Randall King has been reading the tea leaves, you could say.
“The pendulum for country music is really swinging and the honky-tonk sound is back,” the 33-year-old Texan tells Billboard, as he aims to two-step into the national spotlight with his second Warner Music Nashville album, Into the Neon, out today (Jan. 26).
Indeed, the neo-traditional country sound like that of the 1990s has been seeping back into country radio’s airwaves, whether from fellow Texans Cody Johnson (“’Til You Can’t,” “The Painter”) and Parker McCollum (“Pretty Heart”), bona fide ‘90s country legends such as Garth Brooks and Ronnie Dunn or newcomers such as Zach Top. With his new album, King is ready to join their ranks on the Country Airplay chart.
King’s smooth vocal styling inevitably evokes comparisons to another “King” — George Strait — as well as Alan Jackson, but Into the Neon deepens his allegiance to the ‘90s country sound, following his 2022 project Shot Glass, while infusing it with stouter portions of rougher-edged production that King calls “a little more raw, and not as commercial in how they were mixed, a little closer to my [2018-released independent] self-titled record.”
King was raised in Hereford, Texas, a town with a population of around 15,000 located less than an hour southwest of Amarillo — stomping ground to artists including Aaron Watson, JD Souther and “Amarillo by Morning” writer Terry Stafford. He enrolled at Lubbock’s Texas Tech University, before transferring to South Plains College in nearby Levelland, Texas, following in the path of other South Plains alums-turned-country singers Lee Ann Womack, Josh Abbott and The Chicks’ Natalie Maines.
Like his labelmate Johnson (they also share the same management company, Durango Artist Management), King refined his sound through years filled with hundreds of shows in dusty dancehalls, tiny clubs and packed fairs and festivals — both in and beyond the 770 miles that elapse between the Lone Star State’s borders. He signed to Warner Music Nashville in 2019, and moved to Music City the following year, with an eye on the global spotlight. He followed with projects including 2020’s Leanna, a tender ode to his late sister, as well as 2022’s Shot Glass and Honky Tonk BS, in addition to a live project.
For the new album, King’s co-manager Scott Gunter suggested working with Jared Conrad, a producer on the Johnson/Ian Munsick collab “Long Live Cowgirls,” who has also worked on music for Reba McEntire and Pentatonix. King and Conrad worked on a three-song demo session — including 2023’s “Green Eyes Blue” — as a trial run.
“I gave him the direction I was looking for and let him take the reins, watched how he worked with the band,” King says. “As soon as I heard it, I was like, ‘This is it. This is what I’m aiming for.’ He smoked it.”
King co-wrote six songs on the album, but also drew heavily on Nashville’s songwriter community, a move he says “helped bring in an element that I didn’t have with my own writing — more open and dynamic.”
“When My Baby’s in Boots” was written by Trannie Anderson, Jordan Walker and Michael Carter, while “Hard to Be Humble” was written by Ben Hayslip, Corey Crowder and Chris LaCorte. A nod to the increasing artist-writer community in Nashville, the album also includes songs written by fellow artists including Jake Worthington, Mitchell Tenpenny, Greylan James, Will Jones and “World on Fire” hitmaker Nate Smith.
On the slow-burn title track, the protagonist isn’t quite riding off into the sunset, but rather makes a midnight rambler’s destination to the next neon sign, the next bar stool or the next honky-tonk town. Elsewhere, he offers premier twangers such as “Coulda Been Love” and clever wordplay of album opener “One Night Dance.”
One of the album’s most stunning — and personal — songs is the ending track “I Don’t Whiskey Anymore,” which King wrote with Gordie Sampson. The song was inspired by an incident from King’s early days of his relationship with his girlfriend.
“When we first started dating, I was a big whiskey drinker — that was my go-to,” he says, recalling how an incident two years ago effected a change. “It was our anniversary, and when Tampa Bay stomped a mud hole in my Kansas City Chiefs, I took her to Kansas City to go to the PBR bar there. We got a table and it was eight of us. Me and five guys finished about three bottles of whiskey and were working on our fourth and we had no control over our emotions. Chiefs lost, everybody’s upset and it was a chaotic bad night. It’s hilarious that it’s our anniversary now, but I learned that night that if I was going to make a relationship work and last, I had to make changes. One of those was learning to let go of things that weren’t good for you, and one of those was drinking whiskey. I cut that out of my life to be a better person.”
The rewards were both personal and professional. “After I quit drinking, I had taken an allergy test and realized I was allergic to several types of trees, including oak,” he explains. “The barrels whiskey is kept inside, all that resides in the whiskey — so I was literally drinking what I was allergic to. When I stopped drinking whiskey, I realized my voice opened up dramatically, and I have my full vocal range for the first time in years. I can hear that difference, even from Shot Glass to now.”
One thing noticeably absent from the project is seemingly a requisite in today’s marketing-minded country music scene: collaborations. King says he held off on recording the current version of the album until the last minute, in order to build up the best arsenal of songs he could muster.
“Once we did start recording, there wasn’t a lot of time to bring other artists in, otherwise it would have delayed the project,” says King, though he notes that it is still too early to tell what the year could bring—like the title track’s protagonist, he’s open to what opportunities come along.
“I don’t know if it will happen, but it’s a goal of mine to put out an alternate version of the album with collabs on it,” noting he has a list of potential partners for every song on the album. “Clay Walker, Miranda Lambert, they would be phenomenal. We did reach out to Megan Moroney, but I think she had the single with Old Dominion that had just dropped. So it didn’t work out on timing, but maybe down the road.”