Detroit native Pete Anderson made a name for himself in the ’80s, playing a ton of twang while Dwight Yoakam sang. In the last 20 years, though, he has become known as an player who can adroitly back virtually any act, a first-rate music producer, and a record-label head.
A disciple of ’50s rock-and-roll and the blues, his guitar style was partly affected by the country music played on the family turntable by his Southern-born father. Just 16 when he first heard Muddy Waters on the radio, he later attended the initial Ann Arbor Blues Festival, where he absorbed heavy doses of B.B King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. The event turned him into a blues devotee, and his new album, Birds Above Guitarland, reflects that background. More important, though, he says, “The record is an extension of the previous one, Even Things Up, which showed me turning a page; I didn’t want to be a side man anymore, and I wanted to simplify my life. I was asking myself, ’What do I want to do?’”
That query first struck him in the mid ’90s. Whenever Yoakam’s schedule included time away from music, Anderson would assemble a band to record and do short tours. But, “That solo work ended up being something I didn’t want to simply dust off every six months. I wanted to focus on it, because it was really my future.”
Another big part of that future involved his then-new label, Little Dog Records, and a new recording studio Anderson built with his wife, who is a recording engineer.
Those who have followed his career know Anderson’s solo work has always fallen on the bluesy side.
“I played a lot of blues as a kid – I was a ’roots’ player who had quite a career playing country. I constantly studied music, even while I was playing whatever was appropriate for Dwight’s records.”
Birds Above Guitarland he adds, is the type of music that comes most naturally to him. “It’s the majority of my influences. And now more than ever, I’m trying to be cognizant of playing like me; guitar players are often infatuated with other peoples’ playing styles – it’s intoxicating to hear different stages of B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, and Robben Ford, and go, ’Man! What’s he doing?’ or ’What’s his technique?’”
Well before this newfound musical focus, Anderson had re-trained his professional efforts with Little Dog and began to groom the careers of unknown artists, serving as producer, co-songwriter, guitarist/musician, engineer, etc. – whatever needed to be done. The move helped him steer clear of being pigeonholed as a country picker.
We started our discussion with a brief look back.
What year did you start with Dwight?
We started working clubs together in ’82 or ’83 and tried to make Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., for two years, borrowing studio time and all that, and finally got it done as an independent EP in early ’85. It’s funny, the band that recorded that album – Jeff Donovan, Brantley Kearns, myself, Dwight, and J.D. Foster – had been fired from every gig it had in Los Angeles (laughs)! Every club gig! And, pretty much every label had turned down the record.
Given your musical background and Dwight’s style, did it help at all that you were right there as the “cowpunk” surge began on the West Coast?
Yeah, we lied (laughs)! We’d tell the club, “Yeah, we’re cowpunk! We can do that.” But you have to understand, we were guys who made music for a living. We went into honky tonks and played four hours a night for 40 or 50 bucks. But it seemed if we lined up a four-night gig, we’d play two nights then get fired. If it was two nights, we did one. Playing “I Sang Dixie” got us fired!
Did audiences just not react to what you were doing?
Well, when you walk into a bar and there’s a Pac-Man machine and a pool table and a TV, you’re the distraction. The club is just covering its bets and bar owners didn’t know what they had. I’m not casting aspersions – they’re not talent scouts – but in every “country” bar, we got fired because, “You don’t play enough Alabama.” We were playing Bill Monroe and Hank, Sr. – country music. But yeah, we got fired from every club – every one.
What turned it around?
Going to play for nothin’ – clubs in the Valley didn’t pay – and we created a product. We called ourselves cowpunk – which, as far we could tell was all these young bands that had become bored with playing punk and said, “We’re gonna do country music, but like punk, ’cuz we’re revved up like hot rods.” Okay, well… rock and roll started with guys playing really loud in the garage while their parents were in the living room listening to Hank, Sr., hollering, “Turn that s**t down!” So, we went to Hollywood, told everybody we were cowpunk, got onstage and played what we play – loudly – and the press started writing about us.
Given your background and attitude toward playing guitar, were you going for anything specific stylistically, as a player back then?
When we made Dwight’s first record (the 1986 smash Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.), I’d play Albert-Lee-styled stuff. But after that album, I thought, ’I’m not gonna do that anymore, because I’ll only be second-best. I’m gonna go down my own path and figure out how I want to play.’
Guitars of The Big Dog at Little Dog
The unique relationship between Pete Anderson and Reverend Guitars – builders of his two signature models – started when Anderson saw a Reverend ad featuring rock-rapper Kid Rock – flippin the bird! Anderson got a kick out of the fact a fellow Detroiter was sporting the appropriate attitude.
“A few years later, he called looking for a signature model,” recalls Reverend founder and designer Joe Naylor. “Apparently, he approached several companies, but no one could do what he needed.”
What Anderson needed was a new type of hollowbody – one that looked and sounded like an old pawnshop prize, but of course with modern playability and reliability. “It also had to resist howling at stage volume!” said Naylor. “I told him, ‘Yeah, we can do that, no problem’ and I think he was taken aback – maybe even suspicious. But, half a dozen prototypes and a year later, we nailed it.”
Naylor’s efforts made it easy when, later, Anderson wanted something… more “traditional” and very familiar to those who may have first caught him playing with Dwight Yoakam.
“Pete has a strong history with the Fender Telecaster, but we tweaked it with a lot of covert features to create the Eastsider,” Naylor said, adding. “We’ve enjoyed a great working relationship, and his signature models have been some of our best sellers.”
As you started to put together the songs for Birds Above Guitarland, were there any significant changes in your approach as a producer?
Well, the biggest plus for me is it’s the first time I said, “Hey, are the vocals loud enough?” (laughs)! I’m really happy with all of it, but very proud of the vocals.
I approach making a record as “songs come first,” then try to be creative with the guitar. I never play to impress as a guitarist; I’d much rather create a likeable song and play something within it. And that’s a slightly greater challenge. I think the ultimate example is “Midnight At the Oasis,” by Maria Muldauer. It’s a cool song and Amos Garrett played a great solo that fits but is also completely jaw-dropping. I follow players who play within songs – Steve Cropper, Cornell Dupree, Amos Garrett. James Burton always gave you a hook or something cool.
Did you also have to give some thought to your technique?
Yes. I realized that most blues guys played with their fingers, except for B.B. King and maybe Muddy Waters. Freddie King used to thumbpick. When I worked with Dwight, I started palming the pick, and eventually started playing completely with my fingers. That was a big step. Then I started to focus my left-hand technique on the blues side of the page, which is kind of deliberate and slow. So, I’ve been conscious of taking what attracts me or fits comfortably, while still being conscious of what people like, what I have that’s a little different, or what might make somebody say, “I want to hear Pete play!” That’s the goal, instead of being the second-best B.B., Albert, Freddie, Robben, Derek, or whoever.
When I’m working on melodies and harmonies, I try to create a certain intensity and fidelity. The biggest example of that would be Elmore James. I can pick up a guitar, tune it to open E or open D, grab a bottleneck slide and play (hums a melody). But I can never, ever, ever play like Elmore James (laughs)! Take that intensity and add the stylistic complexity of, say, Wes Montgomery, who played the most beautiful stuff you’ve ever heard in a fashion you never heard before. That’s what I’m thinking.
What are some personal highlights on the album?
There are a lot, like the solo on “Red Sunset Blues.” I played the melody with a baritone with tremolo, kind of spaghetti-western, then used my Reverend Eastsider for the solo, and played stuff I had never played before – complex, exotic playing that was completely different. I also love the solo on “Out of the Fire” which is sort of an updated honky-tonk/Bill Doggett/multi-interval thing.
Which amps do we hear on the album?
Well, for the most part, I play through a very old Line 6 Pod – first-generation. In the early days of that company, Tim Godwin was their artist rep, and he got me involved. We modeled two of my amps – a blackface Fender Deluxe I had used in the Dwight era and I beefed up with a Twin transformer, and my Silvertone 1489. And they did a great job on both. If you put them side-by-side through a cab with the same speaker, some air around them, and a bit of noise, like beer bottles clinking – you won’t be able to tell the difference. So that’s what I use for the most part, direct. My engineer, Tony Rambo, lives to re-amp guitar parts, so we did some of that through the Silvertone on the bluesier, Chicago-style stuff. We fired up my old blackface Deluxe and mixed and matched cabinets.
What’s the story behind the blackface Fender Twin you bought from Jody Maphis – the son of Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, who is now a guitar player and a drummer in Nashville.
I don’t remember how we started talking about it, but he goes, “I’ve got an old Twin.” I said, “Really? I’m looking for one.” And he said, “Yeah, it’s a blackface something. So, he brought it out and it was all beat up! I asked, “What do you want for it?” He said, “200 bucks. Everything works.” I was on the road at the time, so I had him drop if off with my road manager, and as I was getting on the bus, he was laughing, “Hey that piece of junk Jody Maphis brought over is [in the luggage hold].” He thought Jody had pulled a quick one. But I cleaned it up, gave it the once-over, replaced tubes and stuff, then put it in a new cabinet. I also did a mod created by Jim Williams (a renowned amp tech in the L.A. area) where you change the value of the Bright switch.
What was the motivation for modding it?
When I was touring early on, I’d use two Deluxes, but they just weren’t loud enough. So I figured I’d get a Twin. Thing is, a Twin doesn’t sound much like a Deluxe, so I asked Jim, who is a brilliant designer-type and a Deluxe freak, and he said, “The Bright switch is wrong – it’s not the value of a Deluxe.” I said, “There is no Bright switch on a Deluxe…” And he goes, “Yes, there is. It’s just that Leo saved the money and didn’t put the actual switch on it, but instead he gave it a value and shorted it (across the Volume potentiometer).
I run it with the Middle on 10, Bass on 4, Treble on 5, put the Volume on 2 or, 3 – which is really loud for a Twin. I put two EVs in it, hit the Bright switch, and it’s like a giant Deluxe. Every steel player that comes in my studio wants that amp.
Do you ever run a boutique amp?
I have a Zinky Tonemaster, and it is one of the greatest amps of all time. It adds real punch, sort of like an old-school blond Bandmaster – killer, beautiful power, just a muscular amp. We use it whenever we want something a little more husky.
Which guitars did you use on the disc? You now have two signature models from Reverend…
Yes, I’m so happy with the Reverends that I used them on the whole record, except for the Tom Anderson baritone on “Red Sunset.” But all the soloing and other parts were my Eastsider, which has a korina body, two pickups, a multi-radius fingerboard with 6105 frets, an Earvana compensated nut, and locking tuners. I also used my PA-1, which is the first one we did together. It’s a hollowbody with a Bigsby, and on my personal one I installed a set of Seymour Duncan vintage-style humbuckers on a P-90 chassis, so they fit in the guitar comfortably.
On “Empty Everything,” I might have also used the Epiphone Joe Pass I completely tortured and that served as the prototype for the PA-1. The song has a very Chicago-blues feel, and I wanted to use the old-school Harmony pickups in that guitar because they’re really, really distorted.
As a label owner and record producer, what are some of your best memories of the last 20 years?
Well, we got in on the ground floor of what’s now Americana. Its needle has been up and down, and now it’s up again because of Mumford and Sons, acoustic guitars, and people are coming around to that being a viable musical “style” for lack of a term.
I couldn’t be more proud of the records we’ve made on Little Dog, and I’d go into any label-head card game and say, “Here’s my Joy Lynn White, here’s my Adam Hood, here’s my Moot Davis.” I’m very, very happy with our catalog and I’ve never made a record that I was not completely enthralled with.
And now, of course, it has become a digital world. I’m reformulating my distribution and making sure it’s locked down. I’ve been handling distribution internally, and it’s very difficult on top of simply running the label, my career, the studio… So we’re getting ready to jump into the digital thing really hard. One thing about that is you can do compilation records very easily. In the digital world, you come up with some art and a sequence, so I want to start doing The Roots of Americana Volumes 1-12 or whatever, and expose more people to the artists who are or were part of Little Dog.
It’s funny how the paradigm has shifted. It used to be if you didn’t have a record label, you weren’t in the business because record companies controlled the studios, the distribution chain, access to the media, and access to record stores. Now, the last thing you need is a record deal. Now, the recording studio is your laptop, distribution is your web page. The majority of what a record company offered is now irrelevant.
What are some of the harder lessons you’ve learned from running a label?
Well, I learned that I can’t love what an artist does more than the artist themself does. That was a big lesson. When you see somebody’s talent and want to make a record and help them be successful, but they don’t want it as much… I can’t be more excited about you than you are. And that’s tough, because I see some stuff where I go, “Geez, this is brilliant!” I’m a sucker for great songwriting and talent, but I can’t work with someone with a lack of will. So few people have the same intensity and concentration that Dwight and I had.
That sort of ambition is pretty rare?
I hate to say it, but I think it is. It’s just not something I see every day. The story of Pete and Dwight is about two guys who literally came from nowhere and willed themselves a career, hearing “No” at every turn. “We don’t need you. We don’t want you.” I stood there from day one with a song called “I Sang Dixie” – one of the greatest country songs of all time – thinking, “What am I missing here?” But we kept going and that first album, against all odds, sold two million copies.
This article originally appeared in VG December 2013 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.