Three years ago, John Anderson received a phone call from Merle Haggard. “This is how it went,” he says, doing his best Hag impression. “‘I’m in the hospital, writing this song, and the more I write on it, hell, the more it sounds like you.’ I said, ‘You just finish it up, and I’ll do it.'”
Still flattered, Anderson laughs at the memory, of one of country’s preeminent songwriters, laid up in a Macon, Georgia, hospital with pneumonia in 2012, writing a song especially for him.
A few months later, Haggard was in Nashville for the opening of the Bakersfield Sound exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, but first, he requested Anderson meet him at his downtown hotel.
“He said, ‘Tell John I want to get with him before all that other shit starts,'” Anderson recalls. When he arrived, Haggard removed a piece of paper from his back pocket. “He unfolded it and told Ben, his son, ‘Go get that little guitar in there,’ and started singing.” The song was “Magic Mama,” an imagery-rich number that is a rollicking standout on Anderson’s sturdy new album, Goldmine, his first studio LP in nine years.
With quirky lyrics about a “magic mama from Malibu,” who had a “swinging backyard with an ocean view,” Anderson’s version proves Haggard right — the singer’s famously laid-back delivery fits perfectly with the breezy melody. To listen to Anderson drawl out the chorus is to hear a vocalist skilled in singing country music, which in today’s evolving country climate, is worth noting.
“You can listen to everybody in country music’s history and its present, and I bet in its future, and you won’t find any other voice that sounds anything like John Anderson,” says Jamey Johnson, who recently joined Anderson onstage in Nashville for a concert of hits and songs from Goldmine, taped for SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel. “He puts so much soul and so much passion into every song he does, but I’m not even sure those things are the reasons he sounds so unique. He just does.”
Josh Turner, who co-wrote the title track to Anderson’s Goldmine, along with the shuffling “I Work a Lot Better,” says the singer is an unwavering pillar in country music. At the still young age of 60 — Reba McEntire recently celebrated the milestone, and George Strait scored his 60th Number One at 60 — Anderson is not chasing trends or trying to invent a hip, young sound. Instead, he’s sticking with what works.
“The beauty of John Anderson is that he hasn’t let anybody sway him from what he believes and what he feels. Sometimes that’s hurt him in his career, but in the long run, when you mention the name John Anderson, that voice comes to mind and those songs come to mind,” Turner tells Rolling Stone Country. “He’s stayed true to his songwriting craft and his vocal style and the things he wants to sing about. He hasn’t let anybody deter him from that path.”