Many years ago I was visiting my brother who lives in Las Vegas. We were driving down Las Vegas Boulevard one morning when “Wild and Blue” came over the car radio. It was a good thing my brother was behind the wheel, for had I been driving, I likely would have put his big yellow Chrysler in the ditch. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Fiddle, banjo and that incredible voice. I had been raised on country music and knew instinctively this John Anderson guy was the real deal.
Since his first chart single in late 1977, “I’ve Got a Feelin’ (Somebody’s Stealin’),” Anderson has delivered one of the most solid, diverse and impressive bodies of work. He has nearly 30 Top 20 singles to his credit, including five number ones, and a cache of gold and platinum albums. His current single, “Somebody Slap Me,” is climbing up the charts, and it looks as though he’s headed to the top yet again. Nobody is more deserving. He is, quite simply, one of the most unique singers and gifted songwriters to emerge on the country music horizon in the past two decades. With his debut album for Mercury Records–his 20th in as many years–he’s cocked, ready and Takin’ the Country Back.
With the support of his new label, Mercury Records, Anderson is upbeat, confident and sure of his footing. “To be honest, it’s been a real long time since I’ve worked with record people of influence like Keith and Luke (Lewis, President of Mercury Nashville) that have agreed and seen eye to eye with me this much,” says Anderson. “The most essential thing, though, is having the creative freedom to do what you need to do. And we sure had that freedom this time around.”
Says Keith Stegall, Senior Vice President of A&R at Mercury Records and producer of Anderson’s album, “Along with Alan Jackson and George Strait, John is one of what I call the ‘Consummate Hat Acts.’ He represents the spirit of what the majority of today’s young hat acts are trying to emulate.” Garth Brooks, Ken Mellons and singer-songwriter Shawn Camp are but a few of the young artists who cite Anderson as an influence.
But Anderson is not your typical hat act. Sure, he wears his signature black felt hat, but that’s about as far as it goes. He’s not into heavy theatrics, elaborate stage sets and lots of flash. The only flash you’ll get from John Anderson are a few subtle rhinestones from his tastefully decorated Manuel jacket. And that voice!
John Anderson is a singer of songs and he leads his fans through a maze of emotions. Whether it be the anguish of separation as in “I Wish I Could Have Been There,” the devastation of love gone bad as in “Straight Tequila Night,” or the joy of a good woman’s love as in “Money in the Bank,” Anderson gives you something to think about, to sink your teeth into. He keeps you grounded in the realities of life.
“Our music is diverse. You can go back through our repertoire and pick out some great songs like ’I Just Came Home to Count the Memories’ and then play ’Chicken Truck’ right behind it. We don’t want to sound the same. Its a good mix. I think a lot of that comes from being able to do it for 20 years,” says Anderson. “There are very few 20-year careers any more. You have Reba and George Strait but that’s about it.” That diversity is a contributing factor in Anderson’s longevity.
Another factor is Anderson’s ability to perfectly wed stone-cold country music with rock ’n’ roll. As a teen in Florida, he cut his teeth singing the music of the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. That experience added grit to Anderson’s whole musical philosophy. It also helped him to expand country music’s audience and boundaries, thus setting the stage later for artists such as Brooks, Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart. Says Stuart, “John Anderson is the only act that I stuck around to listen to on one of those package shows last year before I got on my bus. He shines like a beacon out there in a sea of everything that’s going on. You can check any stage of his career and he’s always been measured as the real deal.”
Thus another factor in his success: Anderson is the real deal and country fans know it. To digress briefly, in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, country music needed a serious injection of young fans. The core audience was predominantly the over-fifty crowd. The country music industry cast its eyes on the pop market–even purging its rosters of older, more traditionally-based country singers. Although some ground was gained, especially during the Urban Cowboy craze, many of country music’s core audience became disenfranchised.
Anderson, along with a few others, managed to appeal to those hard-core fans. But he went one step further and pursued young fans as well. Explained Anderson in a recent interview with country.com, “When I started working the road, I noticed that there weren’t many young people in the audience. I was about 22 or 23 then and often I was the youngest person at the show.”
He continues, “I couldn’t do a lot of rock-type stuff in the beginning. They (the label) were pretty strict about what I could and couldn’t do. I thought we really needed to reach out and try to get more young fans into the music. Songs like ’Chicken Truck’ and ’Swingin” with a little rock ‘n’ roll in them I think helped us to do that. To bring more fans to the music.”
Anderson’s approach paid off in spades. “Swingin'” managed to become the biggest selling record in the history of Warner Brothers Records, his label from 1977 through ’86. That song also led to a passel of industry awards and nominations in 1983 including the CMA’s nod for Single of the Year and the Horizon award. He was also a contender for both the CMA and ACM’s Male Vocalist of the Year (losing both to Lee Greenwood). Since that time, however, his name has appeared on numerous industry awards ballots, including two more Male Vocalist of the Year nominations from the CMA. But on that count, he remains a bridesmaid.
Now in his early ’40s, Anderson appears upbeat with a renewed sense of mission, “…I feel like I’m just gettin’ started. My band has never sounded better, and every show we do is refreshing.” He continues, “(Fiddler) Joe Spivey has been working with me for something like 12 years and my guitar player, Darryl Decanter, has been with me for 19 years. Glenn Worf (pedal steel) has been there for six or seven years and that’s a big part of it.”
Anderson and his crack band are now in the midst of an extensive summer tour. As evidenced at a recent show in Owensboro, Kentucky, the crowd of some 1,500 was a healthy mix of twenty-somethings who danced in their seats to “Swingin'” and “Country ’Til I Die,” and older, died-in-the-wool fans who requested “deep catalog” songs such as “Long Black Veil.”
Anderson is grateful for the support his fans have shown him through the years–times when even his label wasn’t always there for him–and he often holds “meet and greets” with fan club members at show dates. “I’ve had times when the records weren’t there on the charts, but I’ve always worked. The only songs that haven’t been hits were the ones that weren’t promoted. My fans have been there with me all along and I really appreciate them.”
He also concedes that timing played a critical role in his career. “I was lucky to arrive in town when I did. I was able to meet all the great stylists that had influenced me so much–George Jones, Merle Haggard, Charley Pride, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson–but I also had them tell me how much they enjoyed what I was doing and take me under their wings…well, that’s mighty humbling.”
Such encounters with his mentors continue to this day. Just a few weeks ago Anderson, who dabbles around with the banjo, had the opportunity to meet the legendary three-finger banjo player, Earl Scruggs. Recalls Anderson, “That was big for me. Real big. To shake Earl Scruggs’ hand and have him say, ’Son, I’m a real big fan of yours.’ You just don’t know what that means to me.”
I think it means you’re doing something right, John. Keep it up!