Al Anderson has earned a good living writing hits for country music artists such as Tim McGraw and LeAnn Rimes, but his singing and guitar playing long ago made him a true musical hero among roots-rock aficionados. Living his life on his own timetable, he gets around to releasing a new album every decade or so.
"Yeah, it's one record after the other," he tells CMT.com. "Every 10 years whether I need to or not."
The Connecticut native's latest release, After Hours, is only the fourth solo album in a career that spans 48 years, and the Legacy Recordings project is his first album of new recordings since the critically-acclaimed Pay Before You Pump hit the market in 1996.
Anderson is perhaps best known for his lengthy tenure in NRBQ (the New Rhythm & Blues Quartet), yet one of the biggest shocks of his life is that he found his greatest commercial success as a country songwriter.
"I'm very surprised," Anderson says of the reception to his country songs. "I don't know how that happened, but I'm glad it did. After I straightened up in '91 -- when you're about 43 years old, there's not much left. You're not going to be a rock star, so I was lucky I could come down here."
The success has been substantial, too. Anderson's song credits include McGraw's "The Cowboy in Me," Rimes' "Big Deal," Diamond Rio's "Unbelievable," Trisha Yearwood's "Powerful Thing," Patty Loveless' "The Last Thing on My Mind," Vince Gill's "Next Big Thing" and the Mavericks' "All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down." Through the years, Anderson's other songs have been recorded by a long list of artists ranging from George Jones and Jerry Lee Lewis to Etta James and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
He also teamed with Jimmy Buffett and Mac McAnally to write "License to Chill," the duet with Kenny Chesney that served as the title of Buffett's 2004 album. The same project features Buffett's collaboration with Martina McBride on "Trip Around the Sun," a song Anderson wrote with Stephen Bruton and Sharon Vaughn. Anderson's version of "Trip Around the Sun" is featured on After Hours, and Vaughn sings on his album.
Although Anderson grew up listening to country music on radio station WWVA in Wheeling, W.Va., he was attracted to rock 'n' roll and soul and was a teenager when he became a member of the Six Packs, a band renamed the Wildweeds in 1966. A year later, the third song Anderson ever wrote -- "No Good to Cry" -- became a regional hit that was eventually released on Cadet Records, a subsidiary of Chess Records, the Chicago-based blues label. The song was later recorded by the Hourglass, a Florida band that featured brothers Duane and Gregg Allman.
Anderson later became fascinated with the Byrds' forays into country music. During his tenure in the Wildweeds, he made his first trip to Nashville in 1969 to record overdubs at Bradley's Barn studios with an array of session legends, including Charlie McCoy, Weldon Myrick, Mac Gayden and David Briggs. Although he visited Nashville often, he began working with NRBQ in 1971 and stayed with the band until 1993.
"Somewhere in the '80s -- and I'm very vague about this because, in the '80s, I was very vague -- I actually got a Hank Williams Jr. cut that Barry Beckett produced," he says. "In '91, I was looking for a publishing deal. Before I even actually signed the papers, I'd written 'Every Little Thing' with Carlene Carter and 'Something Already Gone' [which Carter also co-wrote and recorded] for the Maverick soundtrack."
Today, Anderson talks openly about his substance abuse problems. "Vodka," he says. "That was most of it." And while he was touring in a successful rock band during cocaine's heyday in the '70s, that particular vice was never a major problem. "We didn't have any money, so I was lucky there," he says.
Carter's recording of "Every Little Thing" hit No. 3 on the country singles chart, but Anderson notes, "I didn't know if I was ever going to have another hit again." Asked if that feeling ever changes, he replies, "No, it doesn't. It never changes."
Despite his string of country hits, Anderson has never been a full-time resident of Nashville. "I'm here all the time, but I never left Connecticut," he says. "Then four years ago, I moved to Santa Fe. That's where I live now, but I'm here more than I am there.
"I realized that not living here can be a really good thing for your soul. This is a great place -- the best songwriters, the best community, the best musicians, just the best everything. And to see what happens to it. ... This thing is really all about money at the end of the day. If something great happens, you have to be really grateful but not expecting it. Amazing songs get written here every day, though, and it's the only place left that's like it."
Anderson's latest album is aptly-named. With a laid-back, jazzy feel to most of the project, it starts off with "Love Make a Fool of Me," the kind of smoky song Charlie Rich would have liked. "I was actually thinking of Tony Bennett," he explains. "Ray Charles would have been great for that. Did you see the movie, Ray? It was more than I wanted to know."
Of After Hours, Anderson says, "It's a personal record. I didn't care if anybody liked it or not." He recorded it for himself, but gave copies of it to his friends and eventually sold 600 copies through his Web site. Anderson and his band were playing some of the songs from the album during an informal gig at the French Quarter Café in Nashville when Jeff Jones, executive vice president of Legacy Recordings, happened to be in the audience and expressed an interest in releasing it through the Sony BMG label.
"They used the same artwork and everything," Anderson says. "I have no idea what's going to happen with it."
In the meantime, Anderson continues to write songs -- and gets them recorded. Among them is "The Faint of Heart," Vince Gill's duet with Diana Krall on his upcoming four-CD boxed set, These Days, set for Oct. 17 release. Anderson co-wrote the song with Gill.
"I'm proud to be working with Vince," he says. "It doesn't get any better than that. He's way more than just a great country artist. He's a great lot of things."