One year ago, Randy Houser's single "Boots On," from his debut album Anything Goes, hit No. 2 on the Billboard Country Singles chart. In the 12 months since, he's been a nominee for two Country Music Association awards (including New Artist of the Year), toured Iraq with the USO, and recorded a sophomore album, They Call Me Cadillac, which releases the day after the Sept. 20 Academy of Country Music Awards — at which he'll find out if "Boots On" wins Video of the Year.
Tonight Houser kicks off a fall national tour in Salt Lake City, Utah, with Gary Allan and Jerrod Niemann.
"Both of them are buds of mine," says the 34-year-old, Mississippi-born musician. "I totally respect them both as real artists ... to have that package of three true artists that aren't just really, whatcha call it, like karaoke singers. These guys actually, you know, have music that's theirs."
As a co-writer of Trace Adkins' 2005 hit "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," a rollicking ode to a woman's ample behind "that's got it goin' on, like Donkey Kong," Houser admits certain songs are good for paying the bills with. But he's more interested in getting back to country's roots in his own work.
"There's a difference, you know, in pop country — which really sounds like '80s pop music to me — and country music," Houser says. "I think that a lot of the stuff we listen to on the radio is not country. I don't think everybody's ready for it, but I think there's a certain demographic that hasn't had any real country music or anything gritty. ... In other words, real artists that write songs about their lives."
You don't have to go too far back in Houser's life to trace some of what inspired new song "Here With Me"; he rewrote some of the lyrics after hearing soldiers' stories on his USO trip to Iraq in January with Jamey Johnson and Kellie Pickler. The three, wearing helmets and flak jackets, flew around the country in helicopters, visiting forward operating bases of 100 to 200 soldiers. They're small places Houser says other musicians often don't visit because "it's a little more dangerous."
The visit, he says, "really just changed my life. ... Just to watch those troops react to something that reminded them a little bit of home ... and how much they appreciated it, was one of the highlights of my career."
Real-life lyrics don't always have to be culled from across the world, though. Take "Boots On." Houser laughs when asked about one of the familiar chorus lines: Do you really have a crooked little grin?
"Yeah, I think so. My uncles always had that, too. I guess I got it from my mother's side of the family. It's kind of a drawl thing. I don't know. A lot of people in Mississippi have that."
Of course, there's one part of his life you're unlikely to find Houser pulling lyrics from — rides on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
"Mostly that's my time to just get away from everything," he says. "If I do anything close to meditation, that'd be it."