|She Just Started Liking Cheatin' Songs||John Anderson|
|I'm Just An Old Chunk of Coal |
(But I'm Gonna Be A Diamond Some Day)
|John Anderson 2|
|I Just Came Home To|
Count The Memories
|I Just Came Home To
Count The Memories
|Swingin'||Wild & Blue|
|Wild And Blue||Wild & Blue|
|Let Go Of The Stone||Seminole Wind|
|Seminole Wind||Seminole Wind|
|Solid Ground||Solid Ground|
|Long Hard Lesson Learned||Paradise|
Contributor: Andrew Shields
In the course of a musical career which now spans close to forty years, John Anderson has established himself as one of the most accomplished and distinctive vocal stylists in all of country music. At his best, he is also an excellent songwriter and is one of the few modern country artists who can bear comparison with the past giants of the genre like Hank Williams, George Jones, Merle Haggard and Patsy Cline.
The most marked influence on his vocal style, however, is the great Lefty Frizzell. Like Frizzell, Anderson is a master in the arts of bending notes and stretching out syllables. He also frequently displays what Michael Gray has described as ‘a panache with little filigrees’ which emulates Frizzell’s own. His singing style also has much of the relaxed and easy-going charm which was a key characteristic of the older man’s work. This is not to say that Anderson is anything like a Frizzell copyist. Rather he has long since internalised that great singer’s influence and developed a singing style which occasionally resembles it but is very much his own. He has also recorded excellent cover versions of two songs which are closely associated with Frizzell. These were I Love You A Thousand Ways which appeared on his 1981 album, John Anderson 2, and Long Black Veil which he recorded as a duet with another of his musical heroes, Merle Haggard, on his third album, Wild & Blue, which was first released in the following year.
In many respects, John Anderson was a precursor to the New Traditionalist movement in country music which was to emerge in the mid-1980s. Like the leading figures in that movement (who included artists of the calibre of Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, k.d. lang and Lyle Lovett), Anderson’s music marked a reaction against the bland slickness of much of the material then being recorded in Nashville. By contrast, his work always had a ‘down home’ feel (in the best sense of that term) and there was a directness and lack of pretension in his songwriting which was both refreshing and immediately engaging.
In some ways, Anderson also had an unusual background for a country singer. He had been born and raised in Florida (not exactly a hotbed of country music in the US) for example and had displayed very little interest in the genre until his mid-teens when he first encountered the music of George Jones and Merle Haggard. His earlier musical interests had primarily been in rock music and, in his earlier years, he had been a fan of artists like Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. Although hardly a ‘rocker’ in his later career, this early experience gave Anderson an ease in crossing musical genres which many of his contemporaries lacked. Among the better examples of this aspect of his work are his excellent cover versions of two Tony Joe White songs, Steamy Windows and Mississippi Moon, on his 1992 CD, Seminole Wind, and on the 1994 album, Country ˈtil I Die, respectively.
After discovering country music, John Anderson soon displayed the zeal of the convert and became determined to pursue a career in the genre. In order to pursue this objective he moved to Nashville in the early 1970s, where he lived with his sister. While there he took on a number of odd jobs, including one working as a roofer on the Grand Ole Opry itself. He also played in small venues there, although his big break did take some time to come. He did, however, sign a contract with Warner Brothers in 1977 and released a number of relatively successful songs with them before making his first album, the imaginatively titled John Anderson, in 1980. From it, I have selected the splendidly tongue in cheek song She Just Started Liking Cheatin’ Songs for inclusion here. The song was also an early indication of his ability to imbue his work with an air of easy good humour. Another highlight of the track was the superb fiddle break by Tommy Jackson, one of the many consistently excellent musicians who appeared on Anderson’s records.
The next selection, I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be A Diamond Some Day) comes from his second album, the even more imaginatively titled John Anderson 2. It is a fine example of John Anderson’s excellent taste in selecting songs to cover. In this case, he does full justice to the song which is one of Billy Joe Shaver’s finest. There is also some lovely dobro playing on it by the late great Pete Drake.
If a principal test of a great country singer is his ability to handle slower ‘hurting’ songs then the next selection here, I Just Came Home To Count The Memories (see above clip), shows Anderson passing that challenge with flying colours. Although the song clearly owes a good deal to the series of classic ballads that George Jones recorded in the late 1960s/early 1970s (and to A Good Year For The Roses in particular), Anderson’s vocal performance here is so good that it is able to bear that comparison with relative ease. In my opinion it ranks very high among his best work. On it he also displayed a mastery of vocal inflection and a skill at conveying emotional undercurrents in an understated way which only the very best country singers could match.
It was, however, John Anderson’s next album, Wild & Blue, which was to secure him a place among the leading country artists of his generation. It did so through the hit single, Swingin’, which went on to become the biggest selling country record in Warners’ history. As a number of commentators have pointed out, its massive commercial success may have owed something to its skilful depiction of an all-American family scene. In it, for example, you have a father “in the back yard rolling up a hose”, his son “on the sofa eating chocolate pie” while the mother “is in the kitchen cutting chicken up to fry”. At the same time, the two young lovers who are the central fingers in the song are “swinging” in that most American of institutions, the front porch swing. Along with this perhaps calculated appeal to US audiences, however, the song also has an infectious catchiness and good humour to it which also help explain its popularity.
There is a similar catchy quality to my next choice, Wild And Blue. It’s a fine bluegrass-tinged song which Anderson sings in a ‘high and lonesome’ voice which is quite different from his normal singing style. At this point in his career, he appeared to be on a roll both in a commercial and an artistic sense. It was from this point onwards, however, that the sure touch that he had displayed up to then began gradually to fade. In part, this was due to the emergence of a group of young pretenders (including Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam) on to the country music scene, several of whom had greater commercial appeal than even Anderson himself. The eventual result of this relative dip in his commercial popularity was that Warner Brothers let Anderson go in 1986 and he subsequently signed to MCA Records. This marked the beginning of a relatively fallow period in his career, at least in sales terms, which was to continue until early in the next decade.
It was clear by this point that John Anderson needed to refine and refresh his musical style if he were to regain the commercial success he’d had in the early 1980s. The first step towards this revival in his fortunes came in 1991 when he signed with the BNA record label in Nashville. The label then partnered him with a new producer, James Stroud, who had previously worked on records by artists like Hank Williams Jr. and Carlene Carter. Stroud’s previous work had demonstrated that he was more comfortable with introducing elements from rock, folk and even pop music into the records he produced than were many of his contemporaries in Nashville at that time. This approach worked well with Anderson, whose own instincts lay in a similar direction albeit so long as this did not interfere with the country ‘feel’ which always underlay his best work. By this time too, his own songwriting had achieved a new maturity and the subject matter of his lyrics had gained a great deal both in range and depth.
The results of this new musical partnership were to be outstanding ones. Indeed, it is arguable that the albums which Anderson made with Stroud (either as producer or co-producer) over the following four years represent the most consistently excellent body of work he has produced in his career. The first of these collaborations, Seminole Wind, released in 1992, contains several of John Anderson’s best songs. Of these I have chosen the classic country ballad, Let Go Of The Stone, and the title track, Seminole Wind, which is one of the very best country songs to be written in the last twenty five years. It is also one of the few to deal with conservation issues; it does so in a very subtle and poetic way and the lyric is, perhaps, Anderson’s most accomplished to date. When combined with its haunting melody, this renders the song a remarkably impressive one even by his own previous standards.
The rich musical vein which Anderson had explored on Seminole Wind was further mined on his follow-up album, Solid Ground, first released in 1993. From it I have chosen the reflective title track for inclusion. Like many country songs, Solid Ground is based around a defence of what might be described as ‘family values’ but Anderson’s take on it does not have any of the self-righteousness which is characteristic of many songs in the genre. Instead, it is a celebration of a kind of hard-won wisdom which the narrator wishes to pass on to his children.
The next choice, Long Hard Lesson Learned from John Anderson’s 1996 album, Paradise, has a similar environmental message to Seminole Wind. Musically, it also reflects the influence which Mark Knopfler has had on Anderson’s songwriting style. The two had first collaborated on Seminole Wind, when Knopfler played lead guitar of Anderson’s cover version of the latter’s song, When It Gets to You. Their working together had also displayed Anderson’s willingness to incorporate influences from outside country music into his work; a willingness which has greatly enriched and enhanced it.
From the later 1990s onwards, however, Anderson’s career appeared to fall into something of a rut. While he continued to make some fine, if occasionally patchy, records, these did not match the high standards he had set with his earlier ones. It came as something of a surprise then, if a very pleasant one, to find that his most recent record, Goldmine, released this year can stand comparison with the very best work that he has done up to this point. On it, he sings as well as he has ever done and the standard of the songwriting throughout is consistently excellent. Among the many highlights on the record are his rendition of a song, Magic Mama, written specifically for him by Merle Haggard not long before he died, the fine bluegrass styled Song The Mountain Sings and the classic country ballad, Back Home. My favourite song from the record and the one which made the cut here (by a small margin) is Holdin’ On. It ranks among the very best songs that have been written about the impact which the global financial crisis has had on individual families. Its starkness and simplicity also show that John Anderson is one of the few contemporary country songwriters who can be seen as standing in a direct line from the early giants of the genre such as Hank Williams. Taken as a whole, the album reconfirms his position as one of the best country musicians of the past thirty years. He has also built up an excellent body of past work which, at its best, stands comparison with that of the very finest artists who have worked in the genre over that period.
Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …