John Anderson owns one of the all-time great voices in country music. Even when George Jones and Merle Haggard still walked among us, Anderson could have been on the shortlist for our best living male country singer. For whatever reason, though, John Anderson has always flown a bit under the radar, even when he was regularly sending singles and albums to the highest regions of the country charts, and almost scraping into the pop top 40 with “Swingin'” in 1983. For example, you’ll search in vain for John Anderson among his neo-traditionalist peers George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, and Randy Travis in Ken Burns’ country music documentary.
Fortunately, more than 40 years into his career, John Anderson’s voice, as well as his songwriting talent, remain beautifully intact on his reflective new album, which happens to be titled Years. Anderson’s voice sounds pretty much unchanged since 1981 when he was first singing about how he was an old chunk of coal who planned on being a diamond someday.
Although the opening track, “I’m Still Hanging On”, is a short story about a struggling but resilient military veteran, the song’s title rings with autobiographical authenticity. Anderson has chosen not to be specific, but he has noted that Years was recorded during a life-threatening illness that had him seriously wondering if the album’s recording sessions would be his last.
Produced by Dan Auerbach after the Black Keys member called Anderson simply to express his longtime fandom, Years finds Anderson in a mood that successfully combines plain-spoken contemplation with heartfelt gratitude. This juxtaposition is most evident on the album’s second and third tracks, “Celebration” and “Years”.
“Celebration” has the musical – but not lyrical — feel of one of Glen Campbell’s version of “Gentle on My Mind”. Anderson notes, “As I look back through the years / I’ve seen my share of good and bad times,” and concluding, “I’ve had a great life.” Anderson takes a moment to thank God for it, while at the same time being prayerfully hopeful that God will grant him tomorrow as well.
“Years” is a both a Power Ballad and a powerful ballad. “Years, everybody knows / You gotta let ’em go / And they kind of roll by like tears,” Anderson begins, before advising, “Don’t look back in sorrow / Just hope you see tomorrow.” He notes, “You and me / Came to be / We raised a family” and stoically observes, “When we’re gone / They live on / To See what we won’t see.” The lyrics are reinforced by music that could indeed have served as the big ballad spot on any classic hair metal album, complete with piercing guitar solos. But it’s all anchored by Anderson’s sensitive vocal, which keeps the song focused on the passage of time and the ties that bind. “Years” is a staggeringly effectively tear-jerker. Trust me on this.
Anderson lightens the mood on the third track, a duet with Blake Shelton called “Tuesday I’ll Be Gone”. It’s a breezy but philosophical song about travel and the pursuit of happiness with some guitar work that evokes the feel of some great old George Harrison solo singles. In a similar vein, on “Wild and Free”, it is heartening to hear Anderson, who once detailed the troubles with being “Wild and Blue”, sing “I’m still wild, and I’m still free / Too many places I wanna see / Rambling is my destiny / I’m wild and free.”
The remaining songs on Years, all of which were co-written by Anderson and Auerbach with assistance from a rotating cast of Nashville songwriters, are uniformly strong and beautifully played, with lyrics that consistently circle themes of passing the time, gratitude, hope, resilience, and love.
There a few notable differences that set Years apart from most John Anderson albums. The album feels more like a singer-songwriter album with country accents than many of Anderson’s flat-out country records, which often contained songs not written by Anderson. Years is also missing the flat-out funny songs and rock ‘n’ roll tunes that usually pop up once or twice on Anderson albums. However, these differences do nothing to detract from the depth and poignancy of Years. John Anderson delivers albums at his own measured pace these days, so we may not hear another studio effort for a while. But Years will sustain country music fans until John Anderson rolls into a studio once again.