Friday, March 10, 2006

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: BIG AL SPEAKS

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 10, 2006


Quitting NRBQ was “the second-best thing I ever did,” said guitarist/singer/songwriter “Big Al” Anderson.


This only begs the question: what was the best thing he ever did?

“Being in it.”

Anderson’s career with NRBQ — that eclectic, eccentric, highly influential though commercially underachieving band whose full name, New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, hardly does it justice — spanned 22 years and a dozen or so albums.

In recent years Anderson has earned his living as a songwriter, penning tunes for Carlene Carter, George Jones, Vince Gill, the Allman Brothers, the Mavericks, Patty Loveless, Jimmy Buffett, Trisha Yearwood, LeAnn Rimes, and others.

He’s also a noted sideman, playing guitar in recordings by Jerry Lee Lewis and the Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson).

Now he’s stepping into the spotlight again. Sony Legacy has licensed and just released his solo album After Hours.

No sweat: “Big Al” isn’t as big as he used to be. Though still towering well over 6 feet tall, he’s slimmed down considerably since he was known as “300 Pounds of Twangin’ Steel and Sex Appeal.”

He’s a part-time Santa Fe resident, splitting his time between Nashville, Tenn., and his La Tierra home, where he moved with his wife, Maryanne Hill, four years ago.

“I love it here,” Anderson said in a recent lunchtime interview at Tia Sophia’s. “I don’t interact with people much.”

He first came to Santa Fe one summer night in the 1980s when NRBQ played Club West. “It was 90 degrees, and I wasn’t sweating,” he recalled.

About six years ago, Anderson said, country singer Hal Ketchum, who was living in Tesuque, invited him to come out and write some songs. Later he came to Santa Fe to write songs with another country artist, Jeffrey Steele.

“I was shopping at Albertsons and saw a real-estate book,” Anderson recalled. “I went out to look at one house, and 40 houses later, I moved here from Connecticut.”

Red Roof Inn & the Waffle House: Anderson was born in Windsor, Conn., in 1947. His first successful band was called the Wildweeds, who were signed with Vanguard Records in the mid-’60s. He joined NRBQ in 1971, but he already had been a fan of the band. His predecessor, Steve Ferguson, is the best guitarist the group ever had, and their 1969 first album is still their best, Anderson insists.

“I learned all about music,” he said. “Anything went. You had to learn about everything.” NRBQ is famous for mixing basic American roots music with highly crafted pop, modern jazz, children’s music, and just about anything else that popped into band members’ heads. “It had its own set of walls, but the room was a lot bigger than anyone else’s, that’s for sure,” Anderson said.

Anderson’s contributions were immeasurable. “Ridin’ in My Car,” perhaps the loveliest automobile song this side of Brian Wilson, was his, as were the neo-rockabilly “It Comes to Me Naturally” and the wickedly funny “It Was an Accident,” just to name a few.

But he called it quits after a gig at Tramps in New York. “It was New Year’s, so don’t know if I quit in ’93 or ’94,” he said. “It was actually a split with no words,” he recalled. “I just told Joey [Spampinato, NRBQ’s bassist] that I’d probably split. There was nothing really wrong. It just stopped growing for me.”

Touring life became tedious for him. “The Red Roof, the Waffle House ... ” he said, referring to fixtures of the rock ’n’ roll road-warrior lifestyle. He also spoke not so fondly about his normal preshow intake of “half a gram of cocaine and half a quart” of booze back in the daze.

Not long before he quit, Anderson got a taste of songwriting success outside the band. “Every Little Thing” by former Tesuque resident Carlene Carter was co-written by Anderson.

Solo Al: Since leaving NRBQ, Anderson has released two solo albums, 1996’s roadhouse romp Pay Before You Pump and, eight years later, the quieter, more reflective After Hours.

I initially compared After Hours to the latter-day work of Charlie Rich — the slow, jazzy “Love Make a Fool of Me” and “Two Survivors” would have fit in fine on Rich’s Pictures and Paintings, as would “Better Word for Love,” a song Anderson previously recorded with NRBQ.

Then there’s “Just Another Place I Don’t Belong,” which sounds like the lovechild of Nick Lowe and Stax stalwart Dan Penn. “In My Dreams” has verses that sound like Western swing, though the chorus, with its NRBQ-y jazz chords, suggests greater depths. And “Blues About You Baby,” co-written with Delbert McClinton, shows Anderson hasn’t forgotten good old roots rock.

Originally this was a self-released effort, for sale only on Anderson’s Web site. “I think I sold 500 or 600 and gave away about 1,000 copies,” he said. “I lost interest in hustling.”

Eventually the album got the attention of Sony/BMG honchos, who, hopefully, will hustle the CD for him.

A place where there is no music: An interview in Massachusetts’ Daily Hampshire Gazette late last year noted that “when he is in Santa Fe he isn’t part of a music scene. ‘It’s good to be in a place where there is no music when I’m done with makin’ it,’ said Anderson.”

“Well, it’s not like Nashville,” he said when I asked about the comment.

Anderson said he’s been thinking about bringing a little music to Santa Fe, perhaps flying in some of his songwriting partners to the city for shows. But one gets the idea that this town is a place for rest and getting away from it all for Anderson.

And while he’s gearing up for some publicity gigs for After Hours, including a showcase at South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas, next week, Anderson seems to prefer his life as a behind-the-scenes songwriter.

That might preclude any further work with NRBQ. While he played at the group’s 35th anniversary in 2004, when asked if he’d play a 40th reunion, Anderson said, “That’s a good question.”

It was one he didn’t answer.

Big Al on the radio: Hear my favorite “Big Al” songs from his solo albums and with NRBQ tonight, March 10, on The Santa Fe Opry on KSFR, 90.7 FM. The show starts at 10 p.m. and the “Big Al” show will start at 11 p.m.

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