After the brief resurrection of John Anderson’s career in the early 90s, it died down again in the later part of that decade, although he has continued to release some excellent music on a series of major labels. One of my favorites is this release from 2001, on Columbia. It was produced by hot producers Blake Chancey and Paul Worley, and has some excellent songs, but sadly the chosen singles failed to catch on at radio, and the label deal lasted only for this one album.
The song which is most likely to be familiar is a cover of John Scott Sherrill’s ‘Five Generations Of Rock County Wilsons’, a farmer’s son’s lament at the destruction of his childhood home by developers, previously recorded in the 80s by Dan Seals and in the 90s by Doug Supernaw, but perhaps surprisingly never losing its sense of topicality. I like all three versions of this fine song, but John’s is probably the best and most committed vocal, as you feel the narrator’s pain as it turns to smoldering anger and then defeated sadness as he leaves town:
“I stood on the hill overlooking Red River where my mama and her mama lay
And listened to the growling of the big diesel Cats as they tore up the fields where I played
I said, ‘Mama forgive me, but I’m almost glad that you’re not here today
After five generations of Rock County Wilsons
To see the last 50 acres in the hands of somebody who’d actually blow it away’.”
A more unexpected (and less successful) cover comes in the form of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Atlantic City’, a dark tale of a couple on the edges of the crime world which came to John’s attention via a version by The Band.
John did not contribute many of his own compositions this time around, but one of the songs he did write is one of my favorites, the heavy-hitting ballad ‘I Ain’t Afraid Of Dying’, written with Dean Dillon. It is a trenchant look at some of the darker aspect of modern society and fears for the future, with no punches pulled:
“Some father says in the name of God he took his baby’s life
Well, I don’t think so, the God I know wouldn’t believe that’s right
I may not have the answers when it’s all said and done
Sometimes I have to question where they’re coming from
I know where I’m going when they lay me to rest
Oh, I ain’t afraid of dying, Lord – it’s the living that scares me to death.”
The pair also wrote ‘Go To Town’, a pleasant but not that memorable piece about a party girl and a “smooth operator” growing up and settling down, ending with their children heading off to the excitement of the town in their parents’ stead. The other track John co-wrote was the melodic love song ‘I Love You Again’, written with Craig Wiseman, which is very listenable and sincerely delivered, but doesn’t stick in the mind.
Wiseman did however contribute another of the album’s highlights with singer-songwriter Chris Knight, ‘It Ain’t Easy Being Me’. Knight had recorded the song himself on his self-title debut album in 1998, and it may also be familiar from a version by Blake Shelton on Pure BS, an album which coincidentally featured a guest appearance by John Anderson on ‘The Last Country Song’. ‘It Ain’t Easy Being Me’ is a painfully honest admission by a man who is a self-destructive “self-made fool”:
“There oughta be a bridge somewhere they could dedicate to me
I’d probably show up at the ceremony with a can of gasoline
Walk over to the other side and there I’d light a match
And sit and stare through the smoke and the flames
Wondering how I’m gonna get back…
I had to work to be the jerk I’ve come to be
It ain’t easy being me…
I shoot the lights and curse the dark
I need your love but I break your heart”
Keeping things in the family, John’s sister Donna provided a touching tribute to their Kentuckian forebears facing mining closures and the devastation of the Civil War, but retaining their fragile hopes for future generations.
The first of the unsuccessful singles was the bluesy (and rather brassily produced) ‘You Ain’t Hurt Nothing Yet’, written by Al Anderson and Billy Lawson, expressing the opinion that no physical pain, illness or depression can match up to the pain caused by heartbreak. Equally unsucessful was the more cheerful title track, a harmonica-laden midtempo take on the theme of the grass being greener on the other side, with rich kid Jimmy wanting Tom’s relationship with his father, and poor Tom wanting a car like Jimmy’s, and glamorous Lola, with three failed marriages behind her, envying plain Molly’s happy marriage, while Molly longs to have Lola’s looks.
The label seems to have given up after this, although the CD was issued with an optimistic sticker identifying ‘Nobody’s Got It All’ and ‘The Big Revival’ as “hit singles”. ‘The Big Revival’ certainly should have been a hit, as it is a highly memorable, very Southern-sounding song written by the often quirky Dennis Linde about a snakehandling mountain church, with some great lines and a gospelly feel:
“If your faith ain’t strong enough,
Child, you might wind up dead
Praise the Lord and pass me a copperhead!
Reverend Jones he struts and dances
While the guitar plays ‘Amazing Grace’
He testifies in tongues of fire
With tears of joy running down his face
He aint sure and we ain’t sure
Exactly what he says
Praise the Lord and pass me a copperhead
Well, you won’t find many hypocrites
That’ll take a chance on getting bit
But a true believer can survive
Rattlesnakes and cyanide.”
Eric Heatherly and Michael White wrote ‘The Call’, one of those songs where the meaning of the title changes as the story develops, and a pretty well-written example sung with John’s usual conviction. In this case we have a series of significant phone calls: first the narrator’s mother waiting for her husband to call as he works away from home; then the narrator, aged 18, getting in trouble with the police and having to ring an angry father from the sheriff’s department; finally (or almost finally) it’s the dreaded news that his mother is in the hospital, where, on her deathbed she tells him,
“Only God has the answers – but you have to make the call.”
Finally, there is a frivolous and slightly silly but amusing Shawn Camp/Herb McCullough song, ‘Baby’s Gone Home To Mama’. The bereft narrator takes some comfort that “at least she took the little chihuahua”, and it may be one of the only country songs to namecheck Nostradamus.
It is a shame that this album did not gain greater attention, because it features John Anderson at his best vocally and some excellent songs. It is available digitally, and although the CD is out of print, used copies are cheap.