Keith Anderson begs to differ. The songs on his debut album, Three Chord Country and American Rock & Roll, are not, he protests, almost exclusively about alcohol and sex, as this interviewer has just asserted.
“That’s funny,” he says with a chuckle. “I don’t know if it is exclusively about that. I think there’s just as much on there about love, [being] spiritual and the quest to make it. I come from a background of having a really good time, and I’ve [been influenced by] all the great, good edgy stuff in country and great American rock ‘n’ roll. So I think we just kind of meshed that together. I just kind of live life to the fullest.”
One can argue percentages, but it’s obvious that Anderson’s songs are shot through with the same kind of swaggering, partying, rutting imagery that Hank Williams Jr. has always favored. It’s all there in Anderson’s first single, “Pickin’ Wildflowers,” which, let it be said, has little to do with picking wildflowers.
The album was released this week.
What makes Anderson’s redneck ethos so surprising is that he has such a strong and take-charge academic background. He was first in his class at Oklahoma State University, where, in 1990, he earned an engineering degree, compiling in the process a 3.9 grade point average. One of his brothers is a rocket scientist.
“You can be a genius,” Anderson retorts, “and still like to have sex and party.”
A native of Miami, Okla., Anderson grew up being more interested in athletics than music. Then, when he was 14, he saw girls go crazy when his brother sang a Dan Fogelberg song at a school talent show. After that, he learned to drum and began playing in his brother’s band.
College sidelined Anderson from music temporarily, but he still recalls the excitement on campus when OSU alum Garth Brooks hit the big time.
“It was almost like watching your brother or watching a relative,” he says, “because every year during those award shows, there’d be big listening and watching parties. You’d cross your fingers, and people would just celebrate when he would win. He came back that first year and played a place called Tumbleweed. It was standing room only, and it was just freezing outside. He did two shows back to back. … The next year, his career had blown up so much, he played the [university's] big basketball arena. And then, by the third year, he was playing Tulsa and Oklahoma City.” Brooks would later prove pivotal in Anderson’s own Music Row breakthrough.
With his degree in hand, Anderson moved to Dallas and joined a large construction firm. He became so immersed in the local music scene, however, he quit his job after a year and a-half and started performing himself. By “1993 or ’94,” he was good enough to snag a job at the venerable Grapevine Opry. Three years later, he moved to Six Flags Over Texas. On the side, he worked as a landscaper, personal trainer and model. He even formed a country duo, the Romeo Cowboys, to create and deliver singing telegrams.
Anderson visited Nashville in 1996 to record a six-song album of his own material. While there, he met singer-songwriter George Ducas during a flag football game, and the two began writing together. Two years later, Anderson moved to Nashville. His amiability and talent for networking soon had him co-writing with some of the biggest names on Music Row.
In the liner notes to his new album, Anderson thanks literally dozens of people who’ve boosted him along in his career.
“It’s like I’ve had an ADD [attention deficit disorder] life,” he reflects. “I’ve done about a million things. When you decide you’re going to be a musician, you go from making an engineer’s salary to basically nothing. You’ve got to have a lot of help along the way — financially, emotionally and spiritually.”
In 2000, EMI Music Publishing signed Anderson to a songwriting contract.
“It was one of those deals,” Anderson explains. “where nobody in town thought that I was really that great a writer. Then Garth and George [Jones] recorded ‘Beer Run,’ and [suddenly] every publisher in town thought I was the greatest writer in the world. … But a lot of people just wanted me for that song and those potential awards. Gary [Overton, head of EMI/Nashville] kind of saw past that and saw there was a lot more there than just that song.”
How Anderson helped write “Beer Run” and how it got to Brooks is another story. “Joe Don Rooney [now of Rascal Flatts] is a buddy of mine,” he says.
“We grew up in the same hometown area. We were hanging out, and he said he was going to be writing with Kim Williams the next day. He called Kim and asked if he could bring me [to the writing session], and he did. We all hit it off.
“Kim found out that I wrote a lot with George Ducas and was a fan of his. So I set up a time for me and him and George to write. The first song we wrote together was ‘Beer Run.’ It was Kim’s daughter’s idea. She came back from college, and she [used the term]. We’d all heard the saying but never thought about writing a song about it. So we wrote that, and Kim, who was obviously big in the Garth camp [because of previous cuts], sent it to Garth. He loved it but wanted to rework the whole song [into] more of a [George] Jones kind of a style. At that point, [songwriter] Kent Blazy came in and helped finish the rewrite.”
Anderson co-wrote all 11 songs on Three Chord Country and American Rock & Roll. Jeffrey Steele and John Rich, of Big & Rich, co-produced the album. The Rich connection was another triumph of networking.
“I’d been friends with Amber Dotson [who's now an artist on Capitol Records] for a long time,” Anderson says. “We sang together in this country music showcase at Six Flags Over Texas back in the late ’90s. She had become friends with John Rich. They both were writing [songs] over at Sony/Tree. She invited John out to see me play one time. That was when John and [Big] Kenny were just goofing. John had just left Lonestar. They came out and saw a writer’s show I was doing, and we hit it off. … We became party buddies for a while and then started writing songs together.”
Owing in part to the excitement Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich were generating with their hard-edged brand of music, country labels started paying more attention to Anderson. Late last year, Arista Records offered him a contract.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he says. “I signed my deal in late September or early October and had a single out Dec. 4. … I’d only recorded four songs at that point. Then I went straight on a radio tour, and when I came home, we finished the album [in January]. So it all hit so fast that there wasn’t really a lot of that get-signed-and-wait-two-years [situation]. I was real fortunate. I’ve got friends at other labels who have been signed for that long a period — and they’re still waiting. They basically hate me right now.”
This summer, Anderson plans to do a lot of club dates. He’s also reviewing video treatments for the song “XXL,” which is one of three candidates to be the album’s second single.
“I fell into the groove of what I’m doing about four or five years ago,” Anderson observes. “It’s taken that long for what I do to hit the market. So I’m just hoping that I’ll continue to be able to do what I do and stay true to who I am. … But I also want to be able to evolve and have fun with it.”