When John Anderson announced his new album Years back in January, it seemed like a gift to fans who'd discovered Anderson through "Your Lying Blue Eyes" in the '70's, "Swingin'" in the '80s or "Seminole Wind" in the '90s. After pressing play on the title track, Anderson's thank you card to his supporters started resembling the statements on aging and mortality that earned critical acclaim for Johnny Cash and Tanya Tucker.
Between then and the album's April 10 release on co-producer Dan Auerbach's Easy Eye Sound imprint, the world has turned upside down, adding new meaning to songs about Anderson's triumph over unspecified health concerns.
"Some of it is a little autobiographical, you might say," Anderson says about the themes on Years. "Some of the songs have a little bit of a message of hope and hanging on and getting over the bad times and worrying about the good."
The odd timing of the album isn't lost on Anderson as he tries to cheer up others through tales of his own ups and downs.
"It's strange that you'd have a song called 'I'm Still Hangin' On' come out at a time like this, but there again, it's a natural thing," Anderson says. "It wasn't by plan. I'm hoping it might be a good message. If we're doing anything at this point, we're 'Hangin' On'."
Standout track "Celebrate" takes on more meaning, as well, because of its themes of appreciating the small things in life after surviving a rough patch.
"'Celebrate' came from my situation prior to making this record.," Anderson says. "I had been very, very sick for at least 18 months. 'Celebrate' was part of my exclamation of just getting well again and a renewed appreciation of waking up feeling good every day. That's what 'Celebrate' is about."
"The George Jones of My Generation"
Anderson worked with some old friends on Years, including "I'm Still Hangin' On" co-writer Paul Overstreet: not that Nashville peers and longtime fans need other legends to sweeten the deal.
"I would call him my all time favorite country singer, period," says John Rich, whose biggest solo hit "Shuttin' Detroit Down" was co-written by Anderson. "I call him the George Jones of my generation. Well, why would you call him that? Because he's the only guy that sounds like that. There is no duplicate or anything even close to John Anderson."
Another fan turned peer, Blake Shelton, landed Jones and Anderson as guest vocalists for the 2008 track "The Last Country Song." Anderson returned the favor by bringing Shelton on board for new song "Tuesday I'll Be Gone."
"The guy people come to see and love, he's that guy backstage also, I'm proud to say," Anderson says of Shelton. "He's one of the finer people in our business."
Just as Rich and Shelton went from fans to friends, Anderson learned about treating his following with respect from some of the best: Cash, Jones, Ernest Tubb, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and others who spotted Anderson's immense potential.
"I remember working a show one time with Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty in Knoxville in my early days, and I remember Loretta Lynn sitting there and signing autographs until 2 in the morning," Anderson adds.
An Americana Entry Point
Again, Anderson's unmistakable voice and his spot in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame make his album an easy sell to fans of classic country music, but what about younger audiences more focused on the rock 'n' roll outsiders and singer-songwriter twangsters billed as Americana acts?
Those not aware of Anderson's greatness already will be tipped off by Auerbach, a member of the Black Keys and an Americana tastemaker. Auerbach co-produced the album with David "Fergie" Ferguson.
The Anderson and Auerbach team clicked from the get-go: Their first meeting led to a songwriting session a week later, which resulted in the song "Years."
"I don't recall enjoying writing and recording any more than I have on this particular record," Anderson says.
Possible reach into the Americana scene aside, Anderson's Years comes from a constant need to write and a desire to reach and reward his established audience.
Retire From What?
At age 65, Anderson writes songs with the country charts and music business algorithms as the last things on his mind.
"Now I don't write with any guidelines to anybody," Anderson says. "It really doesn't matter who plays it or likes it as long as enough people like it that it's worth doing. In other words, if you can get the new music out to the fans and they support it still, that's what it's all about."
A sizable audience for Anderson's throwback style exists, as he sees every time he sets foot on stage.
"We're sold out in most places," he adds. "We're not playing very big places, but nevertheless we're playing to capacity crowds. As long as people still come out and see us, I'm still going to try to go out and play the songs."
If there's slim chance of hits and an established audience no matter not, then why even cut new songs? Can't the things that bring Anderson fulfillment come through greatest hits tours?
"As a writer, you never stop," Anderson says. "I know a couple of writers that have retired, but that's not in me. I've never said retire and applied it to me. I'm kind of like my buddy Willie Nelson. He says, 'Retire from what? Playing golf or singing?' I'm like, 'Retire from what? Playing music or fishing?' I don't want to stop doing either one."
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Besides, there's meaning in Anderson's new songs you won't find in "Straight Tequila Night," "Wild and Blue" and "Black Sheep."
"I would hope if people get any message from the songs at this time, it'd be of hope and faith and love," he says. "There's a lot of that on the particular songs on this record."
Years Track List:
1. "I'm Still Hangin' On" (John Anderson, Dan Auerbach, Paul Overstreet)
2. "Celebrate" (John Anderson, Dan Auerbach)
3. "Years" (John Anderson, Dan Auerbach, Pat McLaughlin, David Ferguson)
4. "Tuesday I'll Be Gone" (feat. Blake Shelton) (John Anderson, Dan Auerbach, David Ferguson)
5. "What's a Man Got to Do" (John Anderson, Dan Auerbach, Dee White, David Ferguson)
6. "Wild and Free" (John Anderson, Dan Auerbach, Joe Allen)
7. "Slow Down" (John Anderson, Dan Auerbach, Bobby Wood)
8. "All We're Really Looking For" (John Anderson, Dan Auerbach, Larry Cordle)
9. "Chasing Down a Dream" (John Anderson, Dan Auerbach, David Ferguson)
10. "You're Nearly Nothing" (John Anderson, Dan Auerbach)