This is not a John Anderson comeback album -- let's get that out of the way right up front. Need persuading? Look up his discography, which stretches from the early eighties past the turn of the century with few real breaks. Better yet, listen to some of it and realize that if there's any justice at all, history will hold John Anderson in the esteem reserved solely for the most gifted, long tenured and consistent artists ever to sing a country song. But that discussion is for another day.
Instead, take a copy of Easy Money and slip it in the stereo. Right here, right now, this is John Anderson. A voice so vibrant and alive, it ranks as one of the top instruments in contemporary music. Any genre. Period. Songwriting that honors country's greatest traditions and pushes its furthermost boundaries. A sound fresh enough to prod speakers to the limits of their abilities.
This is no history lesson.
Music lesson, on the other hand, probably fits. It started at a show in Sanford, Florida sometime in 1996. John Anderson was headlining and a new country band called Lonestar was booked as the opening act. The group's bass player -- a 22-year-old pup named John Rich -- knocked on Anderson's tour bus door.
"My fiddle player, Joe Spivey, answered and sees this fella who wants to come up and meet me," Anderson recalls. "Joe says, 'Well sing me one of his songs.' So ole John cut down on 'Chicken Truck' and I remember saying something to the effect of, 'He knows it better than I do, send him up!'"
Fast forward nine years and that admirer is now half of superduo Big & Rich, not to mention one of Nashville's hottest songwriters. Anderson reconnects with him through producer Paul Worley, and the two book a songwriting session.
"I was really impressed with his energy and with his knowledge of country music as well as many other kinds of music," Anderson says. "His intensity level was refreshing. You could tell he was really enjoying not only the success but the actual music -- the art itself."
"I really just wanted to hang out with him," Rich admits. "We hit it off so well I asked if he'd come out on the road with me and Big Kenny for four or five shows and do some writing."
That trip, in June of 2005, yielded the songs that form the core of Easy Money. Writing with Rich, Big Kenny and their MuzikMafia cohorts including James Otto, Shannon Lawson and Cowboy Troy, Anderson came away with "Funky Country," "Bonnie Blue," "I Can't Make Her Cry Anymore," the title track and more.
He also surprised a few folks at the shows. "I'd just walk out on stage like a stranger and play 'Swingin'' or 'Seminole Wind,'" Anderson says.
"The crowds went bananas," Rich adds.
Skip ahead to January 6, 2006, and Anderson is one of many music luminaries in attendance at John Rich's birthday party. "We ought to make a record," Rich says to Anderson early in the evening. "I don't care about doing a deal, let's just go in the studio, cut 10 songs and make a record."
"We didn't have anything to lose because we had to demo them anyway," Anderson says. "Initially we were going to co-produce it, so we booked the studio time and agreed on all the players. We were in one of the greatest studios in town and had booked the best players in town. And we had Bart Pursley, who's just a great engineer. We got there that first morning and I thought, naw, this isn't a demo session."
What would an artist do in a top studio with the best musicians, no label and no pressure? If he's John Anderson, he'd just see where the music took him.
"This album is sonically the finest album we've ever done," he says. "We got about halfway through the first session and I realized I didn't need to help produce this. Ole John was doing such a great job and the energy level was so good I thought to myself, he is truly producing this record."
Rich's pivotal role, including his credit as the album's sole producer, could lead some to believe that the country elder statesman was riding coattails on one of the genre's most visible young stars. That notion might need to be rethought.
"I've got production credit on 26 different albums, so I don't have anything to prove," Anderson says in his easy country drawl. "I think I can make a John Anderson record. But now this one is special on account of, like I say, I just let John go for it. He had some wonderful fresh ideas for arrangements and production. He played licks to the players. It was really great watching him work and one of the most pleasurable times I've ever had making a record."
For his part, Rich says, "John Anderson is the George Jones of my generation. I was too young to really be hip to country when George was ruling the roost, but from the age of eight to 25 I knew everything John did. I hear his voice in my head even to this day when I'm writing songs. I still catch myself singing John Anderson licks. He's in my country music DNA."
So who's riding who's coattails?
As for the recurring "comeback" label he's been stuck with several times, Anderson has some thoughts. "I never went anywhere," he says. "Popularity comes and goes, but we're proud of our music. We made some good records in the past that nobody got to hear. Some of that's out of my hands."
The only thing John Anderson can control, and he has time and again, is the quality of the music. Easy Money, which was quickly picked up by Raybaw Records/Warner Bros. Records, revels in the chest-thumping energy of "If Her Lovin' Don't Kill Me," celebrates music's power of inclusion with "Funky Country," goes stone country on "Something To Drink About" and launches hearts throatward on "I Can't Make Her Cry Anymore." Great music is its own justification. And it's no accident.
"He's a very focused individual," Rich says, "but he is willing to listen to other people and stretch outside of his comfort zone. That's what a true artist does. He's wide open to any and all suggestions. They don't all work, but some do and you keep those."
"There really wasn't any pressure on me," Anderson says. "The joke during the sessions was, 'I ain't gotta worry boys. I ain't got no deal!' I mean, what were they gonna do? Make me quit?"
If there's any justice at all -- never.