Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Country singer and songwriter. As soon as he graduated from high school in Dallas, Jon Randall Stewart moved to Nashville to be a songwriter, but it turned out to be a long road. His dad, Ronnie Stewart, was a policeman who also had a bluegrass band, and his mother played dobro; they gave him a guitar when he was six, and he's been writing songs since junior high school. In Nashville he delivered birthday balloons in a gorilla suit. He formed a short-lived bluegrass band called The Prairie Dogs. In the summer of 1988 he was a strolling musician in Nashville's Opryland, and became a sideman. As a tenor harmony singer and guitarist he's worked for Holly Dunn, Emmylou Harris, Sam Bush, Lyle Lovett, Linda Ronstadt, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Lee Ann Womack, Bill Anderson, T. Graham Brown, John Cowan and Kid Rock.

Dunn discovered him at Opryland, and the next year he landed a spot in Emmylou's band, The Nash Ramblers, where he was the only unknown in a band full of superpickers. The group won a Grammy Award in 1992 for its own album At the Ryman. He worked for Harris for five years, also landing a songwriting contract with Sony Tree and a recording contract with BNA Records. Because Larry Stewart, Lisa Stewart, Gary Stewart and Marty Stuart were already making records, the label abbreviated his name to Jon Randall, and What You Don't Know appeared as his debut album in 1995, but it had only one original tune on it. A year later, he had a hit with ‘By My Side,' a duet with Lorrie Morgan; this was intended for his second BNA CD, Great Day to Be Alive, but like its predecessor, it had only one of Randall's own songs, and in any case it never came out. He was dropped by his label, but the title tune later became a smash hit for Travis Tritt. He signed with Asylum Records and in 1998 turned in Cold Coffee Morning just as the label folded. He recorded Willin' for independent Eminent Records, which was released to critical praise in 1999, but that label soon folded as well. He continued his session work and joined one of his musical heroes on the road: with Sam Bush's band, he recorded Glamour & Grits ‘96 and Howlin' at the Moon ‘98. He and Bush then toured and recorded with Lovett. Loveless then hired Randall as her duet partner on Mountain Soul, Bluegrass & White Snow, and Livin,' Lovin,' Losin', the last of which became the second Grammy-winning CD he played on.

Music publisher Ree Guyer-Buchanan demanded that he stay home and write songs, and Randall did so, except for a tour with Earl Scruggs. (‘How could I turn that down?' he asked.) And then the songwriting gate finally opened, with more than a dozen artists recording his tunes. ‘Whiskey Lullaby', co-written with Bill Anderson, was sung to fame by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss (nominated by the ACM as Song of the Year). Meanwhile, next door to Wrensong on Music Row was DMZ Records and its then executive John Grady, who'd been a fan since Randall's first CD. When Grady moved to Sony, he started trying to talk Randall into making another record. Randall wanted to work with producer George Massenburg, because he loved his work with Little Feat, The Trio (Dolly Parton, Ronstadt and Harris), and much more. Then Randall was hired to play guitar on a Seldom Scene album produced by Massenburg. They got along, and Randall decided that he would make another album. He signed with Epic in 2004, and Walking Among The Living came out in 2005.

Instead of only one Randall song, it was the other way around: on this album there was only one outside song, ‘My Life,' by Grammy-winner Robert Lee Castleman, which Randall wanted to do as a nod to his bluegrass roots. With duet and harmony support from Krauss, Loveless and labelmate Sonya Isaacs, the collection of Randall's ballads, funky swing (‘Austin'), cheatin' songs (‘I Shouldn't Do This') and his own celebrated ‘Whiskey Lullaby' was the showcase his work had long deserved.