july 2008

Deeply Countrified

Reissues Spotlight Hard Country Icon John Anderson’s Enduring Legacy

By David McGee

John Anderson
Collector's Choice

4John Anderson had been banging around Nashville in the ‘70s, not much happening on the music front as he worked the clubs after toiling at various day jobs (one of which was roofing the new Grand Ole Opry building), until Warner Bros. signed him in 1977. It took three years for his career to gather any momentum, with 1980’s Top 5 single, a cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday),” followed two years later by the chart topping “Wild and Blue.” Collector's Choice has documented the most fruitful phase of Anderson’s career by reissuing five essential albums he recorded between 1982 and 1987. What became known as the New Traditionalist movement was in its nascent stages when Anderson teamed up with producer Frank Jones (former assistant to the legendary Don Law) for his LP debut, I Just Came Home to Count the Memories. A Florida native, Anderson had played in a down 'n' dirty rock band in his teens, so when he gravitated to country music he was having no truck with the then-watered down Nashville mainstream; at the same time, he knew the value of compromise, in a subtle way, that is. For the most part he's backed here by a tough-minded basic band, advancing a lean, historically resonant sound beholden to the previous decade's Outlaw movement. Ominous story-songs such as "Jessie Clay and The 12:05" and the easygoing honky tonk lament, "Would You Catch a Falling Star," benefit from this stripped-down approach, but elsewhere the discreet use of strings adds touches both sweet and melancholy. Witness the lilting, western treatment of Alton Delmore's album closer, "Trail of Time," in which a wash of strings, a crying pedal steel and a spare, haunting gut-string acoustic guitar solo add epic dimension to the narrator's lonesome journey across plains of personal misfortune. But it's all of a piece, in the end—beautiful, lush, heart tugging ballads such as the Bob Wills-like "I Danced With the San Antone Rose" and stomping, driving tonk workouts on the order of "Girl, For You," as well as a brisk, fingerpicked treatment of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" (that's Deana Carter's dad Fred Carter Jr. doing a star turn on guitar. John Anderson had arrived. And how.

1Released in 1983, All The People Are Talkin' found Anderson at the peak of his artistry and his popularity—the single "Swingin'" had finally made him a player. "Swingin'" is not on this album, but some other Anderson classics are, such as the chart topping thumper "Black Sheep" (co-written by film director Robert Altman and actor Danny Darst, whose eye popping credits included Russ Meyer's Supervixens), with its stomping rhythm, honky tonk piano, wailing sax and pumping Southern soul horn section, and its Top 10 followup, the Merle Kilgore-Mack Vickery penned gospel-infused southern rock workout, "Let Somebody Else Drive" (which was adopted as a theme song by Mothers Against Drunk Driving; let it be noted that when it came to tippling, Vickery and Kilgore had some background). As a collection of songs, though, All The People Are Talkin' is doubly powerful. In addition to his own soulful originals (such as the lilting, tender hearted, honky tonk weeper, "Call On Me," one of Anderson's most sensitive vocal readings on disc), Anderson dipped into the songbook of master guitarist Fred Carter, Jr. (Deana's dad) for both the pulsating, horn-driven country-rock title track and an exquisite, folkish ballad, "An Occasional Eagle," which celebrates the courage, beauty and symbolic grandeur of the American eagle as a way of appealing for the preservation of the then-endangered "great bird of truth," whose poetry in flight is captured in Carter's hushed, chiming guitar solo at the end. Clearly in command of all his gifts, John Anderson is hitting on all cylinders here, and laying rubber all over the country landscape.

3Anderson's 1984 long player Eye Of a Hurricane arrived at a moment when the Florida-born country rocker had asserted himself as one of the top new artists on the scene with an eclectic sound that was rooted in tradition but also infused by elements of rock 'n' roll, pop and even jazz. Peaking at #3 on the country chart and yielding three Top 20 singles, Eye Of a Hurricane is more remarkable for its muted, reflective emotions; Anderson seems to be reigning in his heart, resulting in an abiding melancholy in an introspective, acoustic-dominated ambiance marked by delicately fingerpicked guitars and hushed string arrangements, a style that reaches an apex of sorts on the aching beauty of "Lonely Is Another State." Using more of that whispery tone of voice that worked so well on some of his earlier ballads, Anderson conjures an intimate mood that colors even jaunty, sax-fired thumpers such as "One Shot Deal." Interestingly, "The Sun's Gonna Shine On Our Back Door," is enlivened by smooth background voices, a crooning tenor sax and the barest hint of tropicalia in its feel, as if it might have been the template for the sound both Jimmy Buffett and Kenny Chesney would explore so successfully in later decades. An Anderson co-write with Lionel Delmore (son of Alton Delmore, of the legendary Delmore Brothers), a moving ballad of regret and heartbreak titled "I Wish I Could Write You a Song" elicits one of Anderson's deepest vocals, which is supported by an awesome arrangement featuring pedal steel, fiddle, tenor sax and a pop background chorus—the honky tonk meets the Paris bistro. Between the hits, John Anderson was heading for places country had rarely ventured.

5The title of Anderson’s 1985 album, Tokyo, Oklahoma, seems to suggest a discourse on alienation and dislocation, but in fact it’s quite the opposite. The bouncy title track, penned by Jerry Lee Lewis’s compadre Mack Vickery, is about a long-simmering, long distance romance between a Tulsa fellow and a Korean lass that turns into the real deal, and much of the rest of the album has a spirited ambiance fueled by rock ‘n’ roll and blues. This record’s not about someone who’s feeling out of it, but is very much into the moment, living it to the hilt or, on occasion, feeling its pain to the depths. Right off the bat Anderson lights out into roaring territory with a hard driving, hard country treatment of “It’s All Over Now,” best known as a Rolling Stones cover of a Bobby Womack song, and a tune Anderson used to perform with his rock band in Florida clubs. On the snarling, stomping “A Little Rock ‘N’ Roll (and Some Country Blues),” Anderson relates the story of young man addicted to the music (“it was in my blood/running hot and true”) and determined to forge ahead despite pleas from his dad to get a steady job; it features some wailing harmonica from Anderson himself as well as some sweet, surging, Memphis-style horns and a pumping piano driving it into Ray Charles territory. And Mac MacAnally’s double-entendre beauty, “Twelve Bar Blues,” recounts a search for a wayward gal set to a thumping, lowdown beat and spiced with Anderson’s blues-drenched harp moans and a surging horn section. On the tender side are some of Anderson’s most effective ballad treatments notably Wayland Holyfield’s heart-tugging, discreetly string-enriched lament, “Down in Tennessee” (which later became a hit for Mark Chesnutt) and a continuation of that song’s painful memories of lost love, “Till I Get Used to the Pain,” which lays on the strings and adds a wistful pedal steel but is most memorable for the searching, deliberate vocal Anderson lays on it in a truly masterful display of nuanced singing that sharpens the hurt eating him up inside. With its ballads cutting to the heart’s core and its high steppers aiming to inspire a tingle in parts a bit south of there, Tokyo, Oklahoma marks Anderson’s most assured performances on record, from first cut to last, on the best batch of material he had ever had at his disposal.

2Released at the moment the New Traditionalist movement was making significant mainstream inroads, the artist’s final album for WB could not have had a more telling title. Dispensing with strings or overt pop affectations, 1987’s Countrified is country all the way, from Anderson's crying vocals to the tight, small combo arrangements rife with fiddles and pedal steel. The album's biggest hit single, a laid-back western swing oriented drinkin' song, "Honky Tonk Crowd," was co-written by Larry Cordle and Anderson's long-time cohort, Lionel Delmore; Anderson's own growth as a songwriter continued unabated with two memorable numbers, the gentle, swaying love song, "If I Could Have My Way," and a toe-tapping ode to obsessive love, "What's So Different About You," spiked with a furious mandolin solo and a delightful pedal steel solo to boot. But Countrified is as much the artist's homage to his roots as it is anything else. A hard charging treatment of Tony Joe White's lubricious southern boogie, "Do You Have a Garter Belt," and a stomping, organ-laden rendition of Willie Dixon's (by way of Bo Diddley) "You Can't Judge a Book (By The Cover)," hearken back to Anderson's early days in a high-octane rock band in his native Florida; a faithful rendering of Merle Haggard's snarling "Fightin' Side of Me" is a tip of the hat to the artist whose music called Anderson to the country side of things; and a truly countrified take—with a bluesy guitar solo, a church piano, humming organ and a soothing background chorus—on Thomas A. Dorsey's gospel monument, "Peace In the Valley," honors the reflective side of the music on which Anderson cut his teeth. It's a dignified, moving closer, a capper to what had been an important six-year stretch of impressive artistic growth and enduring hits.

Anderson went on to have a good five-year run at BNA in the early ‘90s (including a couple of terrific chart toppers in the bluesy heart-tugger, “Straight Tequila Night,” and the funky “Money In the Bank”), but eventually, like artists who had preceded him, like artists of his generation, and now like artists who immediately followed him, his fortunes diminished as the country mainstream embraced younger, rock-influenced acts (“acts” being the key word there, as exactly how many of them are artists is open for debate) and rewarded style over substance. Unlike, say, Mark Chesnutt, he hasn’t quite found that niche where he can continue to do good work on his own terms, with a label that believes in him. But that’s not to say he’s not doing good work, somewhere, and on his own terms, or that we won’t hear it in time. For those who may have missed John Anderson the first time around, and for those who may need to be reminded of what all the fuss was about, these worthy reissues reclaim an important body of work that spoke eloquently and all at once to country’s past, present and future, and has lost none of its compelling features over time.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024