Wild And Blue was John Anderson’s fourth album, released in 1982, and it provided the springboard for a major change in his career.
It was produced, like I Just Came Home To Count The Memories, by John with the Canadian Frank Jones who had worked with some of the all-time greats, including, at various times, Lefty Frizzell, Marty Robbins, Ray Price and Johnny Cash. The sessions which resulted in this album were the last ever recorded at the legendary Columbia Studio B, which was demolished immediately afterwards. Most of the album was in the solidly country style John had become known for in the past few years, but there were a couple of tracks where he took a new turn.
The title track is a carefully crafted song written by John Scott Sherrill, with a clever play on words (“They could just take you up to yonder, honey, you’re already wild and blue”), pained, wailing vocal, and fiddle-heavy arrangement. The complex lyric depicts a troubled woman yearning for a man she can’t have, with the narrator asking,
“Way across town a phone rings off the wall
If you know he ain’t home why do you keep calling?”
She then seeks some kind of tawdry satisfaction with other men – and only in the last verse do we find that the narrator is this woman’s husband, when he pleads,
“It’s four in the morning and you’re all alone
With no place to go, you know you ought to come home”.
The lead-off single from the set, it was John’s first #1 hit, a major achievement but one soon to be overshadowed.
John’s songwriting muse seems to have temporarily abandoned him during this period. He co-wrote only two tracks on this album; sadly they are not only the two worst tracks, but they heralded a major change in his musical direction. ‘Swingin”, written with regular writing partner Lionel Delmore, was John Anderson’s biggest hit to date, despite being the worst song he had ever recorded, a brassily over-produced semi-novelty song about the joys of sitting on a porch swing with the protagonist’s teenage girlfriend, and extremely irritating little-girl-style backing vocals. It was a very polarizing record, because it antagonized many of John’s existing fans, who had been drawn to the hard country style which had epitomized most of his previous work. Still, it hit a massive chord with both record buyers and radio. It was a massive hit, one of very few country singles at the time to sell in excess of a million copies, the top seller of 1983, CMA Song of the Year, and even scored some limited crossover pop success. The stratospheric success of the single propelled album sales, making Wild And Blue John’s first gold album (also not common for country acts in the early 80s).
In similar vein, ‘Goin’ Down Hill’, which John wrote with X Lincoln, was more bluesy and pop-sounding than John’s fans were used to. It is not a very memorable lyric, but it rode the coat tails of ‘Swingin” to the top 5.
Happily, the remainder of the album is much better, with production more to my liking and higher quality songs. Another song which anticipates aspects of John’s subsequent career is Sandy Pinkard and James Cowan’s ‘Disappearing Farmer’, which foreshadows the environmental concerns which John was one of the first country singers to champion, married to the more traditional theme of rural poverty. The song unveils the tragedy of an old man (the narrator’s grandfather) vainly battling both old age and drought:
“It’s a sad truth when the winds can blow a man’s whole life away
Like it strips the topsoil from the ground where the corn grew yesterday”.
A serious, soulful cover of the Lefty Frizzell classic ‘Long Black Veil’ is given added luster by Merle Haggard’s “special ghost appearance” (as it is billed in the liner notes). Emmylou Harris, one of the great duet and harmony singers in country music, and then near her commercial peak, joins John on the very short (2:40 in all, with about a minute of that being instrumental) but sweet 1930s song ‘The Waltz You Saved For Me’.
A couple of tracks offer affectionate tributes to a country night out and the chances of hooking up with someone. ‘A Honky Tonk Saturday Night’, written by the great Sanger D Shafer, has been recorded by several other artists, including George Strait, but John’s version is one of the best, as he hopes
“It’s not who is who, but who will or who might,
With luck I’ll turn her on before they turn out the lights
On a honky tonk Saturday night.”
Bob McDill’s more cynical ‘Honky Tonk Hearts’ points out the potential regrets of the morning after:
“Honky tonk hearts fall in love easy
And it”s so easy when you hold each other tight
Honky tonk hearts believe in forever
But it always looks different in the bright morning light.”
There are also some excellent songs on the theme of lost love. In the engaging ‘She Never Looked That Good When She Was Mine’, the protagonist only realizes what he has lost when he meets his ex out with a new man and she actually looks happy. ‘The Price Of A Thin Silver Dime’ is a lovely Ronal McCown ballad with the narrator realizing the little things that might have saved his marriage:
“I could have bought paper for a hundred love letters…
I let her slip away
I could have called her today
For the price of a thin silver dime.”
In the final track ‘If A Broken Heart Could Kill’ (later also recorded by Keith Whitley) John lets rip with some real George Jones-style heartbreak:
“Oh why didn’t you just take a gun
And shoot me where I stood
And put an end to this misery
I’m still alive and somehow I will survive
And Lord knows that I’d be cold and still
If a broken heart could kill.”
So with the exception of two of the eleven tracks, this is actually a very fine album, with John in excellent vocal form. Sadly, the success of ‘Swingin” was to lead John in the wrong direction for several years – and as a result it almost derailed his career for good. If you want to check it out for yourself, the album was rereleased digitally and on CD a few years ago.