring. “I’m going to drive and drive until I buy the farm,” he sings. It could be a bleak sentiment, a restlessness turned toward despair, but it comes off as more of an openness. As Randall travels lyrically across the Southwest (with “Ranchero” planting a sonic flag), he captures the sense of peace in motion.
Sometimes that peace means moving through the hurt. “Streets of Dallas” sounds lonely, a cold night spent “wondering how I’ll ever find my way”. His perambulations through the city reveal a sadness scattered throughout both the loud revelers and the silent people on the margins, where “dreams get washed away”. “The Road” provides more opportunity, even if touring life settles into repetition. Now he “keeps on rolling”, and if it’s not the most exciting trip, there’s a comfort in it.
“Driving to Mexico” gives him a specific direction, corralling heartbreak as he goes, but he’s “trying to drive you out of my mind”. The road offers escape from loss without redeeming insight or pleasure. It may be a necessary relief, but it’s not an easy one. With plenty of time on the road comes plenty of time to think, and Randall does his reflecting on “Acapulco Blue”. As he dives into his past, he finds a string of pleasant memories connected to his car. He might have been “hell on wheels in that ’68 coupe”, but that late adolescence feels like heaven to him.
Across these tracks, Randall nails the mood he wants. It’s another pretty casual record – one step away from a coffeehouse sort of sound – but he gives it emotional weight. Randall’s aesthetic tends toward relaxed but professional, and he gets to the intimacy the songs reach for. Jon Randall might be a car record, but, if so, it’s not one for the sunshine and windows down, but one for long, dusty drives under the stars.