Your typical country song doesn’t open with a line like: “They blew up the chicken man in Philly last night/And they blew up his house, too.”
But when John Anderson sings Bruce Springtseen’s “Atlantic City,” the tune takes on a honky-tonk character entirely different from the dark mood of the original, which appeared on Nebraska.
Anderson’s version is the last of 12 tracks on his new CD, Nobody’s Got It All, released Tuesday (March 27). The collection is his first for Columbia (Springsteen’s label, coincidentally) and his 22nd overall. Blake Chancey and Paul Worley — the team behind the Dixie Chicks ’ recordings — are producers of Anderson’s new work.
Had he heard Springsteen’s rendition of “Atlantic City” first, Anderson reasons, he might not have chosen to record the song. Another singer he admires greatly convinced him that it would be right for his repertoire.
“It was Levon’s version,” Anderson reveals during a morning interview at his publicist’s Nashville office. Levon Helm, drummer and vocalist for The Band, embraced “Atlantic City” on the group’s 1993 release, Jericho.
Helm traveled with Anderson one summer several years ago; the singers even did a few shows together. Anderson, who grew up in Florida, and Helm, who hails from Arkansas, have a lot in common, culturally and musically. “We had a great time,” Anderson recalls. “He’s a good one.”
Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” Anderson says, “was a whole different concept for the song. He was playing on the guitar, kinda like a folk version. Not that I wouldn’t have liked it, but I wouldn’t have thought of me doing the song. Hearing Levon, no problem.”
Also a no-brainer was Anderson’s decision to sign a new deal with Sony, Columbia’s parent company. Beginning with Warner Bros., which released his debut album, John Anderson, in 1980, Anderson has recorded for seven major label imprints. “A couple of times I was hoping that this is home, this is where I’ll do my box set,” he says of his corporate migrations. “Things change at record labels just like they change down here at the local construction company. Employees change, CEOs change. If you’re going to be here 25 years or 30 or 40 or 15, you’re probably going to have to learn to deal with some of those changes.”
His most recent studio album, Takin’ the Country Back, appeared on Mercury in August 1997. It did not generate a bona fide country hit, though it went as high as No. 19 on Billboard’s country album chart.
With a vocal delivery that reflects the influence of Merle Haggard and George Jones , Anderson, 46, has shown before that he is capable of making a comeback. After a streak of hits in the early ’80s that included his rendition of Billy Joe Shaver ’s “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday),” “Wild and Blue” and “Swingin’,” his star dimmed some, only to burn brightly again in the early ’90s with “Straight Tequila Night,” “Seminole Wind” and “Money in the Bank.”
Critics at Entertainment Weekly and USA Today already have embraced Nobody’s Got It All and its rich mix of material. Anderson uses the Muscle Shoals Horn Section on “You Ain’t Hurt Nothin’ Yet.” His cover of singer-songwriter Chris Knight ’s “It Ain’t Easy Being Me” is a highlight. “The Big Revival,” written by Dennis Linde, has a big beat and the memorable chorus line, “Praise the Lord and pass me a copperhead.”
The new album took longer to make, Anderson says, but the delay worked to his advantage. “It was two sessions, four different times, was the way it went. We recorded over a period of three and a half or four months … it gave us a chance to listen to the tracks, to see if what we wanted was on the record. In the future, when we cut albums, I may go with that same concept, spreading it out over three or four months or a year. I have dear friends who take five or six years to do an album. Why should I feel ashamed about taking six weeks?”
So far, the album has not produced a hit. Two tracks, “You Ain’t Hurt Nothin’ Yet” and “Nobody’s Got It All,” were released last year on Epic, another Sony imprint, in hopes of giving the album a running start, but both stalled in the mid 50s on the Billboard country singles chart.
Try to get Anderson to talk about it, though, and he’s only generous in his comments. “I’ve not been dwelling a lot on charts and other records,” he says. “I listen to the radio some, but I don’t dwell on what everybody goes around talking about … In my career, overall, radio’s been pretty good to me, so I’m not going to sit and slam country music radio, ever.”
His brand of roots-oriented country might play well with the Americana crowd, and if they embrace him he’ll take the support, though he says, “I’ve thought that’s where our fans have been for 25 years, really. If we weren’t Americana, I don’t know who was or is.”
Anderson understands that tastes change and “country music takes its cycles.” He sings frequently about change on Nobody’s Got It All, whether contemplating a shift in social values on “I Ain’t Afraid of Dying”; wistfully recalling his late grandparents, natives of Kentucky, on “Appalachian Blue”; chronicling generational movement in “Go to Town”; or lamenting the vanishing of the homeplace on “Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons.”
“It’s all around us,” Anderson reasons, “same as you hear the dissent about change in country music. Everybody likes to talk about change and whine about it, and it does affect our lives, sometimes not for the better. That’s what music’s all about. We sing about the good times too.”
And in his outlook, Anderson chooses to focus on the good times. “I’m not going to be one of those bitter people who say, “Gosh, I just think it’s terrible what they’re doing,’ because I don’t think it’s terrible,” he contends. “I think there are some great records out there. It comes and goes, where it’s sometimes more country than others.
“I’m fortunate to know what country music really is, so I write and sing and play that,” he continues. “Luckily, we have real fans who buy tickets and records. They pull us through. That’s about the only thing we really have going at this point. It’s enough to make a living at. We’ll be pretty busy this summer. Not as busy as we have been in years past, but pretty busy. It’s been a nice little run, considering.”