Good Old Boys, Rarely Meanin' No Harm

A country great's back catalog plumbs nostalgia, dislocation, train-based murder alibis

John Anderson's I Just Came Home to Count the Memories, the first of five new reissues from his '80s Warner Bros. years, begins with the title track, which takes stock of the past but doesn't linger a second too long. Not quite a star in 1981—he'd been scuffling around Nashville since the '70s and had already cut a few singles and a couple albums— Anderson sang in a warm baritone that recalled George Jones's swoops and Lefty Frizzell's teasing midrange. He sounded lazy until you realized how artfully he changed registers, stretched out, or phrased and shouted like an r&b singer. "Memories" is a piece of overloaded Nashville formalism, from lyrics about "roses choking in the grass" to guitar lines that echo the vocal melodies to the finality of two rumbling piano notes that close the door on Anderson's past for good. A tale of a busted marriage, it's a canny take on country's conflicted relationship to its past: "There's no happiness in music/If someone isn't close enough to care," Anderson sings. Memories is an amazing record, with a superbly light-footed Dylan cover and the insane "Jessie Clay and the 12:05," featuring a good old boy whose foolproof murder alibi gets derailed.

All the People Are Talkin', from 1983, takes a break from Music City soldiers and instead uses Anderson's band, with the singer himself on rhythm guitar. It's his funniest, most gregarious record— with a soprano sax embellishing its straight-down-the-line funk, the title track evokes the urbane Lee Dorsey of Night People even as it casts Anderson as the object of derision. (He also throws in some quick, exact asides at the end, just like a big-band singer.) As a whole, the record makes domesticity sound like a roaring good time, and just for kicks, Anderson becomes an environmentalist on Fred Carter's arty "An Occasional Eagle," a Christmas calendar of a song, flawlessly delivered.

1984's Eye of a Hurricane finds Anderson at what sounds like a slight remove from his fame and happiness. (He'd scored big with "Swingin' " off 1982's Wild and Blue, itself recently reissued.) Hurricane's title track stands as his most convincing white-soul move, and one of the best songs ever written about staying out late in Tampa. Meanwhile, "Take That Woman Away" traps him in a marriage with a woman disinclined to let him escape. "She ran out to the car/Revvin' up my old chainsaw," he complains, and ends up gibbering in the rubber room.

Adept at evoking both busted marriages and cheesy Christmas calendars
Courtesy of Bobby Roberts
Adept at evoking both busted marriages and cheesy Christmas calendars

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John Anderson
I Just Came Home to Count the Memories
All the People Are Talkin'
Eye of a Hurricane
Tokyo, Oklahoma
Countrified
Collectors' Choice

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At mid-decade, Tokyo, Oklahoma takes the persona of this superficially straightforward singer as far as it can go. The title track gets Anderson on a plane after a series of expensive long-distance phone calls, and "Down in Tennessee" is dislocation at its most nuanced. Finally, Countrified, from '86, smells like a barrel of outtakes, although Tony Joe White's "Do You Have a Garter Belt" suggests that this great country artist kept his erotic politics under wraps just to please the family.

 
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