I feel like it’s easy to forget John Anderson – take him for granted, at the very least.
After all, when it comes to country music’s neotraditional revival of the ‘80s, he was right there alongside George Strait and Ricky Skaggs making the old feel new again. And yet, only rarely do I hear his name mentioned in that conversation. In a way, I get it. Anderson’s voice is something of an acquired taste and his song selections could be incredibly diverse, ranging from something that could sound like the resurrection of Lefty Frizzell himself to quirky upbeat rockers that can be hit-or-miss in how well they’ve aged. And as the ‘80s – as well as his contemporaries – roared onward, his success became increasingly more inconsistent and spotty. Considering I always revisit every work by an artist I can before I partake in one of these features, I won’t say those hidden ‘80s gems offered much in the way of discovery, unfortunately.
In a way, I think it’s why his ‘90s comeback is one of my favorite stories in country music history – an unlikely second chance at success that would give way to some of his biggest signature tunes. Perhaps a little more contemporary, sure, but more unique in carving out his own voice during the decade – and albums like Seminole Wind and Solid Ground are legitimately great, in my view.
His work, then, can feel of different eras and times, but I think it all comes together in the grand scheme of things. And as we celebrate an upcoming tribute album that’s as emblematic of that diversity in style as the artists involved with it, I think it’s time for me to examine my favorite hits of his that make him a favorite in general of mine. As always, I invite you to share your own picks below or wherever else you can find me. Anyway, onward!
No. 15, “I Wish I Could Have Been There” (written by John Anderson and Kent Robbins)
It’s been described as country music’s version of “Cats in the Cradle,” and while it’s hard to deny that this isn’t a note-for-note adaption right down to the shifting perspective of that twist near the end, it’s still always been a favorite of mine. Maybe it’s because John Anderson is such a naturally affecting vocalist who can sell the nuanced emotion of knowing the rift that lost time has caused him between him and his children. It’s not as dark and heavy as its source material, but it’s certainly more melancholic and better sketched-out from the perspective of the touring musician constantly torn away, if anything. And there you have it – at the core is a tried-and-true heartbreaking country song that can stand independently on its own.
No. 14, “She Just Started Likin’ Cheatin’ Songs” (written by Kent Robbins)
This is one of those rare cases where something seeped in anxiety and paranoia can be really fun. I can’t believe I actually just wrote that. Simply put, it’s John Anderson’s worry that his significant other’s sudden interest in cheating songs says more about their relationship than it does her taste in music (although, given the era in which this was released, if she’s been getting into Gary Stewart’s music, it really might just be the melodies – and you couldn’t blame her, if so). Oh well, at worst, Anderson loses the girl and can commiserate with Moe Bandy over their hatred of cheating songs. It sounds like a win-win to me, and it’s certainly the melody I like when it comes to this song.
No. 13, “Your Lying Blue Eyes” (written by Ken McDuffie)
This has always sounded like some long-lost Lefty Frizzell classic to me – a fairly quaint yet haunting acoustic-based country song focused on Anderson’s disillusionment with love in the wake of his partner’s betrayal (I guess she liked more than just the melodies in those cheating songs after all). It’s the sort of pure country song that’s note-perfect in capturing the shock and awe of the moment, right down to the aching fiddle and solid bass foundation.
No. 12, “I Just Came Home to Count the Memories” (written by Glenn Ray)
Of course, on the flip side to “Your Lying Blue Eyes,” we have a cover of a Cal Smith classic that dials up the emotive potency by unleashing a flurry of strings and one hell of a hook to match them. And the thing is, this is the type of achingly longing material that I think Anderson nails even better than his upbeat rockers. What I love here are the little details of what our character witnesses on his trip down memory lane – a mixed emotion of happy memories and the reality of the here and now that shows how time and a lack of care has caused them to weathered away (“roses choking in the grass flaking point” and “a broken window pane,” for instance), where he’s not really coming home to reminiscence so much as saying one final goodbye to a place he’ll never be able to revisit again – physically or emotionally.
No. 11, “Lonely Is Another State” (written by John Anderson and Evran James)
Thus far my picks have been among the more well-known early cuts of Anderson’s career. This is one that caught me by surprise in the discovery process – a twinkling, mellow, almost folk-like poetic rambling of capturing … well, the rambling spirit. If anything, it’s one of many cuts here that proves what a fantastic songwriter Anderson himself can be, putting a positive spin on the typical ramblin’ man archetype by focusing on the opportunities he’s had and the experiences he’s witnessed on his never-ending journey. He can even admit that the aching loneliness that always comes with the journey is typically just a feeling, mostly because there’s always another destination in mind where he’ll find happiness … if only temporarily. It’s still a deeply moving and sad cut, all things considered, and a gem worth seeking out.
No. 10, “The Band Plays On” (written by J. Fred Knobloch and Gary Scruggs)
I just love the conceit of this one – treating life like it’s one big song and that, no matter the trials and tribulations we endure, the metaphorical players soundtracking our lives will play on regardless. If anything, they feed off of it. It’s like a song that breaks the fourth wall without being a song about songs, given that we turn to music to give voice to our experiences or commiserate with like-minded fools. I’m not sure it works as a duet quite like Anderson and Levon Helm try to make it into here, but I guess a band does need more than one person to work. And this most certainly does.
No. 9, “Tuesday, I’ll Be Gone” (feat. Blake Shelton) (written by John Anderson, Dan Auerbach, and David Ferguson)
Speaking of duets, we have one of Anderson’s most recent cuts proving he’s still got it. In a way, it’s the basics that do the heavy lifting for me here – a solid midtempo groove anchored in a pretty great guitar lead and plenty of melodic fiddle, pedal steel, and banjo licks on occasion, and the surprisingly great chemistry between Anderson and Blake Shelton here. But I also love the content, feeding off of the same soul-searching energy of “Lonely Is Another State” from before to sketch what setting out really looks like. Sure, the details are a bit light, but there’s something also simply relatable to that feeling of needing to break free for no apparent reason, if only to clear one’s mind. And on my own journey, I’d surely always take this as a companion piece.
No. 8, “Jessie Clay and the 12:05” (written by Sefton)
All in all, a simple murder ballad featuring an unlikable lead character going too far with his abuse of his partner … until that twist comes along and his plans to cover his deeds up are foiled by simple coincidence – or karma, if you believe in that kind of thing. It’s one of those straightforward story songs where the subtext speaks volumes above the actual text, and though I can’t say it features a happy ending, it is certainly a satisfying one.
No. 7, “The Call” (written by Eric Heatherly and Michael White)
At a glance, a song mentioning rotary phones and calls where “some can cost a fortune and some just pocket change” could maybe be viewed as dated in a “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)” kind of way … until you realize that cost comes not in any monetary value, but in one that involves questions of pride and vulnerability. Then, the calls made involve ones of judgment – who you’ll be and how you’ll find the path forward to carve out that path – be it the father here whose job involves a lot of long-distance phone calls home to family to make it work, the screw-up son who has to make the call on whether he’s going to continue to self-destruct or become the typical prodigal son, or that same screw-up who will have to make that call with one less voice of guidance and reason along the way. Sure, it’s a fairly broadly sketched story song, but this one hits hard, all the same.
No. 6, “When It Comes to You” (written by Mark Knopfler)
I think Anderson’s cover is the version of this song most people think of when they remember this song – maybe even Mark Knopfler himself, considering he contributes guitar to Anderson’s version. And from the bigger focus on robust groove to the far moodier, menacing tone from a character truly broken down to his core, I can see why, because this track truly comes alive under Anderson’s hand. His delivery can be buttery sweet when he wants to let his melancholy linger, but this catches him in rare defensive form, where if this relationship is destined to sink he’s going to make sure he’s thrown the last verbal punch. It’s a definite mood piece, but one that can throw its weight behind its sentiment to be so much more.
No. 5, “Bend It Until It Breaks” (written by John Anderson and Lionel Delmore)
Of course, coming just off my blurb of “When It Comes to You,” it’s hard to differentiate this track in tone and content. I’m not sure it’s much of a bad thing, considering the former track is more of an intentional slow-burn and this lets that intensity fly in full force with that fantastic fiddle lead, haunting melody, excellent solo, and smoldering outro. And honestly, I can even get the intentions behind this one a little better – refusing to let a partner emotionally manipulate him further and just wanting so desperately to escape the toxic cycle. And yet, given how infectious this is, I admit it’s probably a firestorm I’ve revisited probably more than I should, and that’s alright.
No. 4, “Nashville Tears” (written by John Anderson and Kent Robbins)
Ah, the familiar story of the wide-eyed dreamer who comes to Nashville with hope and optimism and leaves disillusioned by a town that doesn’t love them back and values commercial appeal over individual artistic expression. Just kidding, like your average horror movie, the characters in these songs never leave even when they should. They stay because they’re convinced it will eventually be their time to “make it” … or because they’re too scarred to return to the life they knew before. It really is that kind of town, and against the fuller liquid tones for greater intensity and the character sketches of brilliant writers we’ll never hear, this stands up with the best of the bunch in this vein – right alongside “16th Avenue” or “Leaving Nashville.” After all, these songs are timeless, if only because the ghosts live on and the band plays on regardless.
No. 3, “1959” (written by Gary Gentry)
Not quite Anderson’s first hit, but his first hit to really show all he was capable of, I think. And if he’s going to rip my heart out in song, at least he does it through a story with real, grounded sincerity. The song even pulls a fake-out, setting itself up as a sentimental love song where the listener expects the outcome to be a reflection on the hardships these lovers endured together. Instead, the listener finds out that these good times are just memories the narrator shares. In the end, she marries someone else while he was on service leave, and suddenly Anderson’s sweet delivery sounds as somber as it was meant to be from the beginning. It’s a perfect marriage of an excellent story with the right vocalist to deliver it.
Speaking of, man, I am not prepared to hear the John Prine version of this song.
No. 2, “Straight Tequila Night” (written by Debbie Hupp and Kent Robbins)
For as much as I try and label these as possible discovery features, in truth, my top two Anderson favorites are going to scan as incredibly predictable picks for fans even slightly familiar with his work. But come on, this helped kick off one of country music’s best comeback runs next to Tanya Tucker – can you really blame me? And considering this was released back when the power of a song could be enough to work at radio, I’m not surprised – given that humongous hook and perfect fiddle melody – that this was the song that finally put Anderson back on the map. In a way, despite acting as an outside perspective here, I’ve always liked to imagine Anderson’s role as a little more involved here as well, as if he’s so innately familiar with what cuts to the bone of this woman chasing old ghosts because he’s the one who hurt her in the first place. It’s always just been a theory, though, and either way, it’s an excellently sketched story song, if only because there’s empathy present for a woman pursued who’d rather be left alone. Even still, when it’s this infectious, I can’t help but draw out that pain a little longer.
Before I unveil my No. 1 pick, here are a few honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut for this list, presented in no particular order:
“Motel With No Phone” (written by Ronal McCown and A.V. Mittlestedt)
“Would You Catch A Falling Star” (written by Bobby Braddock)
“Down in Tennessee” (written by Wayland Holyfield)
“Swingin’” (written by John Anderson and Lionel Delmore)
“July the 12th, 1939” (written by Norro Wilson)
“Money in the Bank” (written by Mark D. Sanders, Bob DiPiero, and John Jarrard)
No. 1, “Seminole Wind” (written by John Anderson)
There’s a lot of ways to describe Anderson’s voice and presence in country music, but it’s almost as difficult as discussing music itself. He pulls from familiar styles in country music but delivers them with a voice all his own. He’s old-fashioned but never archaic or stuffy, able to adapt to the times without sacrificing his more unique characteristics to get there. In a way, I get why it’s that voice that always draws the most immediate attention; it’s probably what even drew me to him in the first place.
But I said it before and I’ll say it again: He’s an underrated songwriter, and there’s no better example of that than one of my all-time favorite country songs. The thing is, it covers a topic you don’t typically hear about in this genre, which is strange, given its affinity for the rural outdoors. You’ll certainly the tales of how much better country life is versus life in the city, but nothing quite like this. And I’m not sure we’ll ever hear anything quite like it again – a song that can approach political territory in its ties to Native American history and Anderson’s own personal ties to their ancestral land with a harrowing look at the tensions between the natural and artificial elements of Florida Everglades topography – the destruction of natural land and resources for financial gain, in other words; greed, to put it bluntly.
But I’ve also said this before and I’ll say it again – political songs work best when they’re aimed at the root structures and speak with the people rather than down to them. And between that soaring melody cutting across organ, fiddle, and perfectly placed backing vocals – a song you describe more by feeling than its technical elements, though, really, which in this case is a heightened journey through time used to offer a voice to those forgotten by it – this has a heart like no other. It’s a song that can make its case and feel like the rare sort of rush you only get from those individual gems worth cherishing – a swell of atmospherics, with the bulk of the grandeur simply coming in raw power of how masterfully well it all comes together. The above version isn’t even my favorite of this song – the one below is, if only because it extends greatness. It’s not a song I could ever claim to understand the same way Anderson or the voices he wrote it for ever could, but it’s one I feel nevertheless. An easy pick for my favorite of his, and of my favorites of all time.