John Anderson Honored on the High Seas (Live Review) 

Honored: Revered hard country stylist John Anderson (center) shows ’em how it’s done at the WILD & BLUE Tribute on the Outlaw Country Cruise. Photo by @WillByington © 2023 – Outlaw Country Cruise 7

WILD & BLUE: A Tribute to John Anderson
Various Artists
Starlight Theater, Norwegian Pearl
Feb. 25, 2023

John Anderson has long been the country singer’s country singer. A man who can bend, shave and slide notes, he was the heir apparent to – and friend of both – Merle Haggard and George Jones since his emergence as a promising voice that preceded Nashville’s “New Traditionalist” movement of the late ‘80s.

Never one to court the spotlight, or play the game, the Apopka, Floridian, who won the Country Music Association’s 1983 Horizon and Single of the Year for “Swingin’,” was the perfect Outlaw Cruise honoree. A stealth Outlaw, who saw multiple career resurgences over the last four decades, his songs defined true rural reality and common sense for those committed to doing their own thing. His style and singularity left a mark on myriad Outlaw Cruisers, based on their heartfelt witnessing and Anderson covers throughout the six days at sea,

But it was WILD & BLUE where the love truly flowed. A centerpiece of the Outlaw Cruise, its fringe country artists converge to honor a pioneering artist each year with reverent interpretations of many of the most significant songs in their catalog. For Anderson, it meant Academy of Country Music Song of the Year nominees (Sarah Borges’ “Straight Tequila Nights”), obscurities (Jesse Dayton’s “Would You Catch A Falling Star”) and a bit of full-charged Bobby Womack (Rhett Miller’s “It’s All Over Now”).

To understand C-O-U-N-T-R-Y in the full sense – braying, blazing, deep pockets of funk or utter tenderness – is to fall face-first into the hard country singer’s cannon. From house band leader Chris Masterson’s opening “She Just Started Liking Cheating Songs,” a hardcore, old-school night of music unfurled. If it wasn’t Carlene Carter romping through the novelty “Chicken Truck,” which moved like a barn door in a big wind, it was Joshua Ray Walker thumping on the cautionary “Let Somebody Else Drive” with an atmospheric electric guitar solo that dropped into a cosmic steel part.

Florida Girl: Elizabeth Cook delivers an homage to home and her hero, offering a prayerful take on Anderson’s “Seminole Wind.”

Humor abounded, too, on Robbie Fulks’ bouncing take on the laconic “Countried;” humorous, but it also offered one of the best juxtapositive surveys of what being a good ole boy is all about. Embracing “Countrified”’s conversational tone, Fulks’ final chorus was belted out as Eleanor Whitmore carved a massive slab of salty country fiddle.

That authenticity found the artists in their own wheelhouse. SiriusXM Willie’s Roadhouse and Outlaw host Dallas Wayne, also an old-school hit writer, delivered the post-marital wreckage snapshot “I Just Came Home To Count The Memories” with genuine gravitas. Pain, regrets and a stiff upper lip informed his take on the 40-year-old hit.

Elizabeth Cook, SiriusXM Outlaw host and artist, offered a crystalline homage to both Anderson and her own “old Florida” roots with a prayerful “Seminole Wind” that was all love and pride in what was. Fellow Floridian Wade Sapp did a straight-up, pure country take on later hit “Money In The Bank” that swung on the note-pulling chorus to full effect.

Heartbreaking and thrilling at the same time was Lucinda Williams with harmonies from UK punk band on the cheat’n’ come home lament “Wild & Blue.” It is the complicated states of being done wrong and holding on that made country so staunch and Anderson such a potent blend back in the day.

Wild & Blue: Lucinda Williams performs another heart-shredding version of “Wild & Blue,” this time with the Mekons for harmony. Photo by @WillByington © 2023 – Outlaw Country Cruise 7

After 13 deeply personal performances, Anderson himself took the stage to deliver “I Wish I Could’ve Been There.” A masterclass in note-bending, vocal dynamics and stoic acceptance of what was missed – dedicated to his wife and daughter, who were in the Starlight Theater – Anderson showed the hushed crowd the amount of life bar-room country could contain. 

For the final, y’all-play rendition of “Swingin’,” the raging honky tonk portrait of young love, the Mavericks’ horns emerged for the same brass punctuations that gave the original its brio. Juicy, tangy, delicious, the assembled musicians and vocalists treated the blaring vamp like a trampoline – soloing and savoring each others’ playing with abandon – and found the kind of joy that only music played well can provide.

That rapture – and agony – was the earmark of Anderson’s success. Committed to a vision the suits couldn’t always see, he weathered ups and downs without wavering in his sense of what country music was. Over the course of 90 minutes, that singularity provided a comprehensive take on why hard country may be the most narcotic kind of country of them all.