Al Anderson opened his Nashville concert a few weeks ago with a list of thank-yous that lasted longer than most of his songs. He carefully named all of the musicians onstage with him. He politely related his appreciation to his music publisher and his record company. He warmly acknowledged all of his cowriters standing among the crowd.
Then, as drummer Chad Cromwell set a backbeat that would have made Charlie Watts proud, Anderson leaned into a microphone and snarled, “Now I’m coming after yo’ ass.” For the next 90 minutes, one of the most successful country songwriters of the ’90s proved he was also one of the wickedest rock guitarists in the world.
After several years of supplying radio fodder to Ty England and Aaron Tippin and supreme cuts to Carlene Carter and the Mavericks, Anderson has stepped back into an old role to record Pay As You Pump, a revved-up tribute to the glories of traditional rock ’n’ roll. Reviving the part he played for 20 years in NRBQ, one of America’s most cherished cult bands, Anderson gives roadhouse guitar rock a lustful, fun-loving spin.
The opening of the concert, part of a private party held recently to launch Anderson’s solo album on Nashville-based Imprint Records, captured the completely human contradiction of Al Anderson: At the unlikely age of 49, he’s hitting his creative peak, balancing his lucrative new career as a professional Music Row tunesmith with that of respected veteran rocker out to make a bigger name for himself. Indeed, Anderson may be the only person on earth who can draw Elvis Costello into the studio to sing background harmonies and who also enjoys first-drawer status as a country songwriter.
Anderson realizes how unusual it is to straddle these two worlds. On one hand, he’ll tell you he can’t believe his good fortune. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense to him. What he loves about country music is also what he loves about rock ’n’ roll: swinging three-minute songs packed with basic rhythms and entertaining, down-to-earth lyrics.
“I’ve always loved country music,” Anderson exclaims matter-of-factly. His appreciation dates back to his childhood in Connecticut, when he’d glue himself to the television to watch a local country music show and he’d fall asleep listening to live acoustic hoedowns broadcast by WWVA in Wheeling, W.Va. “Chet Atkins was the first guitarist I found about out,” he says. “He remains to this day the big guy for me.”
Anderson’s first band, the Wildweeds, was an East Coast country-rock group that recorded an album in Nashville at Bradley’s Barn, employing such local sidemen as Charlie McCoy, Weldon Myrick, Mac Gayden, and Donnie Fritts. But in 1971, he felt the pull of rock ’n’ roll, and he disbanded the Wildweeds to replace Steve Ferguson as the guitarist in NRBQ. “They were my favorite band,” he says. “I was amazed by those two records they had made for Columbia. When I joined, they told me I’d never have to worry about anything again. My first paycheck was $5. I stayed with them for 23 years. If you add inflation, I think I left at about the same level.”
From time to time, Anderson worked on his songwriting, occasionally contributing songs to NRBQ. “I think I wrote 12 songs in 10 years,” he says, speaking in the same short, declarative sentences that mark his songwriting style. “We recorded all of them.” By the ’80s, though, Anderson had developed into a hardcore alcoholic, done in by the pressures of a nonstop life on the road. In 1986 and ’87, he visited Nashville with the goal of writing country songs. After sending a tape of his songs to producer Barry Beckett, he got his first country cut on Hank Williams Jr.’s Wild Streak album. “I don’t remember writing the song,” he says. “I don’t remember doing the demo. And I don’t remember sending it to Barry. That’s how messed up I was.”
In 1991, Anderson’s country songwriting career took off in earnest. He had been sober for only a few months when NRBQ received an invitation from Carlene Carter to add vocals to “I Love You ’Cause I Want To.” Carter and Anderson, both members of Alcoholics Anonymous, quickly hit it off and decided to write together. Their first session included “Every Little Thing,” one of Carter’s biggest hits. “My first record went Top 10,” Anderson says of the song. “That was really cool. It was a good feeling, having everybody in the country hearing your song at the same time.”
At the time, Pat McMurry, a song-plugger for Nashville’s Bluewater Music, noticed that Carter had recorded several of Anderson’s songs on her album. An NRBQ fan, he sought the songwriter out and offered him a publishing deal. “Since then, I’ve written about 300 songs,” Anderson says. “I just started making up for lost time. That happens to everybody that straightens up. All of a sudden you can’t find enough hours in the day. I just started going after it.”
Anderson didn’t think anyone in Nashville would know who he was, but he quickly learned otherwiseNRBQ’s reputation was strong among Music Row musicians and producers. His songs got attention, and he soon found several people with whom he enjoyed cowriting, including Craig Wiseman, Bob DiPiero, John Hiatt, Bill Lloyd, and Raul Malo. His songs have been recorded by the Mavericks (“All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down,” “Missing You”), Hal Ketchum (“Tonight We Just Might Fall in Love Again”), Alabama (“A Better Word for Love”), Aaron Tippin (“Without Your Love”), Sammy Kershaw (“Feeling Good Train”), Jerry Lee Lewis, Shenandoah, Charlie Daniels, and others.
When Anderson quit NRBQ in 1994, he figured his recording days were over; he planned to concentrate on songwriting. Soon enough, though, he started talking with Dead Reckoning Records about putting out his homemade songwriting tapes, which had become popular among Music Row insiders. When Tracy Gershon, an A&R executive with Imprint, found out about Anderson’s plans, she suggested he cut an album with a band of his choosing.
“I guess I wanted to show everybody I could still rock,” Anderson says of his new effort. “I think there are some people outside of Nashville who think that as soon as I came down here I put on some overalls. I didn’t want to make a soft record. It’s a real dirty record, which is what I wanted. I’m proud of that.”
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