Ask people what they know about “Big Al” Anderson and you’ll probably hear very different responses. Rockers will say that for 22 years he was the Tele-driving force behind New Rhythm and Blues Quartet (less formally and more popularly known as NRBQ), writing and singing their best-known songs. Fans of underground and classic rock will remember him for his 1960s cult band The Wildweeds, whose hit single “No Good To Cry” was covered by the Allman Brothers (when they were called Hourglass), and country music fans view him as Nashville royalty, cranking out an ever-growing catalog of hit songs.
Recently recognized by BMI as Country Songwriter of the Year, Anderson has written for a who’s who of country music’s elite, including Hank Williams, Jr., Carlene Carter, Alabama, Sammy Kershaw, Trisha Yearwood, The Mavericks, Charlie Daniels, Asleep at the Wheel, and his recent efforts with Vince Gill are included on Gill’s Grammy-winning Next Big Thing. And the list goes on…
VG recently caught up with Anderson as he was preparing to release his most recent solo CD, After Hours.
Vintage Guitar: Congratulations on the new CD, which is quite a departure from your 2001′s rockabilly tinged Pay Before You Pump. What made you decide to go in this more jazzy direction?
Big Al Anderson: Some of the songs were new, others I had laying around, “Love Make a Fool of Me” was the thing that started it all, though, then I started looking back at other songs I wrote in that style, like “A Better Word for Love.”
You’ve also been working with Vince Gill, who just won a Grammy for Best Male Performance. How did you enjoy that?
Writing with Vince Gill and having a single with him is one of the greatest things that has ever happened! He’s amazing – a great guy, a great musician, a great singer, and a great player. He plays everything but the extension cord, that guy!
Going back to the early days as a kid growing up in Connecticut, what got you into playing and songwriting in the first place?
When I was a little kid, my brother-in-law had a guitar, and I was attracted to the guitar right there. My mom and dad were musicians, and mom worked at a local radio station WTHT and used to bring home kids’ records and sometimes there were some country records in there.
A lot of people think of you as one of the masters of the Telecaster, but that wasn’t your first decent guitar, was it? Do you remember the first good guitar and amp setup you had?
My first guitar was a kid’s guitar with a cowboy on it. I got it when I was nine. The cheaper the guitar, the harder it was to play. I never thought about shaving the neck down, and I couldn’t get past the first fret. But then around 1960, this friend of our family, a guy named Curtis Wright, would lend me guitars, including a Danelectro doubleneck, which probably was my first good guitar. His dad took the photo we used on the Little Al record (which features Anderson as a 10-year-old). Then I moved up to a Gretsch Anniversary, because I wanted a 6120, but we couldn’t afford it, so mom bought the Anniversary for me. From there, I got a Guild X-175, which I cut my first record with, and I still have it today. In fact, I used it a lot on After Hours.
As far as amps, my first was an early-’60s Ampeg with reverb. Not a Reverborocket, though.
People first became aware of you regionally in the Wildweeds, then your years with NRBQ brought you international acclaim. How did you make the transition to concentrating on songwriting?
Well, I was writing from the beginning. When I was 12 or so, I was playing in a Hammond organ trio with Ray Zeiner (keyboardist for The Wildweeds), and we would play these black clubs in Hartford, like the Red Ash, The Rockabye, and The Subway Lounge. This is really where I cut my teeth, and the most fun I ever had. That turned into my high school band, the Six-Packs, which eventually became the Wildweeds. We were doing a lot of shows for Dick Robinson (DJ and now broadcasting school owner), and he sent us to Synchron Sound to cut a track. We cut “No Good to Cry” down there, and it just sat there for a long time. Then a former dentist named Doc Cavalier started working there, and in the summer of ’67 he got the track to Chess Records. I played with them until I joined NRBQ in ’71, and the rest as they say, is history.
I was with “the Q” for 22 years, and always wrote, but during my last year with them, I got a songwriting deal in Nashville when I hooked up with Blue Water Publishing, and the first hit I had for them was “Every Little Thing” which I co-wrote with Carlene Carter. This ended up being Top 5 all over the world. And when I got that first check, I realized all I could do by just sitting on the couch (laughs), instead of traveling and playing toilets all over the world. And that’s right around the time I got clean and sober, too. So that life was becoming more and more unappealing to me.
How do you typically write? Do you get the idea for a lyric first, music, hook…?
Yes! All of the above. You never know what’s gonna happen. If you’re co-writing, the other guy might have a title, you might have a musical piece. Very rarely, someone is looking for a song, and you try to write them one.
When you sit to write, do you favor one particular instrument as an old friend, and do you use different tunings?
I use a new Martin D-15, it’s a great guitar. Sometimes I use an E down to D tuning, but mostly standard. And then I have this little guitar that I love, and what a friend it has been. I’ll just bring it out and play it from time to time – it’s a little Regal I bought at San Francisco’s Real Guitars, and it didn’t have a bridge on it. So I took a shot. I think it was an Oahu parlor guitar. It has a spruce top, some flowers on it, and a mother-of-plastic neck, and it sounds great. I just resurrected it.
Over the years, you’ve played with a lot of the greats. What do you consider the highlights of your career?
Right off the bat, I’d say playing on the Highwaymen album (The Road Goes On Forever, 1995). Also, the whole NRBQ thing, just the whole package. I learned a lot… no, everything I know about music during that time.
Do you typically prefer vintage instruments to new ones?
They are making a lot of good new instruments these days. I have a ’91 (Gibson) Ren Ferguson J-45. That guy makes a great guitar. It was made for Randy Travis and was sitting around the Gibson Showcase in Nashville. Ren really puts his soul into a guitar. (Songwriter) Paul Kennerly has an SJ-200 that Ren made, and it may be the best thing I ever heard. And (producer) Paul Worley has got another Ren-made all-maple J-45 that’s probably the best acoustic I ever played. And I just got a graphite B-15 for my place in Santa Fe, because if you bring a wood guitar out here, in two weeks the strings are sitting on the neck.
Do you consider yourself a collector of guitars and amps, and what are some of your more unique instruments?
Not really a collector… The J-45 is one of my favorites, as is my Sadowsky Telecaster with three Joe Bardens. I have a ’58 Gibson J-185, in really good shape, but it ain’t meltin’ my butter, so I’m still looking for a great old J-45 if you know of any (laughs)! I had a ’53 Tele and it had a Strat-like contoured body. I thought someone had shaved it down, but apparently it was stock, as Fender made a run of these. But then Danny Gatton did a fret job on it, and they all popped out the next day, so I kind of lost interest in the guitar (laughs). I had a ’58 Les Paul that I sold, that I kind of regret. I have a ’56 Esquire that I had Joe Glaser make into a Tele without sacrificing anything, but I don’t play that much these days. Also, I have an orange ’59 6120 that I found in a consignment shop.
For amps, I still have my old Fender Super with the dark brown grillecloth, and I found another with lighter grillecloth in brand new condition from San Francisco’s Real Guitars – I love that place! I also have an old brown Fender Deluxe. As far as studio setups, I’ve been using the Sadowsky through the brown Deluxe, but sometimes we use another speaker. I also have a TV Les Paul and matching amp from the ’50s in great shape.
Any plans to tour behind the new album?
Not unless it takes off beyond the internet.
Photo by Rusty Russell
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.