Oklahoma-born, Virginia-raised singer-songwriter Pat Anderson is off to a strong start with his debut album, Magnolia Road. A roots rocker with a strong affinity for Dylan, Springsteen and Petty, and possessed of the tough-minded country-rock sensibility of Todd Snider as well, Anderson went to all the right places to find the necessary musicians to drive his messages home: the great Will Kimbrough provides searing electric guitar work (and also plays banjo and mandolin) and ex-Jayhawk Jen Gunderman is on various keyboard instruments, with Tim Marks on bass, Rob McNelley on electric guitar, and Nick Buda on drums (Anderson co-produces with Grammy winning engineer Chad Carlson). If there is a bit of Dylan in Petty’s drawl, there is a bit of both in Anderson’s, although his voice, by contrast, is clear and ringing. Of the eleven songs here, only two are covers, and both are telling: a roiling, sludgy, dirge arrangement of the traditional “I Wish I Was a Mole In the Ground,” with its eerie guitar cries and somber keyboard support, dates back at least to Bascom Lunsford’s 1924 Library of Congress recording, and Lunsford insisted it was already prevalent among the locals of western North Carolina when he was growing up. The song’s importance to the early work of Bob Dylan and the Band has been predictably overstated by Greil Marcus, but in Anderson’s case it serves as something like the fundamental starting point for where he’s coming from as a writer, with its main character frustrated at every turn by the callousness of those whose paths he crosses, be they an acquisitive woman or a railroad man who “will kill you when he can/and drink up all your blood like wine,” and inevitably propelling himself towards some unfortunate end, with impunity and without remorse. Anderson’s voice is suitably dead in the story’s telling, heavy, with little emotional inflection–a perfect evocation of a man beyond reach, doomed, and knowing it. The other cover is of Springsteen’s “Dancing In the Dark,” and though Anderson clearly has the band to pull of a rousing take on the Boss’s big hit, he chooses instead to root around in it and find new wells of tenderness otherwise buried in the original’s happy-go-lucky, synth-fueled texture. To do this he transforms it into a soft bluegrass-tinged ballad, heavy on ruminative banjo, with affecting instrumental embroidery via brush drums, acoustic guitar and accordion, then responds vocally with appropriate thoughtfulness in the verses (even adding a little bluesy tinge to his drawl) and soaring in the chorus.
But those are only two songs on album otherwise populated by nine impressive originals. The opening “Follow Me Down” is a forceful country-rock workout that rises from a whisper to a shout and is centered on the tale of a fellow whose relationship is under fire for mysterious reasons (“the talk around town turned mighty strange”) that lead him to beseech his gal for assurances she’s with him, come what may. It’s an occasion for a tough, direct vocal from Anderson, whose appeals are underscored by the fury of Kimbrough’s stinging guitar soloing. In the Petty mode, the stomping, bruising “Let It Rain” describes “a time of trouble, toil and strain” that might well be a comment on American circa 2010, complete with the dour prediction that the current climate, if you will, might be the precursor to “a hundred-odd-year storm,” as Anderson shouts amidst flurries of mandolin, punishing drums, and wailing guitar ahead of his undaunted declaration: “Bring it on!” More directly topical, the slow boiling ballad “Martinsville” wonders what happens to a 53-year-old man when the factory where he’s spent his working life shuts down and no other options obtain save one–“when the night comes calling/he feels he’s falling/down like Blue Ridge rain/faith, not reason, keeps him believin’…,” a sentiment followed by grim, slowly enveloping silence, itself a profound statement. Easy to see how the desperate character of “I Wish I Was a Mole In the Ground” fits right into the brutal world Anderson evokes. And yet, after recounting so many physical and emotional traumas in his stories, Anderson ends on a high note with the beauty of the title tune, “Magnolia Road,” a homecoming story with Appalachian overtones in its rootsy backdrop and the singer’s easygoing, hopeful vocal, though the drums and slide guitar provide a rockin’ energy thrust to the whole enterprise. Anderson may strike some as too consciously Dylanesque, especially in his singing, but he’s not another “new Dylan.” He is, however, another in a long line of American artists with solid groundings in folk, country and traditional rock ‘n’ roll and unafraid to take the measure of their times, even as they plumb their own hearts. In doing so Anderson joins a select group of troubadours who attempt to shed a little more light on, and with it more understanding of, what the heck is going on within us and without us. You can’t have too many Pat Andersons in the world, but this particular Pat Anderson may be on to something, so take heed.
By David McGee: TheBluegrassSpecial.com