NASHVILLE Your typical country song doesn't open with a line like: "They blew up the chicken man in Philly last night/ And they blew up his house, too."
But when John Anderson sings Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City," the tune takes on a honky-tonk character entirely different from the dark mood of the original, which appeared on the Boss' 1982 album, Nebraska.
Anderson's version of "Atlantic City" (RealAudio excerpt) is the last of 12 tracks on his new CD, Nobody's Got It All, released March 27.
Had he heard Springsteen's rendition of "Atlantic City" first, Anderson reasoned, he might not have chosen to record the song. Another singer he admires greatly convinced him that it would be right for his repertoire.
"It was Levon's version," Anderson said. Levon Helm, drummer and vocalist for The Band, sang "Atlantic City" on the group's 1993 release, Jericho.
Helm traveled with Anderson one summer several years ago, and the singers even did a few shows together. Anderson, who grew up in Florida, and Helm, who hails from Arkansas, have a lot in common, culturally and musically. "We had a great time," Anderson recalled. "He's a good one."
Springsteen's "Atlantic City," Anderson said, "was a whole different concept for the song. He was playing on the guitar, kinda like a folk version. Not that I wouldn't have liked it, but I wouldn't have thought of me doing the song. Hearing Levon, no problem."
Also a no-brainer was Anderson's decision to sign a new deal with Sony Music Nashville's Columbia Records. Beginning with Warner Bros., which released his debut album, John Anderson, in 1980, Anderson has recorded for seven major-label imprints. His most recent studio album, Takin' the Country Back, appeared on Mercury in August 1997. It did not generate a bona fide country hit, though it went as high as #19 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart.
With a vocal delivery that reflects the influence of Merle Haggard and George Jones, Anderson, 46, has shown before that he is capable of making a comeback. After a streak of hits in the early '80s that included his rendition of Billy Joe Shaver's "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I'm Gonna Be a Diamond Someday)," "Wild and Blue" and "Swingin'," his star dimmed some, only to burn brightly again in the early '90s with "Straight Tequila Night," "Seminole Wind" and "Money in the Bank."
Critics already have embraced Nobody's Got It All and its rich mix of material. Anderson uses the Muscle Shoals Horn Section on "You Ain't Hurt Nothin' Yet." His cover of singer/songwriter Chris Knight's "It Ain't Easy Being Me" has been praised, and "The Big Revival," a snake-worshipping song written by Dennis Linde, has a big beat and the memorable chorus line of "Praise the Lord and pass me a copperhead."
So far, the album has not produced a hit. Two tracks, "You Ain't Hurt Nothin' Yet" and "Nobody's Got It All," were released last year on Epic, another Sony imprint, in hopes of giving the album a running start, but both stalled in the mid 50s on the Billboard country singles chart.
Try to get Anderson to talk about it, though, and he's only generous in his comments. "I've not been dwelling a lot on charts and other records," he said. "I listen to the radio some, but I don't dwell on what everybody goes around talking about. ... In my career, overall, radio's been pretty good to me, so I'm not going to sit and slam country music radio, ever."
His brand of roots-oriented country might play well with the Americana crowd, and if they embrace him he'll take the support, though he said, "I've thought that's where our fans have been for 25 years, really. If we weren't Americana, I don't know who was or is."
Anderson understands that tastes change and "country music takes its cycles." He sings frequently about change on Nobody's Got It All, whether contemplating a shift in social values on "I Ain't Afraid of Dying" (RealAudio excerpt); wistfully recalling his late grandparents, natives of Kentucky, on "Appalachian Blue"; chronicling generational movement in "Go to Town"; or lamenting the vanishing of the homestead on "Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons" (RealAudio excerpt).
"It's all around us," Anderson reasoned about the nature of change, "same as you hear the dissent about change in country music. Everybody likes to talk about change and whine about it, and it does affect our lives, sometimes not for the better. That's what music's all about. We sing about the good times too."
And in his outlook, Anderson chooses to focus on the good times. "I'm not going to be one of those bitter people who say, 'Gosh, I just think it's terrible what they're doing [in country music],' because I don't think it's terrible," he said. "I think there are some great records out there. It comes and goes, where it's sometimes more country than others.
"I'm fortunate to know what country music really is, so I write and sing and play that," he continued. "Luckily, we have real fans who buy tickets and records. They pull us through."