Ka-Ching…With Twang: In The Red Dirt with Randall King and Casey Donahew

Cody Johnson recently topped the Nashville country charts with Til You Can’t, a thrusting song that makes listeners seize the moment. Miranda Lambert is preparing an album called Palomino, some of whose tracks were written in Marfa, Texas. Flatland Cavalry took their Red Dirt sound to Country2Country, propelled by the management team which brought us Luke Combs. There’s even a popular radio show on ARC Radio on Sundays at 4pm dedicated to playing the best music from Texas and Oklahoma.

Randall King and Casey Donahew are eligible to be played In The Red Dirt with me (yep, it’s a plug!). Randall has followed the CoJo and Parker McCollum blueprint and signed to a major label which will hopefully buy him the same sort of house Luke Combs is able to afford. An artist like Randall, who already has the patronage of Garth Brooks, probably wants a national stage that befits his talents. He knows there are many acts who can make a living playing Texan rodeos and honky-tonks, but he also knows how much money Garth earned and how it would set him and his family up for life.

If Nashville is pivoting back to traditional sounds and themes, they have made the correct decision to point people in the Red Dirt direction. In a town full of voices, the best ones always rise to the top, as Chris Stapleton proves every time he performs at an awards show.

Randall King – Shot Glass

Production on Randall’s debut album on his Nashville deal comes from Ryan Gore and Bart Butler, who help craft the sound of Jon Pardi, so it’s unsurprising that they set the voice of Randall King to similar music. Previously released singles Record High, You In A Honky Tonk and the gorgeous Hey Cowgirl are all present and correct, updating the Garth Brooks sound for the streaming era.

Opening track Baby Do has live drums, pedal steel, harmonies and the Garth-like catch in the vocal. Randall is ‘hard-headed…hard to handle’ but his lady ‘knows how to calm me down’. Try to resist singing along with the ‘but-but-but baby do’ hook in the chorus. Hard Way To Make It Rain is a punchy toe-tapper about what Randall does for a career, in a song that would slot alongside Luke Combs’ Honky Tonk Highway in a DJ set.

There’s also a midtempo sex jam, Can’t You Feel How That Sounds, which Alan Jackson would have killed for in about 1995 and is the sort of thing Scotty McCreery has been doing for the last few years of his career. The melancholic Middle of Nowhere Church was written with Jeffrey Steele who likely never had to work again after writing two evergreens: What Hurts The Most and The Cowboy In Me. Rascal Flatts and Tim McGraw could have done a good job with the gentle acoustic tune where ‘every tear, every hurt’ makes Randall want to ‘go back in reverse’.

How about Roger, Miller Lite and Me for a title! The chorus includes the phrase ‘pendulum swing’, quoting the line in Roger’s song England Swings (‘like a pendulum do’), but Randall is in a bad way because of country stuff: trailer for sale, honey gone, money gone and so forth. Country gospel also gets a look in on the final track, a version of I’ll Fly Away which formed a tribute to Randall’s late sister Leanna on the 2020 EP of that name. That release also included Around Forever, a song that encourages the listener to call their loved ones because ‘life spins like a Haggard record’. It’s country music in its old-fashioned form.

The title track is a terrific lyric: how does life and all its problems ‘fit into a shot glass’? One of the great things about country music, as witnessed on a track called Mama’s Front Porch on Thomas Rhett’s new album, is how many inanimate objects can make great titles and subjects of songs. Randall is less Red Solo Cup and more Shot Glass, as this excellent collection demonstrates.

Casey Donahew – Built Different

Across two long weekends in June, Casey Donahew will host his own Boots on the Beach festival in Mexico. A host of top Red Dirt acts will appear: Pat Green, Randy Rogers, Wade Bowen, Josh Abbott, Stoney Larue, Kylie Frey, Koe Wetzel and Mike Ryan. All will turn up and offer a fine alternative to what’s going on in Nashville, where CMA Fest sucks in tourists and locals (although Triston Marez and Parker McCollum are the Texan representatives that week).

This time out, it’s a ten-track offering from Casey, whose 15-track 2019 record One Light Town included several super songs which went to Texas radio. I loved Drove Me to the Whiskey, Queen for a Night and Bad Guy, which showcase a Steve Earle-ish voice and some fine arrangements surrounding it.

The title track of the album, which is released on his own Almost Country label, was another chart-topper, with amps turned up to 11 and a confident vocal from a ‘ride-or-die cowboy’ whose 20-year career shows no signs of stopping. In 2016, he sent a couple of tunes to Nashville country radio but failed to crack the top 40 in an era of bros. Given the success for CoJo and Parker, the Gold Chain Cowboy, I reckon Casey could try again if he wants to play the game.

I see no reason why he would, though, with his position in the Red Dirt scene secured for this generation. He is almost a legacy artist – he’s a similar age to Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley and Luke Bryan – and must be a guiding star for many acts in Texas or Oklahoma. Like Randall King and Aaron Watson, he’s making one fan at a time and that keeps him in corn.

Ballads are, of course, dotted throughout the album. On Telling on My Heart, a song written by Kip Moore, his mate Dan Couch and the great David Lee Murphy, Casey apologises if drink reveals how much he loves his beloved. On 83 Chevrolet Time Machine, Eagles song Peaceful Easy Feeling is namechecked while a fiddle plays and Casey reminisces about fishing and playing catch with his dad. ‘Every scratch and dent is a memory’ is a super line, and I appreciate how Casey can deliver a weepie as well as a honky-tonker.

Those tempo tunes include heavy drinking hymn Beer Tastes Good (‘whiskey tastes better’), bluesy and confident Legends (‘heroes get remembered but legends never die!) and Getting Even, a song in which a woman has ‘no regrets when she slips back on that ring…you can’t call it cheating’ when it’s just a matter of getting even. I would love to tell you that One Foot in the Grave is a cover of the TV theme tune but it’s a Casey-patented carpe diem tune about having a good time all the time. He is ‘a walking disaster stoned out of my mind’, with a fun second verse about reinventing himself as ‘Juan Carlos’.

Luke Combs has become a millionaire with this sort of thing, but Casey doesn’t break a sweat; he probably leaves that to the crowd. Starts in a Bar, written with the aforementioned Bart Butler, is a meet-cute in song with an opening chorus featuring a girl who has ‘moves a cowboy can’t ignore’. In a meta manner, perhaps love can blossom, and probably has done so, at a Casey Donahew show.

The album ends with the pair of Jackson Davis and Just One Beer. The former, with a barnstorming arrangement with military drums, is about a possibly fictitious rebel soldier who wanted freedom, whiskey and women. The latter is a typical ‘final track ballad’ led by the piano: Casey asks his new buddy if they can share another beer and ‘dance the night away’ to their jukebox selections, all in a clandestine manner before Casey goes back to his part of town.

The guitar solo will satisfy anyone who listened to rock’n’roll in the MTV era, while the album as a whole is a fine display of Red Dirt country rock. If Randall is the heir to Garth, Casey is the disciple of Steve Earle.

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