Review: ‘Something Borrowed, Something New: A Tribute to John Anderson’

I’ve always loved tribute albums, the monster ensembles that stretch an artist’s influential footprint but deliver fresh worlds of interpretation and even introduce me to new voices. Some of my favorites are Step Right Up: The Songs Of Tom Waits (Magna Pop’s cut of “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis” is worth the price of admission), Dressed in Black: A Tribute To Johnny Cash (Chris Knight’s “Flesh and Blood” is the alt-country version of Captain America wielding Thor’s Mjölnir), and Stone Free: A Tribute To Jimi Hendrix (Yes, you have to suffer through Eric Clapton covering the title track, but you get Body Count doing “Hey Joe”, so there’s that).

Like a good soundtrack, the stew of a tribute album can be as random or calculated as the hand stirring the pot or pressing play. In the case of Something Borrowed, Something New: A Tribute to John Anderson, producer Dan Auerbach raids the catalog of one of the greatest country music singers of the last 45 years.

You don’t forget John Anderson. I remember when “Swingin'” was the biggest song in the world, the Godzilla of country music, and even the pop charts bowed before it. But there’s no mistaking or confusing John for someone or something else– he’s country, an unflinching paragon of the genre, actually, and Auerbach’s roster for SBSN may fire a bit wide for some.

The opening salvo is gold, genius, and just plain unfair to the rest of the album. Implying the project has been simmering for a bit (Marcus King pops up on guitar, so I’ll wager it was recorded around the time of the El Dorado sessions), John Prine is an almost preternatural fit for “1959”, a tear-inducing rummage through nostalgia and love lost that gave Anderson a hit in 1981. From there, current Americana darling Sierra Ferrell trots through the title track to Anderson’s 2020 Auerbach’d album Years. There are those who felt the Easy Eye dressing of Anderson’s style of country music didn’t quite fit (yes, I’m talking about myself) but with Ferrell in command, the material takes a fresh breath that sent me back to the source with softer ears.

Brent Cobb was probably singing “Wild And Blue” before he could walk and as welcome as his version is, somebody fucked up when they didn’t put him in front of “Low Dog Blues”. And that’s not disparaging Nathaniel Rateliff’s rendition, either. The leader of the Night Sweats gets gleefully funky and the band downright filthy, taking the right kind of liberties on the tune from Anderson’s 1980 debut.

The Tony Joe White/Carson Whitsett penned “Mississippi Moon” appeared on Anderson’s 1994 album Country ‘Til I Die, but Eric Church handles it like a mid-’80s sequel to “Swingin'”, which I rather enjoy. It’s a good timin’ performance you can grill & drink beer to, and now when somebody asks me what I think of Church, I can say, “I liked his version of ‘Mississippi Moon’.”

John Anderson recorded Glenn Ray’s “I Just Came Home To Count The Memories” in 1981 and the everlasting gobstopper of imagery in that heartacher was just begging for Gillian Welch & David Rawlings to dust it off and give it another lick. It’s an exceptional country song that defies era and this SBSN version is a true highlight– and a danger for those easily moved to tears by song. Ahem, sniff.

Speaking of highlights… I haven’t seen Tyler Childers perform live, but I’ve read that some fans have been disappointed that the Kentuckian has been playing too many covers at his shows. Well, if I was in the audience and Tyler & the band launched into “Shoot Low Sheriff”, I believe I’d be moved to dance and yell. As it stands, I’m kinda twitchin’ this minute, singin’ the chorus in my head.

My brother Michael just saw Luke Combs in Atlanta, proclaiming him “the best entertainer I have ever seen in concert.” Generally, I abstain from that kind of country music, but I have to admit, I love the guitars replacing the fiddles on Luke’s version of the great “Seminole Wind”. That album was a staple on the front deck of the single wide and stomps to the bait & tackle for Squirrell Nuts and Chick-O-Sticks, and one of my favorite cuts was “When It Comes To You”, which gets the Sailor’s touch on SBSN courtesy of Sturgill Simpson. Anderson’s version featured the song’s writer, Mark Knopfler, on guitar (I also had Dire Straits’ On Every Street on cassette at the same time), and for this one, Molly Tuttle (who also appears on “Shoot Low Sheriff”) does the acoustic honors while Ray Jacildo mostly steals the show with the harpsichord.

Seminole Wind (1992) also produced the stellar barroom sing-a-long chorus of “Straight Tequila Night”, and Ashley McBryde is just the kind of vocal acrobat to take the reins. The band enters rattlesnake low to the ground, and I feel like the song could’ve nailed the triple lindy if it had gone darker, but it’s still compelling as hell.

“Would You Catch A Falling Star” is one of Anderson’s best and Del McCoury & Sierra Hull land one of the most austere and traditional performances on the whole record, so much so that it nearly matches the not unpleasant audacity of Rateliff and Combs. Those sonic conflicts are what I love best about huge, multi-artist projects. I would have paid money I don’t have to have been in the room the first time John Anderson heard his tribute just to see him smile (proudly or wryly) at how others hear his work. Unfortunately, the one track on Something Borrowed, Something New that doesn’t quite fill the boots is the Brothers Osborne’s karaoke-ish romp through “You Can’t Judge A Book”. That one’s the rock my wife hides in a plastic egg every Easter with the same note, “They can’t all be winners.”

As on-the-nose as it could possibly be, Jamey Johnson closes out SBSN with the Billy Joe Shaver standard, “I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal”. Like Brent and “Wild and Blue”, Johnson’s without a doubt had that one in the repertoire his entire existence. It’s a sweet cherry on top, for sure, with lots of goodness (and dollops of greatness, certainly)  underneath, but I really think it should’ve kicked off the sundae and “1959” should’ve been the grand, sweeping finish. “Old Chunk Of Coal” is one of Billy Joe’s most famous songs, but it’s just as synonymous with Anderson– and for good reason. Every song John Anderson sings is irrefutably his within the confines of the first and last note. They still are, too.

Something Borrowed, Something New is absolutely worth your time, and I recommend making it a group effort.

Something Borrowed, Something New: A Tribute to John Anderson is available now from Easy Eye Sound.

Thee Aaron Irons is a music commentator & radio personality for 100.9 The Creek where he hosts Americana Madness weekdays from 10am-3pm and Honky Tonk Hell, a Rockabilly/Rhythm & Blues retrospective that airs every Sunday afternoon at 1pm. He lives in Macon, Georgia with his wife and daughter.