Randall King's 'Into the Neon' reflects Texas roots and honky-tonk's global influences

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Randall King's album "Into the Neon," released in January, finds the artist born an hour south of Amarillo, Texas, solidly entrenched in his second decade as a thriving traditional country performer.

Learning that Amarillo is an eight-hour overnight drive from George Strait's home of Poteet, Texas, and living enough life to discover why Keith Whitley wasn't fond of going around mirrors didn't remove the surface-level intrigue of attempting to follow in the legendary footsteps of two 1980s-era Country Music Hall of Famers.

Why Nashville? Why now?

More prodigious than Strait's trips to Amarillo by morning, it takes, at most, two mornings by automobile to reach Warner Music's Nashville from King's Hereford, Texas, roots.

Texas veteran Randall King's "Into the Neon" finds him at a place where he's able to unfurl some of the wisdom that acclaim and global travel have inspired.
Texas veteran Randall King's "Into the Neon" finds him at a place where he's able to unfurl some of the wisdom that acclaim and global travel have inspired.

King holds fast to those roots amid Nashville's wildly evolving mainstream industry.

To The Tennessean, he rattles off the revolutionary spirit of the battle of the Alamo, the statewide civic pride and national renown associated with the phrase "Don't Mess With Texas," and Tanya Tucker's timeless country classic "Texas (Till I Die)" along with "grit, tenacity and work ethic" as what will allow him to forever remain a Texan in his heart and soul.

Betting on himself

Dig deeper into his lineage and understand that he also doubled down on himself 20 years ago.

Texas Tech is consistently ranked as having one of the 100 best business schools in America. However, King is the son of a truck driver and not afraid of hard work. Thus, transferring to South Plains College — a two-year community college half an hour from Texas Tech famed for educating Texans like Josh Abbott, the Chicks' Natalie Maines and Lee Ann Womack — was a better fit.

Nearly 2,500 shows later, King arrives as a world-traveling performer with a penchant for attempting to expand the power and impact of quintessential "Red Dirt" country music further than ever.

He follows the critical success and the nearly a quarter of a billion streams afforded him by his 2022 major label debut, "Shot Glass," with "Into the Neon," which finds him at a place where he's able to unfurl some of the wisdom that acclaim, life, and travel have inspired.

Randall King arrives for the 2023 ACM Awards in Frisco Texas,
Randall King arrives for the 2023 ACM Awards in Frisco Texas,

"Commercialized music has set the tone (for where my career is headed), but I'm still putting out music I want to," King says.

"These are organic, raw, dive bar records that open up to reveal dirty, gritty and raw tones. From dynamic rock and roll barnburners to '90s country, it's all there."

'Into the Neon'

When attempting to identify his influences most directly, he's specific.

"Dierks Bentley's first three albums and Gary Allan's 'Smoke Rings in the Dark.' Those sounds I've been trying to nail my whole career."

Allan's Top 20 crossover country hit blends brooding Western rock with bluesy, countrified soul.

Bentley's first three albums sold 3 million copies, yielded five No. 1 hits — among them "What Was I Thinkin'" and "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)" — and received numerous awards.

Tent-post those alongside his interest in Strait's straightforward yet suave South Texas tenor and Whitley's bluegrass balladeer meets contemporary R&B crooner.

For "Into the Neon," he has discovered a path between those influences that allows him to tour in clubs, reflects his roots, and chart on country radio.

Randall King performs onstage during the 2023 ACM Country Kickoff in Frisco, Texas.
Randall King performs onstage during the 2023 ACM Country Kickoff in Frisco, Texas.

"When My Baby's in Boots" and "Hang of Hangin' On" are meant for two-stepping dance floors on either side of Oklahoma and Texas' Red River Rivalry.

"Could've Been Love" and "I Could Be That Rain" are Whitley-style ballads with Allan-style production — a trick mastered by King and his producer Jared Conrad on the project.

"Practice makes perfect," King says. "Then, add Justin Ostrander's baritone guitar (familiar with the work of Cody Johnson, among many others), steel guitars and dialed-back strings — ("Into the Neon") is a record that finally feels like me."

Unifying the album around earnest songwriting and stylings showcasing the "big heart and deep love," plus the maturity he's earned since he stopped drinking whiskey and being in a relationship for nearly half a decade — as opposed to "18 songs about drinking beer" — has yielded the emergence of his strongest work to-date.

From Texas and Nashville to the world

He describes the three weeks he spent in Europe in the fall of 2023 as an "unreal" experience.

It continues his growth as an artist and performer by globalizing his work's "ideology and narrative."

Randall King performs live on stage during a concert at the Kesselhaus in Berlin on Sept. 18, 2023.
Randall King performs live on stage during a concert at the Kesselhaus in Berlin on Sept. 18, 2023.

Learning to land imagined fantasies as appealing realities has elevated and re-shaped King's career.

A review of a London show in September highlights King's "charismatic energy" and the "muscled, powerful machismo" apparent in his and his band's work.

Whether in London, Lubbock, Nottingham, Nashville or elsewhere, King has finally discovered his work's best, broadest-appealing version.

"Sure, they say everything's bigger in Texas," he says. " But the world realizes that the pendulum's swinging back for country music's neon (meaning honky-tonks on the rundown, smoky, wrong side of the railroad tracks) traditions. If I have (anything to do with it), they'll be here to stay.

"I've been pegged as a super-traditional 1990s country guy. But I'm more than that. I want to make a record that makes people hear me differently, but (wherever they are), still want to go out for a night on the town."

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Randall King's new album reflects Texas roots, international travels