Jon Randal'ls Trial by Fire

One way to get folks to take notice of you as a solo artist is to have an award bestowed upon you. A big one, like a Country Music Association award. Jon Randall did just that, winning Song of the Year in 2005 for “Whiskey Lullaby”, cowritten with Whispering Bill Anderson and recorded by Allison Krauss and Brad Paisley. The CMA wasn’t the first music trophy he’d scored during the course of his career. Randall took home a Grammy in ’92 as a member of Emmylou Harris’ Nash Ramblers and an International Bluegrass Music Association Recorded Event of the Year award in ’04 for Livin’ Lovin’ Losin: Songs of the Louvin Brothers. These are all huge but deserved accolades for Randall, who has been pounding the strings in Nashville since age 18, balancing gigs as a sideman (backing artists such as Holly Dunn, Sam Bush, Lyle Lovett, Patti Loveless, and many others) with his solo career. It’s the solo component that is taking up most of Randall’s time right now with the release of his fourth effo

The Dallas native grew up on a musical diet of bluegrass and old country. “Like every kid in my generation,” he says, “I wanted to be Tony Rice, Clarence White, or Doc Watson. I was more of a rhythm player but could flatpick a little. After moving to Nashville, I got into situations where people needed an acoustic player, and that’s how I ended up playing lead—out of nec-essity. Emmylou wanted me to play lead in her band with a bunch of hot dog musicians, and I was terrified. It was trial by fire and I literally learned to flatpick on the road.”

Randall’s first acoustic was a hand-me-down from dad: a 1946 Martin DC-28 herringbone that he’s played most of his career. That guitar, along with a Martin 00-28, a Gibson J-45, and a Mossman he found in a pawnshop (strung with medium-gauge D’Addario EXP coated strings) were his staple instruments. He plugs in with a Highlander pickup in tandem with a Richard Battaglia preamp. Prior to recording Walking Among the Living, he discovered Crafters of Tennessee luthier Mark Taylor who built him a D-18-style acoustic.

Co-produced by audio guru George Massenburg, Walking is warm and intimate sounding, and was recorded almost totally live with the acoustic right up front in the mix. “The way George likes to record,” explains Randall, “is to track live with everyone in the same room so there’s a lot of ambience. I loved it. And it was all built around me with my acoustic guitar. He close-miked me, and I mean literally. He’d move the mic close to my hand and say, ‘Don’t move!’ Then he’d listen to my guitar and go back in the control room. What he was doing was making the playback sound exactly like my guitar in the room, as opposed to a lot of engineers who’ll tweak the guitar to make it real thin so it will sit in the back of the mix.”

Even with the recent CMA addition to his trophy shelf, Randall remains pleasantly surprised at his place in the industry. “I love being a solo artist but I never expected to have that opportunity. I’ve been lucky—in between a couple of solo deals that just crashed and burned, I was able to go out with really great artists. It’s been a great musical journey. Right now, I’m on this solo path and hopefully we keep it going. If not, I’ll land on my feet. I’m just happy to get to play music.” •