John Anderson was struggling with the issue that is every musician’s nightmare: in the midst of a serious illness that had forced him off the road, his hearing disappeared. Singing and playing his guitar, the way the “Seminole Wind” singer had been doing as a profession for more than 40 years, seemed like a thing of the past.
“I was almost 100 percent deaf there for about 6 or 7 months, due to different things. But nobody could really put a finger on what had happened or why,” Anderson says, calling from his home in Smithville, Tennessee, where he’s hunkered down in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As he was recovering, and slowly regaining at least some of his hearing, Anderson received a phone call from Jeremy Tepper, program director of Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country. Tepper wanted to introduce him to Dan Auerbach, the producer and member of the blues-rock duo the Black Keys. Anderson was vaguely familiar with the group.
Auerbach, on the other hand, was already a fan of Anderson’s work, and invited him to come visit his Easy Eye Sound studio in Nashville, where albums by Yola, Kendell Marvel, and Marcus King had been recorded.
“I always loved his voice so much and he just always seemed to have a lot of songs I loved,” Auerbach says. “Some of them seemed old, some of them seemed new, but it was just always that voice, that unmistakable thing.”
The meeting proved to be a productive one. With David “Fergie” Ferguson and Pat McLaughlin, they wrote the song “Years,” which became the title track and centerpiece of Anderson’s new album. His previous full-length, the solid-but-overlooked Goldmine, came out in 2015, but listening to “Years,” it’s easy to see how that gap might have felt like ages. Powered by an urgent set of piano chords, “Years” is a message to let go of the past, even though time is fleeting. “Don’t look back in sorrow/The children have tomorrow,” Anderson sings.
They wrote more over the next few days, with Auerbach surprising Anderson with a variety of collaborators including Paul Overstreet, Dee White, and bassist-songwriter Joe Allen. Anderson had known Allen from early in his Nashville days.
“Joe kinda took me around town and showed me a few of the ropes,” Anderson recalls. “I never did forget that.”
Auerbach pulled Anderson aside after one of these writing sessions.
“He said, ‘Man, we need to think about making a record on you,’” Anderson says. “I remember saying, ‘Well, if I’m gonna make one, I’m gonna make it like it might be the last one I’ll do.’”
That last part remains to be seen, of course, but Anderson was anxious about his ability to hear well enough to sing.
“There were still some pretty wild noises in my head,” he says. “It’s pretty hard to get around. I didn’t know how much sonically I could really absorb.”
“It wasn’t until right before we recorded anything that he’d told us that he’d even had medical issues or been to the hospital,” Auerbach adds. “That came as a big surprise. But it makes sense in retrospect. He guided us, in a way.”
Heavy without being foreboding, Years bears all the weight of a man taking stock of his life and career. In the early Eighties, he broke out with traditionalist hits like “Black Sheep” and “Wild and Blue”; in the Nineties, he experienced a revival with “Seminole Wind” and “Straight Tequila Night.”
The trio of songs that opens Years, including the title track, follows similar themes. “I’m Still Hangin’ On” imagines a PTSD-suffering soldier whose resilience and survival is tinged with sadness, and “Celebrate” mines a lovely Jimmy Webb-style melody to express gratitude for his life and all the good and bad contained therein. There’s a real sense of peace the 65-year-old Florida native communicates in these recordings.
“It was a great experience and, for me, a healing experience,” Anderson says. “Working with Dan and working through the tracks on these songs and writing these songs originally was maybe one of my biggest accomplishments in my career after what I’d been through. I was really happy about being able to do it again, once I fell into the groove. The more I did, it seemed like the better I got.”
That sense of healing, and in particular the healing power of love, is palpable on “All We’re Really Looking For” and “You’re Nearly Nothing.” Anderson credits love and faith as the key ingredients for his survival — while in the hospital, his wife of 37 years, Jamie Anderson, was by his side the whole time.
But there are also hints of the mischievous, untamed streak from early in Anderson’s career. The jangling “Wild and Free” depicts a restless loner who doesn’t require much in the way of earthly possessions, while “Tuesday I’ll Be Gone” marries the idea of a certified rambler with swooning slide guitar licks and the multi-platinum vocals of Blake Shelton, who has been introducing Anderson to a younger audience on his Friends and Heroes Tour.
“He’s truly one of the biggest personalities in the world today,” Anderson raves. “For him to still even remember me and to invite me on the tour like he did, I’ll never be able to say enough good things about Blake Shelton.”
For Auerbach, it was a thrilling experience just responding to Anderson’s voice in the studio, whether in the room as a musician or behind the mixing console.
“When John’s on that mic, you can tell that man’s never seen any Auto-Tune,” he says. “He’s got that gift. It’s who he is. That voice is him. You hear it when he’s talking, even.”
Though Years looks candidly at the passage of time and the fragility of life, exploring these ideas in song hasn’t made the inevitable any easier to swallow for Anderson. He’s happy to just enjoy life as it is and trust that it’s all going to work out.
“I’m still scared as hell of dying,” he says. “On the other hand, when my time comes, I think I’ll be in great hands. That part of it makes things better. Faith is a big part of living, and hope is a big part of living.”