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Al Anderson finally strikes it after all these years

By Jon Johnson, December 1996

If there a lesson is to be learned from the career of Big Al Anderson, it's that good things can come to those who wait. In Big Al's case, however, it was necessary to wait...and wait...and wait...and wait...

At 49, Al Anderson is at the top of his game. Though still best known by many as the guitarist of the near-legendary, always-on-the-road N.R.B.Q. from 1971 until 1994, Al has proven wrong F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous assertion "There are no second acts in American lives."

Throughout the nineties - even before his departure from N.R.B.Q. - Al Anderson has made a name for himself as one of the most dependable and talented songwriters in country music today, penning hits and album tracks for the likes of Carlene Carter, The Mavericks, Hal Ketchum, Shenandoah, Jerry Lee Lewis and many, many others.

All this from a man who, by his own admission, only wrote about 40 songs in his years with N.R.B.Q.

As if fame and success as a top Nashville hired pen wasn't enough, Anderson has just released his third - and best - solo album, "Pay Before You Pump."

"This is the first good one," says Anderson. "There were no hurdles on this record. That's what I like about it."

Though many were expecting an album reflecting Anderson's more recent success in the country industry, "Pay Before You Pump" will sound instantly familiar to Anderson's longtime fans; chock-full of Anderson's distinctive guitar work, sharp wit, and a baker's dozen new songs, most of which rock as much as anything Anderson had ever previously recorded.

"I think that everybody kind of figured that I'd put overalls on and say goodbye to everything. I was ready when I did it."

The second act in Al Anderson's life began earlier in this decade when Anderson and the other members of N.R.B.Q. were asked to sing on a Carlene Carter recording session in Los Angeles.

"She came to this job and asked us to come over and sing on this song, 'I Love You Because I Want To.' And the next night she came to see us down in Long Beach, and I got to talking to her, and asked her if she wanted to write, because I was thinking about getting a [publishing] deal in Nashville. And a couple of weeks later I went out and wrote 'Every Little Thing' and 'Something Already Gone' with her. It was top five all over the world! That was like a big wake-up call."

It was during this period in the early '90's when Anderson - who had been known as a heavy drinker for several years - stopped drinking, started taking better care of himself, lost some weight and found himself in a better frame of mind than he had been in years.

He also made the decision to leave N.R.B.Q. to pursue his songwriting career - the band's first line-up change since 1974, when drummer Tom Ardolino had joined the group.

The New England-based N.R.B.Q. had been critical favorites for a quarter-centur, -a band that single-handedly defined the word "eclectic."

N.R.B.Q. never played the same set twice and were known for being just as likely to perform obscure numbers by jazz composers like Sun Ra and Duke Ellington as they were likely to play "Sink the Bismarck" or "Get Rhythm," not to mention their own Beatlesque numbers (mostly written by keyboardist Terry Adams and bassist Joey Spampinato, whose younger brother Johnny has ably replaced Anderson in the group).

The critical adoration that the group enjoyed never translated into anything resembling commercial success, however.

"From the outside looking in it was [successful], but not if you look at the numbers," says Anderson, referring to the band's consistant popularity as a live act, which the group was never able to carry over into radio airplay or large record sales. "It was more of a jazz attitude than not making it on purpose."

When it came time for Anderson to record a new solo album, he recorded songs written in collaboration withthe likes of John Hiatt, Craig Wiseman, Sharon Rice, Bill Lloyd. Most songs that he had been saving for himself, though "Without Your Love" had been recorded by Aaron Tippin previously and "Lonely Too Long" had been written originally for Bonnie Raitt.

"I've got one now that I know is perfect for Wynonna - and of course she'll never do it. Everytime I think it's perfect for somebody it never gets done because [the songs] have to go through too many people. A lot of times the artist never even hears it. As you build yourself up in Nashville you can finally get to the point where you can go over to Wynonna's house."

There was a brief period of time a few years ago when Anderson served in both N.R.B.Q. and Carlene Carter's touring group, though he appears considerably more hesitant to tour at this point.

"I'm very reluctant to go on the road. They don't make a bunk long enough," says Anderson, referring to his height and size. "These country guys [who] leave after the show to get to the next town? Hate that!" Anderson is considering going on the road for a few weeks, however, to promote his new album. "They're trying to work up a little something for a couple of weeks."

For aspiring songwriters, Anderson offers this advice: "Go out and eat dirt with the rest of us," he says with a laugh. "Don't send tapes. You've got to start out with an open mike at the Bluebird or something. I didn't have to do that. That was one cool thing."

"I'm just glad that country got so big because Nashville is the place to be. And it's become so big that it lets cool things happen at the same time. You get to write great songs. They don't always get cut, and they don't always get cut the way you'd like. But it makes it so there's an outlet for your stuff."

"Even if it's bad country, there's so much of it that the good stuff (also) gets out."