Album Review: ‘Something Borrowed, Something New: A Tribute to John Anderson’

This is one of those tribute albums I love on concept alone. After singing John Anderson’s praises recently, it’s been great to watch his legacy be rightfully honored over the past few years – first with a new studio album proper in 2020’s Years, and now with this latest tribute project dedicated to him. And, speaking as someone who loves seeing projects like this emerge that bridge the mainstream and independent musical divide with the names involved, it’s great to see it all count toward a legend’s legacy.

With that said, however, it’s one of those efforts that, at a glance, might seem too out of left field to work properly. Considering Anderson was one of the contributing members toward the ’80s neotraditional movement, it’s strange not to see kindred spirits like Alan Jackson or Josh Turner – both of whom have covered Anderson’s work in the past – listed here; I could have even seen recen (ish) touring partner and collaborator Blake Shelton record a pretty good version of “Money in the Bank.” If anything, this reminds me of those ’90s alt-country tribute albums to Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall (Tulare Dust and Real, respectively) – an effort where each contributor puts their own spin on an influence’s work, rather than captures it in its original spirit.

For the record, that still makes for a pretty solid effort here. It’s surprisingly more roots-driven and low-key and downbeat than one might expect, even outside of the obvious gut-punch opener that is the late John Prine’s rendition of “1959” or the equally sobering “Years” right afterward, covered by Sierra Ferrell. But it’s more of an aesthetic choice above anything else – a tribute where you can hear the influence without a direct imitation, in other words. And anything that potentially introduces Anderson’s music to a new generation of fans can only be a good thing.

The question, then, is whether the material chosen accurately works for the artist chosen to record it, and whether it rightfully captures Anderson’s essence that made him such a compelling hit-maker for two decades. And, aside from two obscure album cuts and maybe the odd single choice in “Low Dog Blues” that I’d argue all work pretty well for what they are, I’d say most of the essentials made their way in: “1959” is the song that both opens the project and arguably opened the door for Anderson’s career in general, given that it was his first top 10 hit; “Wild and Blue” and “I Just Came Home to Count the Memories” are also early ’80s staples of his that hang around the front half of the track selection, while ’90s comeback hits like “Seminole Wind,” “When It Comes to You,” and “Straight Tequila Night” are featured in the latter half.

If anything, I’m not sure it quite captures Anderson’s less serious, more rambunctious side as well as it could. Granted, we probably wouldn’t have needed yet another version of “Swingin’ ” out there (the Mavericks gave it to us anyway, though), but tracks like “Chicken Truck,” “She Just Started Liking Cheatin’ Songs or “Black Sheep” might have helped to add some energy to the project. And tracks like “I’ve Got It Made” (which, again, Josh Turner just covered in 2020) and “I Wish I Could Have Been There” would have showed his more tender side, although Eric Church funks up the otherwise graceful “Mississippi Moon” and it feels like a fun return to form for him regardless.

But hey, you always have to judge what you get with these types of projects and not what you want, and I’d still say the overall effort is a great introduction to Anderson’s discography. There are, admittedly, some pretty tame cuts that don’t add much to the originals, like Jamey Johnson’s take on “I’m Just a Chunk of Coal … ” and Del McCoury’s take on “Would You Catch a Falling Star” in which Sierra Hull feels underutilized, but even when artists stick pretty close to what works, it’s enjoyable: Tyler Childers’ typically quirky style lends itself naturally well to the fiddle-driven “Shoot Low Sherriff!”; Luke Combs, undeniably the biggest name here, ironically covers the most obscure song here in “Seminole Wind” and handles its adventurous spirit and rush well, even if he gets a bit carried away by the end; Gillian Welch somehow slows down “I Just Came Home to Count the Memories” even more to mine every bit of heartbreaking emotion from it and sticks with the string flourishes that made the original so potent, albeit to a lesser extent; and Nathaniel Rateliff sticks with, well, slow-curdling blues for “Low Dog Blues.”

It’s the moments that differ even just slightly, however, that make for the most potent moments. Ashley McBryde boldly sacrifices the lively hook that makes “Straight Tequila Night” such an iconic ’90s country staple in favor of something more reserved … and arguably more in character with the spirit of the song itself. If Anderson’s version feels like it comes from the perspective of the lively bar patrons looking on as a poor woman suffers alone from heartache, McBryde’s version feels like it speaks more for her and, despite how undeniably catchy it is, shows how dark and crushing the sentiment of the song actually is – it’s a fantastic cover. And then there’s Sturgill Simpson’s choice to cover “When It Comes to You,” which makes too much sense. He plays it closer to the more rock-driven Dire Straits original, but for a song about pent-up frustration spilling out over mistreatment of one’s character … I mean, come on, it’s kind of perfect for him, and it’s as every bit as beaten-down and weary as it should be. If there’s any cover that comes close to matching Anderson’s take, it’s arguably this one.

Anderson’s story of rising neotraditionalist to comeback sensation always deserved closer notice than what it received from the history books, and though no one can sing a song quite like him, this is a solidly fun, respectable tribute with more than its fair share of highlights – something borrowed, something new, indeed.

Buy or stream the album.

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