by Lon Helton, Country AirCheck
Nothing was "normal" about last Thursday night's "Late Show With David Letterman." First, and foremost, while Country sightings are rare on their own, it's unheard of for a Country singer with a debut single barely inside the Top 50 (when he was booked) to get a shot as the musical guest. It was also a rarity for Letterman himself to order the booking. But Lettermen's hand in re-arranging the song for that night's performance is something that Late Show Musical Director Paul Shaffer says never happens.
The career of Universal South's Randy Houser took an unbelievable turn a few months ago when, according to Shaeffer, Letterman heard Houser's "Anything Goes" on one of Sirius Satellite Radio's Country channels. Letterman called New York, and asked his talent coordinator to book Houser. But Letterman took it a step further when he called Shaffer just prior to the 1pm vocal rehearsal on the day of the show to make a suggestion. Shaffer told a small group of folks hanging around on-stage after the show that Letterman said he was a little embarrassed to ask, but he wanted the second verse and the chorus added on to the end of the song. "He wanted to be sure those lyrics weren't lost on the audience," said Shaffer, "and he wanted them repeated."
So, here's Houser with the most incredible opportunity of his life, thinking all he has to do is go on stage and sing a song he had performed a thousand time before. Only now – the song was different. And the first time he heard of the changes was about four hours before show time.
At dinner after the show, I asked Houser if a curve ball of that magnitude shook him up. "I was a little freaked out," he admitted. "I don't get nervous about performing; never have. But that changed everything. I was expecting to put the energy into the performance without really having to think about what I was singing. But I had to concentrate on the new wrinkle Paul put in.
My only concern was making sure I got Dave's revisions right. I loved the fact that he had listened to the song and it hit him hard enough that he put the energy into changing it so he could have us perform it the way he heard it in his head. I'm not sure if he was trying to see what I was made of, but what it did was make me step up my game and concentrate on what I was doing. That was the first time I have ever performed the song that way, and it created a whole new passion and energy level for me as a singer of that song."
There was a lot of conversation among all of us who were part of Randy's entourage as to why Houser's single struck such a huge nerve with Letterman. No one really knew, so I asked Shaffer for his thoughts during our after-show chat. He prefaced his story by noting that these were his feelings – not necessarily something Letterman had said to him.
When discussing the song with Letterman on the morning of the show, Shaffer said he reminded Dave of a conversation the two had almost 20 years ago. "My relationship with my wife Cathy was on-again, off-again a number of times," recounted Shaffer. "Once when I thought it was off for good, David told me I really needed to make it work, and that she was the right person for me. He then told me that I didn't want to be one of those guys always looking for his pants in a darkened room. He said at the time it was a fear of his, as well." Shaffer added that Letterman didn't recall the details of that talk two decades ago. And, while Shaffer wouldn't say that was why the song and Houser's performance got Letterman's attention in the first place, it sure seems to provide a possible reason.
After hearing Shaffer's story, Houser told me, "The lyric about looking for your blue jeans on a stranger's bedroom floor is what Letterman wanted to hear again, and it's exactly the reason I wanted to cut the song in the first place. In the single, that verse goes by kinda fast. Letterman wanted us to do it again so it hit home, so it must have meant something to him."
As Houser and I were talking about the extraordinary series of events that took place around the Letterman show, he said, "Nothing about my career or life has been normal. It's not like I haven't worked really hard for it, or haven't worked at learning how to do what I do. But everything that's come to me, and all the door have been opened, I know there are unseen forces at work putting me in the position I'm in – it's something way outside of me at work. As a kid, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life; that vision was put into me from somewhere else and for some reason. But to not only have that dream, but then to have been given the talent and to realize I could do it -- all that comes from somewhere else. And I won't ever forget that."
Other observations from hanging around Houser during his Letterman show appearance. The band and crew really seemed to dig Houser's performance. The crew applauded after Randy sang the song at the full rehearsal. After the show, I walked by one of the band members who was chatting with two of the Shaffer-hired back-up singers and overheard them raving about Randy's voice. And, these are folks who hear amazing talent on a constant basis.
It was interesting to watch Randy and his band in the green room while waiting to go on. Despite claiming he wasn't nervous, Houser paced the hallway like an expectant father. But the tell-tale sign was that everybody in the band hit the bathroom six times before going on in one of the biggest cases of pre-performance anxiety peeing on record.
The Letterman taping ran long last Thursday, and they had to cut about eight minutes out of the show we watched. One of the cuts was an amazing testimonial about Houser by Letterman. During a billboard for upcoming guests, Letterman held up a copy of Houser's CD and went on for 90 seconds about what a great singer he was and how the audience had to pay attention to the song. Dave called it one of the best Country and R&B performances he had ever heard and how the performance was going to bring down the house. It's a shame it hit the cutting room floor.
My thanks to everyone at Universal South and my tour guide Denise Roberts. Watching a new artist hit such a milestone so early in their career was incredible. An unforgettable experience was made even more memorable when we all piled into a New York City bar at 11:30pm and asked them to turn on the Letterman show. I'm sure the patrons thought we were nuts, but word soon spread about why we were there. It was just so cool to watch an entire bar erupt into applause, cheers and pats on the back for Randy when his song was over. What a night.
Click HERE to watch Randy Houser perform on Late Night With David Letterman