John Anderson is one of the most unique and idiosyncratic voices in the history of country music. While his phrasing was certainly influenced by Lefty Frizzell, his hard-edged baritone twang sounds like nobody else in the genre. He separated himself from the Nashville assembly line crowd by writing and performing not just traditional hard country music (which was a pretty daring artistic statement in 1980), but also by incorporating elements of rock and bluegrass. And, unlike most Music City traditionalists, he doesn’t mind displaying his sense of humor on record.
Here are twenty of John’s Essential Songs, displayed in the saving the best for last countdown format.
20. “Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons.” Written by John Scott Sherrill, who also penned “Wild and Blue,” this was recorded by Doug Supernaw in 1993 and Dan Seals in 2008. This 2007 album track displays John as a traditionalist, who wants to keep the family farm, but is forced to sell it to developers. A neat songwriting trick – using the third person voice to mask the pain of the narrator’s personal disappointment.
19. “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire).” John released the album Christmas Time just as his second wave of hits was beginning to wane in late 1994. His holiday album was as memorable as a fruitcake, but this Mel Torme/Bob Wells standard is right in John’s vocal wheelhouse.
18. “It’s All Over Now.” Written by Bobby and Shirley Womack, the Rolling Stones took this to #1 on the U.K. charts in 1964. Anderson’s version is as aggressive as commercial country music would get in the 1980s and peaked at #15 on the country charts in 1985.
17. “Bamboo Annie.” Anderson’s career was a burning dumpster fire in 1989 and the album Too Tough to Tame sounded more like a demo than a mainstream release. Hidden among the muck is this absolute gem about cross-cultural international love during World War II. Joe and Annie’s love story didn’t have a happy ending. That’s the way things were down in New Caledonia back in 1942, ya’ll.
16. “An Occasional Eagle.” A 1983 mandolin hooked album track that Anderson has been performing live since the beginning of recorded history. From personal experience, if you sing all the words to this one during his concert, John will give you the high sign.
15. “Stop in the Road.” Country radio isn’t replete with upbeat bluegrass numbers and, consequentially, neither are country albums. This 1981 banjo driven, moving on scorcher sounds like nothing else in John’s catalogue.
14. “She Just Started Liking Cheating Songs.” Being a singles driven format, Nashville often waited until an artist had a radio hit before releasing an album. John hit the Top 40 once in 1978 (“The Girl at the End of the Bar”) and twice in 1979 (“Low Dog Blues” and “Your Lying Blue Eyes”). After this cheating song about cheating songs went to #13 in 1980, Warner Brothers released John’s first album, which included several of his previously released singles. Alan Jackson did a weak cover version in 1999.
13. “Tokyo, Oklahoma.” A droll Mack Vickery penned number about a mail order bride, as Soo Ling Foo accepts Tok-San Ichy-Ban’s marriage proposal. True story – when I lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma there was a weekly television progam called “Christina’s International” about wife shopping, generally from former Soviet Bloc countries. The sales pitch would always feature some overweight Okie saying, “These foreign girls are great. They ain’t all AMERICANIZED!” Anyway, stats fans, a #30 hit in 1985.
12. “Black Sheep.” Movie director Robert Altman isn’t known much for his songwriting, but he composed this comedy tune about a working stiff with musician/actor Danny Darst. In December 1983, this became Anderson’s third #1 country hit. It doesn’t have a chorus, but the tagline “I’m duh black sheep of duh fam-uh-lee” was enough to propel it up the charts.
11. “Atlantic City.” Boy, that Springsteen Nebraska album was a party in a can, wasn’t it? Who can forget all those upbeat dance tunes about murderers and mob hits. In any event, John covered this in 2001 at the urging of Levon Helm, whose own band, The Band, had already covered it. Musically and vocally, John hits all the right notes on this one.
10. “All the People Are Talkin’.” This 1983 rocker/title track sounds like a hit and a single, but was never either. Maybe that saxophone was too scary for country radio. Or maybe it was because the talk was about a girl who was a DISGUSTING WHORISH JEZEBEL THAT HAD BEEN ON MORE LAPS THAN A NAPKIN. Who knows, really.
9. “I Wish I Could Have Been There.” John’s inverted “Cat’s in the Cradle” is an obvious attempt at sentimentality that works. While making a living on the road, the narrator is missing his children who are growing up at home. Co-written by John with Kent Robbins, went to #4 in 1994.
8. “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal.” John went to #4 on the country charts, and received a Grammy nomination for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, with this Billy Joe Shaver track about self-actualization. Like a Western swing tune, the arrangement gives space for several instrumentalists (fiddle, piano, lead guitar) to shine.
7. “Money in the Bank.” A delightfully humorous love song/rocker that John knocks out of the park with his phrasing and energy. When John goes to #1 with a song like this, which he did in 1993, then everything is right in the world.
6. “Wild and Blue.” This is as country as moonshine and kicks like a Tennessee mule. John twangs on steroids on this 1982 heartbreak/title track that was his first #1 song. Interestingly enough, the cover versions have been by (excellent) female artists – Sally Timms of the Mekons and Lucinda Williams.
5. “1959.” Anderson proved his first cut was the deepest on this 1980 hit that went to #7, his first Top Ten. Vocally, it’s a performance that is both wonderfully commanding, yet equally self-constrained. He could have easily went over the top, but settled for a tear in his tonsils. Lyrically, the most tender song ever about losing one’s virginity in the back of a pickup truck.
4. “Straight Tequila Night.” It just took one drunken, angry woman to serve as the rocket fuel for John’s stalled career. “Straight Tequila Night” was Anderson’s first significant hit since 1986’s feeble “Honky Tonk Crowd” hit #10. This 1992 comeback single charted #1 between toppers by Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson.
3. “The Band Plays On.” An album track from 1996 that nobody has heard, John duets with Levon Helm on this number that will absolutely rip your heart of its chest cavity, slam it on the driveway, then stomp a mudhole in it. In life, it doesn’t matter what happens to you. The band still plays on.
2. “Seminole Wind.” An evocative classic, filled with rich imagery, penned solely by John David Anderson. The beauty of this song rolls over you like tidal waves. Osceola cried when this peaked at #2 in 1992.
1. “Swingin’.” Forget Romeo and Juliet, Little Charlotte Johnson inspired the best love story ever. John conveys the wondrous thrill of new romance and the band positively…um…swings in the background with horns and a rock inspired organ interlude. #1 in 1983. The Country Music Association Single of the Year. The best selling country single in the history of Warner Brothers Records. (Avoid John’s 1994 rerecorded version. It don’t mean a thing, ‘cause it ain’t got…).
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