After an unsuccessful attempt at another comeback in 2007 with the John Rich-produced Easy Money, John Anderson’s latest album Bigger Hands was released last month on the small label Country Crossing. It reunites him with co-producer James Stroud, who produced his early 90s records, and the result is mostly fairly understated, and is generally more sympathetic to John’s voice and style than Easy Money. John is in great voice, and wrote all the material with a variety of co-writers.
The most immediately familiar song here is John’s version of ‘Shuttin’ Detroit Down’, which he co-wrote with John Rich, who of course had a hit single with the song earlier this year. I always liked the song itself, and thought it a laudable response to current economic issues, but I was distinctly underwhelmed by Rich’s disconnected vocal. John Anderson always commits 100% to his material, and has a history of recording this type of subject matter, going all the way back to ‘Havin’ Hard Times’ on his debut album almost 30 years ago. It should come as no surprise that I vastly prefer his take on the song to that of his co-writer; John Anderson’s stronger voice and more intense approach give the lyric a massive added punch. I really believe him when he sings here about being “fightin’ mad” about the situation. It seems a shame that John Rich’s release of the song as a single has prevented Anderson from doing so.
Instead, the label is pushing the more frivolous ‘Cold Coffee And Hot Beer’, written with longtime collaborator Lionel A Delmore. Since Warner Brothers couldn’t get John back on the radio a couple of years ago, his new indie label may not have much hope, no matter how good the material, which is, in the words of this song, “a cryin’ shame, like cold coffee and hot beer”. It is a highly entertaining song whose narrator is fabulously hopeless at all aspects of life as he laments the loss of his wife; not only can he not make coffee or put his beer in the refrigerator, he can’t manage washing up the cups, and it seems that she brought in the paycheck too. No wonder she left.
The familiar theme of honky tonking is represented by the cheerful, if rather generic, ode to ‘Bar Room Country’, as John paints the picture of a “jumpin’ honky tonk on the county line“, the sort of place where “every night’s like Saturday night“. Much better (and a track which would have been a big hit if recorded at John’s commercial peak) is the witty chugging opening track, ‘How Can I Be So Thirsty’, written with fellow-veteran Billy Joe Walker and the younger songwriter/artist Jerrod Niemann. Here John utters a ironic complaint about a well-deserved hangover – “How can I be so thirsty, after all I drank last night?” he asks plaintively, after listing all the reasons why.
Honky tonk living has come back to bite the protaginist even more seriously in my favorite track of all, the traditional sounding ‘What Used To Turn Me On’, written with William and Martha Jo Emerson. In this song, the narrator finds his wild ways have led his wife to leave (“she took my guitar and my old hat, I never thought it would come to that”), and:
“The whiskey about done me in
So I don’t go there again
What used to turn me on
Has turned on me”
There are two collaborations with Dean Dillon. ‘Better News’ is a little disappointing, a gloomy and slightly over-produced ballad offering cold comfort to a friend whose loved one has found someone new: “I wish I had better news”, John commiserates. Better is the subtle lost-love tale of ‘Missing Her Again’. “I thought I’d be over it by now,” he sings sadly, but he cannot stop thinking about her. The emotion is pushed up a notch in the final verse when it emerges that she has actually died:
“Even though I know she’s in a better place
I’m still missin’ my best friend”
John’s sister Donna and the unrelated Michael Anderson helped him write ‘The Greatest Story Never Told’, an appealing declaration of love for an apparently ordinary woman who is “more precious than silver and gold“. It is not groundbreaking lyrically, but the pretty tune, tender vocal and undertstated production give the track a lot of charm.
I was less keen on ‘Shorty’s Long Gone’, a bluesy number in the vein of past cuts like ‘Black Sheep’ co-written with 60s rocker Mark Farner. There is definitely an intriguing story in here, about a missing person/murder mystery, as the missing Shorty had been flirting with “Long Legged Betty”, girlfriend of the very sinister sounding “Full Moon Freddy”, and is now nowhere to be found, but the production is a bit too heavy, making this one of the few mis-steps on this album. The track has grown on me a little with repeated listens, though.
Also disappointing are the two tracks written with Shawn Camp. ‘Fade Out’ is just dull, but the pun-heavy ‘Hawaiia In Hawaii’ is probably my least favorite track. John sings it more seriously than it deserves, but the lyric, addressing an ex somewhere in Hawaii, is little more than a string of puns on Hawaiian cliches and place names. It’s a 15 second joke stretched out into a three minute song.
Certainly not boring is the most challenging song on the album, the very dark title track. John Anderson has been interested in environmental issues for years, and has written and recorded a number of songs on the subject, but he and co-writer James Ervan Parker seem to be in positively apocalyptic mood here. Back in 1993 John wrote a song with Fred Carter Jr called ‘All Things To All Things’, which he recorded on his Solid Ground album. Then, he addressed God,
“You give us the sands on the desert
You give us the waves on the shore
We take what we please from the rivers and seas
And still we keep asking for more…
We sow and we burn and still we don’t learn
It seems that nobody cares
Are you the giver who longs for the gift that you bring?
How can you always be all things to all things?”
‘Bigger Hands’ feels like a sequel to the aforementioned song, with humanity’s chickens coming home to roost, as John sets out various global warming disasters like floods, drought and forest fires, and presages global meltdown, in very gloomy, almost menacing, tones:
“People don’t understand
Some folks never give a damn
Soonthey’re gonna find
It’s in bigger hands than yours and mine”
The song (and album) end with a short spoken sermon snippet and some chanting from members of the Apache Nation before fading into silence. The song may verge on the preachy, but it is undeniably very powerful.
John Anderson still has one of the most distinctive voices in country music, both literally and in terms of his material. It is a shame that country radio listeners will probably not hear this fine album.
Bigger Hands is available digitally and on CD from Amazon.