The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where I cover classic country songs, or, in the case of this particular piece, write about several songs, at length.
By the time John Anderson broke out in the early ‘80s, he was one of few artists pushing back against the Urban Cowboy movement with no-frills, strait-laced honky tonk music. If artists like George Strait and Ricky Skaggs sought to make western-swing and bluegrass cool in the mainstream again, respectively, Anderson was somewhere in the middle – a throwback to the pure, simplistic country music of Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard, with a vocal tone similar to his heroes, but not to the point where he was an exact replica; no matter how hard he tried, Anderson was a rare talent all his own. Besides, Anderson didn’t want to be “middle of the road” anyway. According to him, “a fella could get run over out there.”
Though like his contemporaries, Anderson’s first love wasn’t country music. A child of the ‘60s, Anderson absorbed rock ‘n’ roll music before anything else, with his first performance being in a rock band, The Living End. It was Merle Haggard, however, who’d shape Anderson’s love for country music at 14 years old.
After high school, Anderson moved to Nashville, working part-time construction work around town, including putting the roof on the new Grand Ole Opry in the early ‘70s. He sang, largely unnoticed, in the bars downtown. George Jones somehow took notice of the young singer and became his champion; Anderson signed with Warner Bros. Records in 1977, but didn’t achieve his first top hit until 1981.
Even then, though I do my best in the opening paragraph to characterize what Anderson means to country music overall, he remains an artist influenced by his two musical loves. While critics and fans noted a strong Lefty Frizzell influence from songs like “Your Lying Blue Eyes” and “I Just Came Home To Count The Memories,” a hit like “Swingin’” owed just as much to Little Richard as it did to Anderson’s country influences. The main difference from Anderson and his contemporaries, however, was a willingness to pay homage to those acts of the past. He often resurrected songs like “The Waltz You Saved For Me” and “The Long Black Veil” and even made a hit out of an old Billy Joe Shaver song in “I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal.”
Anderson’s first No. 1 hit, “Wild And Blue,” came Christmas Day, 1982. Sadly, the sessions that made up the album from which it stemmed are footnoted in history as the last recordings ever made at Columbia Studio B, one of Nashville’s legendary rooms. Brothers Owen and Harold Bradley built the studio in the mid-’50s, naming it the Quonset Hut. They sold it in 1961, and the company that bought it changed the name. There, Owen, along with producers like Don Law and Billy Sherrill, cut numerous hits, including George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and plenty more from Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins, Ray Price, Tammy Wynette, and, fittingly, the aforementioned Frizzell (among so many others). Frank Jones, one of the other producers who helped in crafting several hit records in that studio, eventually found himself working Anderson’s sessions by the early ‘80s. Of the last session there before the building was demolished, Jones was busy producing the aforementioned Anderson album and reflecting on the history captured in that building. Sadly, they had to find another facility to finish mixing the album, but it’s appropriate that the final master produced there was Anderson’s cover of Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil.”
Around that same time, coincidentally, Anderson had an even bigger (if premature) hit with “Swingin’,” a song where he was asked why he pronounced it “swangin” while his backing vocalists sang the actual title, to which he replied, “someone had to sing it properly, and I sure cain’t.”
He wrote the song with frequent writing partner Lionel Delmore – son of Alton Delmore, one half of the Delmore Brothers. They had basic ideas for the track and worked on it for a long time, but never quite felt satisfied with it. The only reason they finished it was because they decided you’ve “gotta quit somewhere” and just, well … took a swing with it. Another product of the last Columbia Studio B sessions, Anderson originally played the song for Jones as an acoustic cut, to which Jones was very unimpressed. He came around to it, but augumented it with backing vocalists, a rockin’ Hammond B-3 organ solo and punched it up with an additional three-man horn section. It just may have been the needed magical touch to finish the track, as audiences loved it so much that it actually slowed down the chart run for “Wild And Blue.”
For whatever reason, though, Anderson’s momentum faded as the decade pressed on, even despite the fact that the sound he’d brought back to the forefront was all over country radio again by then. A brief tenure with MCA proved unsuccessful in rejuvenating his career, but in 1992, Anderson caught his second wind with BNA Records. His first release, 1991’s “Who Got Our Love” performed about as poorly as anything else he’d released in recent years, but he staged a major comeback hit with his next release, “Straight Tequila Night” – the comeback No. 1 hit he needed and the anchor for his eventual Seminole Wind album.
Suddenly, Anderson was back on top again, with the title track of that album serving as another one of his biggest (and, to me, most impressive) hits – a tribute that tells of the harsh living conditions for the Seminole years ago, and a poignant environmental plea for the protection of the Florida Everglades. One character mentioned – Osceola – was recognized as a leading warrior of the tribe, relentless and determined; perhaps a fitting comparison for Anderson in the early ‘80s, if I were to read that much into it, though Osceola was eventually tricked by Gen. Thomas Jessup when he arrived near St. Augustine for peace talks, later dying in imprisonment.
Anderson’s label was unsure of the song’s single potential until he received a standing ovation for it at the song’s debut at a concert in Seattle. It’s not quite a story song, given that it assumes listeners will automatically understand some references, but it remains a poignant classic to this day.
Anderson sustained his momentum with Solid Ground, which was certified gold and included three more hits, though his success waned as the decade wore on (again), with “Somebody Slap Me” being his last top thirty hit at radio (and what a way to go). He’d receive another break when he co-wrote John Rich’s “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” single in 2009.
Today, Anderson is more concerned with his mortality than he is chart success, a sobering outlook to have in the wake of COVID-19’s total paralysis of the world. His newest album, Years, is set for release later this month, and with the wild ride he’s had throughout his career, it’s safe to say he’s earned the chance to relax and reflect.