Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Jon Randall and Sam Grow

Jon Randall LP

The man who wrote Whiskey Lullaby and Tin Man hasn’t put out music under his own name since the mid-2000s. Jon is beloved by many in Music City and I wouldn’t hesitate in calling him an heir to the Guy Clark style of lyrical songwriting. He is well known as a producer for Dierks Bentley, Parker McCollum and his wife Jessi Alexander, and was one-third of the gang who put out The Marfa Tapes in May 2021 (whose concert for Austin City Limits went out on October 2).

Having initially put out an EP, Jon’s self-titled set contains nine tracks which showcase his art. Ranchero stands out because it’s a two-minute instrumental that shows Jon’s chops as a guitarist who has played with Lyle Lovett and Emmylou Harris. Girls From Texas, written with Shane McAnally, was a duet between Lyle and Pat Green a decade ago where the argument is that there are fine girls everywhere in America; ‘girls from Texas are just a little bit better’. No explanation is necessary and Jon ropes in Jack Ingram for assistance.

Jon has picked tunes which are less Nashville and more Red Dirt, full of gravitas and depth. Opener Keep On Moving is a troubadour’s song by a narrator who doesn’t care what other people think (I wonder if it’s autobiographical). The Road sits at the end of the album as a sort of ring composition, a trucker’s hymn full of imagery and character. The UK government should use it as an anthem to encourage people to take up truck driving.

Driving To Mexico also takes place on the road, ‘driving till I run out of gas, out of luck, out of road, out of time’, trying to shake the memory of an ex. Perhaps it’s the girl in Tequila Kisses he is trying to escape. The song is gorgeous, full of reminiscin’ about a riverbank romance with a girl speaking ‘in broken English’, implying that Spanish is her first language and making tequila a sort of metonym for a Mexican woman.

The solo acoustic Acapulco Blue is another reminiscin’ song where Jon tells of playing music for tips to buy rock records and gasoline. Now the car of the title is worn and rusted, ‘memories I’ve lost’ stored up in the glovebox. That is one hell of a line, from a master craftsman.

Streets of Dallas is full of loneliness, helped by Jerry Douglas’s dobro. Jon is ‘down to my last 20 bucks’ having pawned his guitar watching ‘two strangers getting high’ and feeling the rain from a raging storm. Velvet Elvis Buzz includes a well-placed swear word with Jon seemingly addicted to a woman who serves to ‘trash my house and kiss me…You taste like nicotine, sweat and sweet perfume’. It’s a real turn of events for Jon, and he seems locked in a groove. I’d love to see him do it live, and with his friend Miranda due in Europe next spring, I hope he can hop on the bus too.

You can hear my chat with Jon as part of my In The Red Dirt show on ARC Radio here until October 26. h

Sam Grow – This Town

Several top songwriters help Sam write 11 of the 12 tracks on an album which introduces me to a fab new voice who opened for Tyler Farr a few years ago. This is Sam’s third album, whose title track opens it up. There’s a mix of squealing guitars, real snare drums and a fine melody which takes the trope of ‘this town loves to talk’ and adds four familiar chords to it. I adored Song About You when I first heard it, with its E Street Band circa The Rising feeling, and I like the effortless, frothy melody of Bar Last Night.

The songtitles are punchy as the guitars and lyrics which show personality and attitude, Colt Ford-style; Colt, who produces the album, wrote ur-Bro Country tune Dirt Road Anthem which Jason Aldean. Me and Mine is full of raised cups, skinning catfish and deer and how ‘Bocephus got it right’ about country boys. Sam sounds like Tyler Farr on Boy Like Me, a power ballad which could have gone to radio at any time in the last 20 years. Ditto Better Than Me, a moving-on song where Sam hopes his ex’s new beau is an improvement on Sam himself, as he puts himself down. On You Ain’t Gone he spots his ex’s ‘old shampoo, hairbrush and makeup’ after she left him. It’s basically 7500 OBO by Tim McGraw without the truck.

Go Right Now is another of those songs where the singer does country stuff with his Dad in the first two verses and then sees him die in the third. (Oh, come on, don’t shoot the messenger: country music templates are as old as time itself and I grabbed a tissue just after the first chorus!) This will be a key song in his live set, which UK-based country fanatics would love.

Grew Up Red ticks off those country signifiers as a thousand other songs do: ‘dirty work, honest dollar…calloused hands’ and messing around on tailgates. It even rhymes boots/roots in a way that I think is mandatory in a song of this type. Still, it’s three chords and the truth and that’s country. Kiss My Ass is another song like a thousand others, preaching loyalty to the American flag and not brooking any argument. You can imagine the guitar chords even before you hear them; it’s the country equivalent of putting ‘devil’s chords’ in a heavy metal song about Satan.

Texan songwriter Terry McBride helps Sam write the gentle Little House, where ‘it don’t take a mansion to find what’s really important in life’. It’s a triple-time ode to small-town life where Jesus pops up in the second verse. The album ends with Whiskey Bound, a ‘pour me another one’ song that could be sung by Matt Stell, Mitchell Tenpenny or Chris Young, country radio catnip where the schlub mourns another one gone.

Sam Grow might get less radio play than these major-label heartthrobs, but there’s much to enjoy on This Town.

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