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Songwriter Al Anderson Returns to his Roots as a Performer


Right around New Years 2004, this duet by Jimmy Buffet and Martina McBride was the top 10 country hit.

(Soundbite of song "Trip Around the Sun")

Mr. JIMMY BUFFETT (Singer): (Singing) Yes, I'll make a resolution...

Ms. MARTINA MCBRIDE (Singer): (Singing) That I'll never make another one.

Mr. BUFFET AND Ms. McBride: (Singing): Just enjoy this ride on my trip around the sun.

MONTAGNE: The song, Trip Around the Sun was written by Al Anderson. Rock fans knew him for many years as the guitarist with the popular group NRBQ. But for the past 15 years, he's been making a name for himself as a Nashville songwriter. Al Anderson has now gone back to the studio and produced his first album in years. He recently brought his guitar and sat down with music journalist Ashley Kahn to talk about his career shift from performing to writing, and back again.

ASHLEY KAHN reporting:

Nashville is the legendary capital of country music. Part of that legend is how tough the town can be for a songwriter.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. AL ANDERSON (Songwriter and Singer) (Singing) I don't know how I ever ended up here. I don't even have a reason. I've got no sense of direction...

Mr. ANDERSON: Everybody is a songwriter. Oh my God, they are everywhere, every waitress...

KAHN: Al Anderson is one of the few who's making it in Nashville.

Mr. ANDERSON: There must be 100,000 songwriters down here, but there's only a couple of hundred making a living at it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ANDERSON: (Singing) The words just have a way of reveling on. It's just another place I don't belong.

KAHN: Since 1991, he's written over 30 country songs that have become to 20 hits for such country headliners as Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood and the Mavericks. He's been named songwriter of the year and been honored with numerous awards. Not bad for a rock and roller from the Northeast.

Mr. ANDERSON: I don't know what I bring to the party really, because I'm from Connecticut. But it's work, so I'm pretty lucky.

KAHN: Anderson started in on music at an early age and grew to love all styles.

Mr. ANDERSON: My mom used to let me go to sleep with WWVA and in Wheeling, West Virginia. It was a trucker station. So I fell in love with a lot of the old country songs.

KAHN: Anderson's career hit the big time in 1967 while he was still in high school. His band, the Wild Weeds made the pop charts with a soul tune called 'No Good to Cry.'

(Soundbite of song, 'No Good to Cry')

Unidentified Man: (Singing): [unintelligible] and you were so proud of it. Someone you can't depend on, someone you can't rely on no matter what is [unintelligible] he won't coming back to your arms, it's all over, baby...

KAHN: Three years later, Anderson took on a new job playing guitar and singing with a music group called the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, or more simply, NRBQ.

(Soundbite of music)

ANDERSON: There definitely won't be another band like that one. It refused to be pigeonholed. It was an outer space band, that's all I can tell you.

(Soundbite of "Me and the Boys")

NRQB (Band) (Singing) Just a bunch of guys getting in the car, no matter who's driving, or for how far...

ANDERSON: We knew how to rock and roll, and did a Sun Ra song, and just a little song with a toy piano or something.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Only you...

KAHN: Perhaps the best way to describe the band's music is goofy eclecticism. They combined rock and roll and rockabilly, with avante garde jazz and love of pop melodies.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Only you.

KAHN: Anderson was an important part of Q's chemistry.

ANDERSON: I probably grounded it, because I wasn't as wild and crazy as the rest of them. My favorite thing is Rhythm and Blues--more serious music than goofy music, although I liked it sometimes.

KAHN: Since we have the guitar here would you like to play a Q tune?

ANDERSON: I guess it would have to be something I wrote.

(Soundbite of "Ridin' In My Car" by NRBQ)

Mr. ANDERSON (Singing): Remember last summer when we had the chance to find each other, start making romance. But it didn't come off because you found another without one hand of a clock, what good is the other. And I can't find no true love, oh baby, it's so hard. And I still think about you every time I'm riding in my car.

KAHN: By 1992 Anderson, had been on road with NRBQ for 22 years.

Mr. ANDERSON: It was always refreshing. Something would always happen that was different, playing on stage. But the other 23 and half hours I couldn't take it anymore. So much waiting around and driving, I was getting worn out.

KAHN: Then a royalty check arrived for a song he had written for Johnny Cash's daughter, singer Carlene Carter.

ANDERSON: I went to the mailbox to that check for that first Carlene hit, and I went, I can do that. I just sat on the couch for two hours and wrote that song. I can do that again, and again, and again.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CARLENE CARTER (Singer): (Singing) [unintelligible]

KAHN: These days Anderson's paycheck of epiphany has left him with no second thoughts about his shift from performer to songwriter. But in the past year the idea of fronting a band again has proven hard to resist.

Mr. ANDERSON: Just when I get out, they drag me back in. Well, I'm figuring that I'm 58 years old and 275 pounds. They don't have one of those. I'm filling a big void out there.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ANDERSON: (Singing) Well, it's finally sinking in that you ain't coming back. I get my old guitar down off the rack and sing the blues about you baby, sing the blues about you baby...

KAHN: After Hours is the title of Anderson's first album in 10 years, featuring 14 relaxed and meaningful songs, some sincere, some funny. I asked Anderson if there's one stand out tune on the album?

Mr. ANDERSON: Only 'Trip Around the Sun' in a heart beat. This girl left a note saying that she was going to drive herself off a bridge in Baltimore, and she heard the song on the radio and it stopped her from committing suicide. So it made me feel good since most of my songs have the opposite effect.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ANDERSON (Singing): I hear him singing happy birthday. Better think about the wish I made...

KAHN: Next year Anderson will celebrate 40 years in the music business as a singer, as guitarist and as a songwriter. Whether he continues to make music on the stage or off, it seems likely that his songs will continue to reach the charts with as little effort as they flow from his guitar.

(Soundbite of music)

(Mr. ANDERSON: (Singing) Just one more candle and a trip around the sun...

MONTAGNE: Al Anderson's new CD After Hours has just been released. Ashley Kahn is regular contributor to MORNING EDITION and author of A Love Supreme, the story of John Coltrane's signature album. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Kahn
Ashley Kahn is an American music historian, journalist, and producer, as well as a regular commentator on Morning Edition.