Al Anderson is most famous for his role as singer/songwriter/guitarist for NRBQ (New Rhythm and Blues Quartet). Don't let the band's name fool you - they incorporate rock, pop, jazz and Tin Pan Alley elements into their multifaceted stew. Unlikely folks like Yo La Tengo have covered their songs, as well as more natural fits, such as Bonnie Raitt and Dave Edmunds.
Anderson is also a prodigious country songwriter. A-list artists like Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood and Tim McGraw have all recorded his songs. The rockabilly groove-flavored "Every Little Thing," which Anderson co-wrote with Carlene Carter, became the biggest hit of her career. Anderson had George Jones in mind when he wrote "Unbelievable," which became a big hit for Diamond Rio. Both the Carter and Diamond Rio songs have catchy rhythm guitar riffs that get stuck in your head – in the best possible way. They're songs that could only have been written by a natural guitarist, like Anderson.
These days, Anderson performs as part of World Famous Headliners, which is his first real band since NRBQ. It's kind of a songwriter supergroup, with two of Nashville's top writers, Shawn Camp (who helped write Garth Brooks' "Two Piña Coladas"), and Pat McLaughlin (whose songwriting credits include penning Gary Allan's "Songs About Rain"), joining Anderson in the band along with Michael Rhodes on bass and Greg Morrow at the drums.
Al Anderson: How you doing, Dan? Nice to meet you.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Nice to meet you, too. Well, this is for Songfacts.com, so we're going to talk about songs and songwriting. You're probably as famous for your guitar skills as you are for your songwriting. Do you divide those up creatively, or do they all kind of come from the same place?
Al: All comes from the same place. I put them both together most of the time.
Songfacts: Do you enjoy one more than the other or do you like them each?
Al: I like both. You really can't write without a guitar. [Laughing]
Songfacts: Is that the only instrument that you write on?
Al: Pretty much. I used to write on piano a little bit. I don't think I've done that in 25 years.
Songfacts: And why do you think you stopped with the piano?
Al: I'm not very good at it. I'm left handed, so I can't keep a bass pattern going with my left hand. If they turned the keys around the other way I could do it.
Songfacts: And they do that with guitar strings, but they can't really do that with piano, huh?
Al: Yeah. Irving Berlin or Cole Porter, one of those guys, he played a piano that he played in F-sharp all the time, but he had a lever that would change it so that he could always play in F-sharp position, even though it was a different key.
Songfacts: I'm looking at some of the hit songs that you've had, and you've had plenty of them. I think earlier in your career, you had written a song specifically for Chet Atkins. Do you write with specific artists in mind or do you write to write great songs and then just hope it lands in good hands?
Al: It's pretty much all the above. Sometimes we write it for a specific artist. I just had a #1 with George Strait called "Love's Gonna Make It All Right." And we actually, just me and Chris Stapleton, we just sat down and specifically wrote it for him. It usually doesn't work, but it did that time. A lot of times you write for somebody, and most of the time it doesn't work. And then somebody does it or maybe nobody does it.
Songfacts: And why do you think that is?
Al: You know how things work in this town. By then you're up to 20, did 20 years. It's just weird how things can happen sometimes or not happen.
Songfacts: I want to talk a little bit about the World Famous Headliners. And I'm hoping that there's a story behind how you came up with the name. Who came up with the name and what's the story behind it?
Al: John came up with the Headliners and I came up with World Famous, because in New York City, every coffee shop you go to always says "World Famous Coffee," whether it's a crappy little shop or the best coffee place in town, each one of them has the world famous coffees. And originally we were thinking Headliners should be a ripped headliner on a '57 Chevy out in a field somewhere. But that just kind of went away. So now it's just World Famous Headliners and we don't know why.
Songfacts: You guys may not be world famous as headliners, but you're certainly world famous as songwriters. How do you work it out as a group? It would just seem like there are too many cooks in the kitchen.
Al: We all write at the same publishing company, and we all just got together one day and started writing. And I'd always wanted to write with these guys, but we never wrote in the 20 years I've been here. They were all here, but we just never connected for some reason. And then when we started writing together, we were coming up with what we thought were unique and original and different things. It just became one force and we're loving it.
Songfacts: How is it different from performing with NRBQ?
Al: NRBQ was all over the map. We did everything, from TV themes to rock and roll to polkas. It was an omni-directional band. But this kind of stuff has a certain thing to it, and we know whether it's a Headliners song or not. It's hard to explain. It's hard for me to analyze it. It's actually a magical thing. I don't want to analyze it too much, because you analyze it right into the ground. It's trying to make it sound good. That's the secret to everything. That's my motto: make it sound good.
Songfacts: Is there something in you that needs to be in a band?
Al: No. I never intended to be in a band again.
Songfacts: But this was too good to pass up?
Al: Well, we just kept writing these songs and everybody was getting excited about it. And then we played a place called The Basement in Nashville, and Justin Neibank, who is one of the great engineer/producers ever, because I worked with him on the Vince Gill project, the four CD box set, These Days. He was the engineer on that. He was phenomenal. So we cut this live at Javelina Studios, an old studio from the '60s.
I forgot the question you asked me.
Songfacts: You had said that you never intended to be in a band again. I was going to ask if you had too many bad experiences being in a band.
Al: No, I've only been in two bands in my life: Wildweeds and NRBQ. But this just turned into it slowly but surely. And we're not going to get in a van and go from little town to little town. We're going to do some big cities and see what happens, and then if it takes off we'll do more.
Songfacts: At this point in your life, it's got to be fun, right? I mean, you've done all of the rock and roll things, so it would seem to me that it would have to be something where as long as you're having fun, you're going to keep doing it.
Al: Yeah. That's exactly it.
Songfacts: And are you guys competitive when it comes to writing songs? Do you write together?
Al: Yes, we do. We all wrote a couple of songs on this record, except for one called "Mamarita," which Shawn was writing that he and me and Pat wrote. Do you have the record already?
Songfacts: Yeah, I do. It's a lot of fun. It's a great record. It's so smart.
Al: It is. But it's dumb smart. It's hard to explain. But the guy who's singing these songs is pretty pitiful. [Laughs]
Songfacts: Can we talk about some of your big hits and maybe you can tell me a little bit about some of those?
Songfacts: One of your biggest hits is the Tim McGraw song, "The Cowboy in Me." And you're from Connecticut?
Songfacts: Which is not really cowboy country.
Al: No, but my mom used to let me go to sleep with the radio on and I could get WBBD when I was a kid, in Wheeling West Virginia. It was a trucker station and it came in at night all over the country. So when I was 8, 9 years old, I was glued to that station at night. I fell asleep with it every night.
Songfacts: Would you say you're a cowboy?
Al: No. Not a cowboy.
Songfacts: The song seems to be about attitudes and behaviors rather than being about a traditional cowboy.
Al: Yeah. It's more of a personal song.
Songfacts: How much of you is in that song?
Al: That's a good question. I was just writing the song. Jeff Steele came in with the idea and he had some of it done already, and he and Craig Wiseman just finished it with him. So it has nothing to do with my life. I don't do that that much.
Songfacts: When you write songs, it's more kind of being a craftsman as opposed to being confessional?
Al: Right. And you're also trying to write a song that somebody else wants to do down here. But I don't do that all the time. I write for myself, too. I had an album called After Hours, which are all songs I just wrote for me.
Songfacts: It seems like you have a real gift for word play. Are you the kind of person that in conversation you're constantly playing with words and creating puns and that kind of thing?
Al: Just when I'm thinking about trying to write a song.
Songfacts: You don't waste it on conversation?
Al: No, not really. Sometimes somebody'll say something that you'll go, "That'd be a great name for a song." That happens all the time.
Songfacts: Now, do they say that or do you say that?
Al: We all do. We saw a bumper sticker that said, "Don't believe everything you're thinking," that I just wrote on the way to Cadbury Airport.
Songfacts: That must be crazy. All you guys get together, it's just going to be a constant inspiration. Have you ever had another songwriter say something and you took it and used it as a song and never told them?
Al: Not consciously. Maybe, though. I can't remember. I'll bet I have done that. What do you want to bet I've done that? [Laughing]
Songfacts: Well, we can't hold you to it, right?
Al: I wouldn't hold me to it.
Songfacts: I remember one time I talked to a songwriter and he came up with this idea for a song and he played it for his friend who was another songwriter. And he said, "That was a Leonard Cohen song that I played for you last night." He didn't even realize that it was something he'd already heard. He thought he came up with it.
Al: That can happen sometimes, too. You're not always conscious of it.
Songfacts: So of the songs that have become hits, are there any that stand out as favorites of yours that you're particularly fond of?
Al: "Cowboy in Me" is definitely one of them. And I had a song by Etta James called "I Can Give You Everything," which I love. I wrote it with Jerry Anderson.
Songfacts: That must have been a real honor to have Etta James sing one of your songs, huh?
Al: Yeah. I've had two with her. I've got three on Bonnie Raitt's new album.
Songfacts: I have that album. I need to give that one another listen. Because I know she covers a few familiar songs. But then there's some on there that you wrote, as well. Did you write with her?
Al: No. She doesn't write. She doesn't write very much at all. I tried to get her to. I sent her a whole bunch of songs, when Split Decision was 20 years old. And I wrote one with Bonnie Bramlett called "Ain't Gonna Let You Go."
Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Unbelievable." That was a pretty big hit for Diamond Rio. Do you remember writing that?
Starday Records, in its heyday, was a dream label for traditional music fans. In the '50s and '60s, it was home to a huge catalogue of bluegrass music. Of equal significance, the label released George Jones' first recordings, as well as discs from fine country folks like Willie Nelson, Dottie West and Roger Miller. One of the imprint's biggest stars was Red Sovine, who put out many of his trucking songs on Starday. Some of the label's bigger hits included Jones' "Why Baby Why" and Moon Mullican's "Ragged But Right." The company name is derived from the last names of the label's two founders, Jack Starnes and Harold W. Daily.
Al: It's beautiful. We wrote that for George Jones. It was supposed to go, "she's so kissable," way down low like that. We did it with a string bass, like when he was on Starday.
Songfacts: Did he ever record it?
Al: No. I don't know if it never got to him. You never know in this town if it ever got to him or if he ever heard it, or turned it down.
Songfacts: It sounds like a few George Jones songs, now that you mention it. What's that one where he says, "You're hotter than a two dollar pistol"? Is that "The Race Is On"?
Al: Yeah, I think so.
Songfacts: Okay. And it's kind of got that feel.
Al: Yeah, it does. It's the second song I wrote with Jeff Steele.
Songfacts: And so you guys were really thinking, let's write a George Jones-y kind of a thing?
Al: Yeah. We did it in a key of A, "she's so kissable," or E or something. Because George was like this, (singing), "because every time..." Perfect George Jones.
Songfacts: You do a pretty good George Jones, Al.
Al: Well, not really. But I was able to zero in on him.
Songfacts: So tell me the story about how it got into the hands of Diamond Rio.
Al: Steve Marklin called their producer and he went over to everybody's house and played it for them, the producer did. But he had tried to get Diamond Rio to cut it before. As you know, you never know what's going to happen in this town. Maybe they went to the A&R guy and said he loves it and then doesn't play it for them. You just never know. I know all of a sudden they liked it and cut it and put it out, and it was the most played Arista record that year. We got an award twice for that, for two years.
Songfacts: I saw them at a county fair one time and I was really sort of on the fence about them, and they really blew me away live. They seem to be a better live band even than a studio band, in my opinion.
Al: Yeah. Well, they did everything digital on that record. They can they're really great players, bluegrass, basically.
Songfacts: Tell me about the song I was just listening to here this morning at work, the one that the Mavericks cut, "All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down." And that's got a horn section in it. Is that how you envisioned it when you wrote it?
Al: There's not a horn section on the regular record.
Songfacts: Oh, it's the live one maybe that I heard?
Al: Yeah. I thought that was a dumb song.
Al: Really dumb. Like I was doing, "What the hell is this?" Then I heard the record on the radio, and it was my favorite record of all time. Raul Malo is just great.
Songfacts: I'm sure glad that they're making music together. He's just got one of those amazing voices.
Al: It's ridiculous.
Songfacts: What does that do for a songwriter when you have a singer that that's great interpreting your music? Does it just make your song sound even better?
Al: Yeah. I'm able to zone in on Raul when it comes to songs. I really enjoy writing with him.
Songfacts: Did you write with him or for him?
Al: With him. I wrote every song he ever cut, I wrote with him.
Songfacts: So you guys have a chemistry?
Al: Like, he had "All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down," the old one, when I got there.
Songfacts: And you helped him finish it?
Songfacts: Did he tell you who inspired it? Or was it like you say, just a song?
Al: I'm guessing Buck Owens.
Songfacts: Love Buck. Did Buck Owens ever cover any of your songs?
Al: No. Went to see him live, though. I think that Carnegie Hall record is the best one he ever made.
Songfacts: I live in California and I drove up to Bakersfield a couple of times to see him at the Buck Owens Palace. It was the coolest thing, because he would play on Fridays and Saturday nights. For $5, you could see Buck Owens. It just seemed surreal. Here you can see this legendary guy for less than a movie ticket. It didn't seem right, but it was so wonderful.
Songfacts: And I remember one time we went with some friends of ours and it was their anniversary. And he would take cards and give birthday wishes and dedications and just fantastic, just one of the best.
Al: Yeah. I played the Fox Theatre there with Vince a couple of years ago.
Songfacts: That's right. Now, you've worked with Vince Gill a lot. Do you have a sort of a chemistry with him, as well, would you say?
Al: Yeah, we hit it off pretty good. I've had 17 cuts with him.
Songfacts: And do you think it's because you're both songwriter/guitarists that may have something to do with why you're able to relate so well to each other?
Al: He just liked the funky way I played. We did a Mothers Against Drunk Driving show together and I did what I thought were my best songs, "Love Make a Fool of Me" and "Right On Time" and stuff. And he came over at the end and said, "Let's write one." But I was afraid to call him, because he's really good. But his keyboard player John Hobbs put it together and the first thing we wrote was "Next Big Thing."
Songfacts: So you were intimidated by his guitar playing?
Al: Yeah. He's a fine guitar player. I'm not. I play and hope.
Songfacts: I don't think that's what most people would say about you, Al, though.
Al: But it's true.
Songfacts: I think people would be intimidated by you.
Al: Well, maybe. But I'm intimidated by Vince. He's a great guitar player and a great mandolin player. He's great at everything. Great guy and great writer.
Songfacts: And he put on marathon shows, too.
Al: Yeah. Well, he did with that 17 piece band, he did three and a half hours. And they get back on the bus like nothing happened.
Songfacts: He's like the Springsteen of country music, isn't he?
Al: Yeah. Well, he was for that tour. But that's the only one I was on, and he did three and a half hours.
Songfacts: My goodness. Well, I just wanted to kind of wind things up here. When you write, do you have to have a project to write for, or are you writing all the time?
Al: I write all the time.
Songfacts: So is it something where you wake up in the morning and you just go to a particular workspace and you work?
Al: Yeah. I get together with somebody for three or four hours and we try to make something up. A lot of people write for themselves. And if you're going to be here and you really want to get credits, then you have to write songs that other people want to do. So you have to keep your ear to what's going on.
Songfacts: Who are your heroes as songwriters? Who are the ones that you really looked up to and still look up to as songwriters?
Al: Lieber and Stoller. Johnny Cash. Bobby Braddock. Bob Dylan. Love Carole King's stuff from the Brill Building.
Songfacts: If you had one bit of advice to give songwriters that wanted to make it in Nashville, what would you tell them?
Al: Your 100th song will be a whole lot better than your first.
Songfacts: Is that true for you?
Al: Yes. As everybody.
Songfacts: So you're better now than when you started?
Al: Definitely. If it's your passion, do it no matter what, because even successful songwriters, there's about 95 percent to 99 percent rejection. You can't get down because somebody doesn't like it. If you want to come down and get cuts, then you have to write things that other people want to say. You can write for yourself, but if you're going to write for others, then you have to write something that they want to that they would like to say.
October 21, 2012. Get more at bigalanderson.com.