Survival of the Fittest: The Hard Country of John Anderson

John Anderson
I Just Came Home to Count the Memories
Collector's Choice

“It’s a damn hard way to make easy money,” John Anderson sang with a growl to start off his 2007 “comeback album” Easy Money, a triumphant tour de force that should have instantly put his name on lips in country-music-loving households across the country. He’s been in that position before. He’s had at least a few “comebacks”, 1992’s commercially successful Seminole Wind among them. For Easy Money it was John Rich of Big & Rich who brought Anderson back, so to speak. By way of Big & Rich’s label imprint Raybaw Records, Easy Money also brought Anderson back to Warner Brothers, the label that first gave him a record deal back at the tail end of the ’70s.

This semi-return came exactly 20 years after the last album in his Warner Brothers contract, 1987’s Countrified. That album is one of five of Anderson’s Warner Brothers albums recently reissued by Collectors Choice, along with I Just Came Home to Count the Memories (1982), All the People Are Talkin’ (1983), Eye of a Hurricane (1984) and Tokyo, Oklahoma (1985). Together with previous reissues — of Anderson’s first two albums and his 1982 hit Wild and Blue, the album which featured his best-known hit song, “Swingin'” — these five reissues bring into print on CD all of Anderson’s Warner Brothers albums. It’s a remarkable stretch from a distinctive country-music artist whose intermittent but still ample number of hit songs has for some reason never given him anywhere near the hallowed stature or name recognition of many of his contemporaries. This despite having 40 songs make it on Billboard‘s country music charts, including five that hit #1.

The ups and downs of life as a working musician, the constant struggle to make what might seem to onlookers as “easy money”, is part of Anderson’s story, and present in some of his songs as well. I Just Came Home to Count the Memories starts with the title track, where a trip back home leads to love, but it’s the two songs that follow which powerfully depict the day-to-day struggles of musicians. The Bobby Braddock-written “Would You Catch a Falling Star” has a fading country star desperately turning his failure into a pick-up line at a bar. It presents a vivid image of dark Nashville bars populated with could-have-beens and once-weres. The scene in “One of Those Old Things (We All Go Through)”, written by Jo-el Sonnier and Hoy Lindsey, is the down-on-his-luck singer on the phone with his parents, trying to present the happy face, to convince himself that his financial troubles are just a phase.

Yet it’s a mistake to think of songs like these as autobiographical when Anderson sings them, even as the lyrics do resonate in a way with his own career stories, with the constant music industry scramble a hard-working, unfashionable musician like him needs to do to keep his head above water. These hard-times songs are just one part of Anderson’s landscape of vivid American characters and stories. They’re right there with the man who accidentally kills his wife and tries in vain to blame it on a train, not knowing the train ran off the tracks (“Jessie Clay and the 12:05”); with the “Black Sheep” of his family; with the man flying from Oklahoma to Tokyo to meet the woman he wants to marry (“Tokyo, Oklahoma”); with countless lovers making and breaking promises to each other.

Some of these characters were written into being by Anderson and his co-writers, most by other Nashville songwriters. But all were sung into true being, realized fully, by Anderson. He has a consistently fascinating singing voice. It’s his deep, atmosphere-generating drawl, but also the flexibility and ease that allow him to float on top of a countrified version of a pop-rock tune and ground himself inside the slowest, loneliest ballad just as capably. His voice sounds light and heavy at the same time. It’s a hard-to-describe, impossible-to-duplicate voice that gives his music its own distinct character, no matter what stylistic direction he’s heading in.

Both “Would You Catch a Falling Star” and “One of Those Old Things” represent the sort of classic barroom ballads that have branded Anderson a “neo-traditionalist”. It’s a label that doesn’t suit him, despite his dedication to the history, and historic styles, of country music. It doesn’t suit him because he has always been just as willing to break from the expectations of tradition, to bust that straitjacket by following his own instincts and taste.

Born in Orlando, Florida in 1954, Anderson started playing rock ‘n’ roll guitar at age seven, forming a cover band called the Living End that continued until, as Colin Escott’s liner notes to … Memories relates, he heard Merle Haggard’s Greatest Hits at age 15. He moved to Nashville, where his sister lived, and integrated himself into that capital city of country music, meeting legendary musicians and writing his own songs in the meantime. Escott also relates Anderson describing his style as “hard country”. It is, but he also never left that childhood love of rock ‘n’ roll aside, either.

These five albums together are a story of true-blue, hardcore country music, but also a story of Anderson taking rock and pop styles and making them sound “country”, within his own unique slant on what that means. There are purist country ballads on all five of these albums, and on all of Anderson’s albums up to and including Easy Money, yet “neo-traditionalist” doesn’t come close to describing everything Anderson is capable of.

Of these five albums, I Just Came Home to Count the Memories treads closest to that notion of traditionalism, with tracks like the indelible dancehall slow-dance “I Danced With the San Antone Rose” and “Trail of Time”, a haunting, and haunted, Old-West campfire ballad. But it also has a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, remarkable for how straightforward yet at the same time fresh a take it is. It sounds that way even now, when there’s an ocean of Dylan covers out there.

The Dylan cover may betray Anderson’s background as a fan of other musical genres besides country, but not nearly as much as All the People Are Talkin’, on the whole the most raucous of the reissues. Half of the songs — the title track, single “Black Sheep”, drunk-driving warning “Let Somebody Else Drive”, “Things Ain’t Been the Same Around the Farm” and “Haunted House”, a ridiculously fun novelty originally by Johnny Fuller — were upbeat, bluesy pop-rock numbers that still sound thoroughly country in Anderson’s hands.

Eye of a Hurricane takes that same style and smoothes out the edges some, on the title track and songs like “One Shot Deal” and “Take That Woman Away”. But it’s also one of those albums that can’t easily be summed up with just one tag-line, as evidenced by the murder tale “Red Georgia Clay”, a handful of heartbroken love songs, and the smooth “The Sun’s Gonna Shine (On Our Back Door)”, which could almost be mistaken for a pop radio hit from some California singer/songwriter, if Anderson’s drawl didn’t give him away. There’s a side of Anderson’s music that veers towards NRBQ’s style of melodic roots music, or even towards pop singers like a Billy Joel. Yet that side is never fully divorced from the “hard country” side, either, which is a sign of Anderson putting his own personal stamp on everything.

Tokyo, Oklahoma and Countrified occupy similar diverse territory, though the latter puts Anderson’s country face forward and the former his eccentricity, starting with the cover portrait of him in Japanese cowboy garb. That image has its match in the song “Tokyo, Oklahoma” itself. It’s a playful, goofy tale of a potential international merger. Halfway through the album he sings, in the words of Seals and Reid, that all he wants to do is play “A Little Rock ‘n’ Roll (and Some Country Blues)”. But in reality all of that rock ‘n’ roll is countrified and Andersonized in his hands, even the album’s opener “It’s All Over Now”, written by Bobby Womack and made ubiquitous by the Rolling Stones.

The impression remains that Anderson’s career has been driven by his own internal engine, his drive to make music as he likes it, whether his name is currently in vogue or not. That isn’t to say his music doesn’t get affected by current trends in the genre. But even the songs on Easy Money that would seem to have been most influenced by the sound that took Big & Rich to the top of the charts have close companions on these reissues, songs with the same feeling and style, if not the same exact production approach. That kid playing guitar to Rolling Stones songs on the radio is still present in this 53-year-old, even when he’s doing a straight-up, George Jones-style C&W heartbreak song.

On Tokyo, Oklahoma he sings a love song titled “Even a Fool Would Let Go” which has a message of perseverance that fits John Anderson. He has survived marketplace fluctuations, record-company decisions driven by the same, and an uncaring industry and produced a consistent, lively, entertaining and interesting body of work with its own personality. These reissues stand as further proof of why country music, and music in general, needs distinctive, headstrong performers like him, whether record executives and radio programmers realize it or not.