By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Thomas Anderson still gets the odd piece of fan mail from Hong Kong or Bulgaria. Regardless of the country of origin, the letters follow the same basic lines: they found the album, bought it because it was American, and after they studied the lyrics and translated them, they think he's the next Leonard Cohen.
It's a definite ego boost for one of the most critically lauded yet efficiently obscure songwriters of the last decade.
Anderson's humility is both deserved and appalling. He's not worried about fame. Really.
“It's nice if you have worldwide acclaim,'' he said in a recent interview. “All you really need, though, is to know that people appreciate your stuff and that you can still make a living doing it. Tomorrow never knows — you could wake up tomorrow with the Tulsa World calling you for an interview or you could die on a park bench like Edgar Allen Poe.''
Either way, you get famous, right? Yeah, well.
Despite most readers' probable unfamiliarity with Anderson, he's been a critics' darling since his first indie release — the cumbersomely titled “Allright, It Was Frank ... and He's Risen From the Dead and Gone Off With His Truck'' — in 1989. He's gotten rave reviews from Rolling Stone to Berlin's Tip magazine.
Why do critics love this hyperliterate native of Miami, Okla., so much? It could be because Anderson is a music journalist himself. Anderson sandwiched this interview between calls to Billboard and Musician magazines about upcoming reviews. But it's much more than mere nepotism. The fact that Anderson makes a fair living by writing prose as well as poetry indicates his talent for eloquent expression. Critics love him because he's a word man, a penultimate storyteller, and journalists like to think they are, too.
The lyrical subjects on his third and latest disc, “Moon Going Down'' on the slightly higher profile indie label Marilyn, are about par for Anderson's musings — several ghosts (“Sing You Sinners,'' “Jerry's Kids'') and many quirky characters (“Running With Heidi,'' “Last I Saw of Adam''). Anderson's stories are always haunted and his antagonized protagonists are usually on the road. He sings their tales with his nervous, thin voice in as folksy a manner as rock 'n' roll will allow. He's been compared to everyone from Lou Reed to Lyle Lovett.
“The acclaim has not been worthless,'' he said. “It's really helped me, not in terms of sales but in terms of getting small labels interested. When somebody gets written up favorably, the small labels start calling. It opens a lot of doors, and it does sell some records.''
It got him to Austin, Texas, anyway, his current home. Anderson launched his first musical experiments from Norman, though, where he moved in the late '80s after graduating from Oklahoma State University.
“There were two places in Oklahoma then where people were forming bands: Tulsa and Norman,'' Anderson said. “Most of the musicians I know in Tulsa were in cover bands. Norman struck me as the most open- minded scene. Stillwater had such a large old hippie enclave, and the music still reflected that. It was too isolated for me.''
Most of his friends continued south and settled amid the thriving local music scene in Austin, but Anderson stayed in Norman. He liked it. It fit.
“It's a good place to go to form a band and get your chops together while you figure out exactly what you want to do. The scene is creative enough, but there aren't any pressures, which can be a good or a bad thing,'' Anderson said. “Norman is a little bit like Austin. I don't know if it will ever be as big a scene, though, simply because of economics. It can't support a lot of clubs. The spirit is there.''
Still, Anderson eventually gave in to central Oklahoma's indifference to original music and headed to Austin with the rest of the talent.
“Not of lot of people were getting what I was doing,'' he said. “I'm this guy with an acoustic guitar singing some songs I wrote. People in Oklahoma City think that means one of two things: he wants to be Neil Young or he wants to be Larry Gatlin. So I came to Austin where they do get it. I'm not a huge star down here by any stretch of the imagination, but they do understand that there are people here like Vic Chesnutt who just have some songs to sing, and they'll listen.''
Indeed, he ain't no superstar. He is confident, however, that time will be good to him.
“Something I've been learning over the years is that there are a lot of others like me in that respect — people slogging it out. I read somewhere that if you keep doing this for 15 years then you get your legend card and people begin to notice you, start covering your songs and everything,'' Anderson said. “If you stick with something long enough, people will catch up with you. When I was at OSU, a visiting poet said that if you want to be successful you'd better hope you live a long time.''
Then Anderson started citing monumental examples of this theory. Leonard Cohen: “He's in his 60s and people are just now figuring out he's one of the best songwriters around.'' Richard Thompson: “The rock world certainly caught up with him. I see Thompson covers all over the place now.'' Elliott Murphy: “His new album has Springsteen and the Violent Femmes on it. He's been turning out quality work since the 1970s and he still hasn't got the respect he deserves. He may never get it. I may never get it.''
The logical thing to do here, of course, if he wants to get noticed, would be to sell out — write that hooky love-you-all-night-long song, pepper it with “baby'' and “oh yeah'' and collect the checks. Anderson's got the ability to write catchy pop — listen to “She Looks Like Ricki Lee Jones'' — but somehow he's too darn smart to write vapid lyrics, try though he has.
“I've tried to sell out. I've made really half-hearted attempts at writing sell-outs, and I've hated myself afterward,'' he said. “I wish I had that kind of meteoric career where I shoot into the top eschelons of the business very, very quickly, but that's not how it seems to work with me. I just have to do what I feel in my heart and soul and win or lose on what I am.''
His one recent stab at success was a nomination for a W.C. Handy Blues Award. Yes, a blues award. Anderson wrote a song with blues singer Keri Leigh, a friend of his from Oklahoma. The song is called “Here's Your Mop, Mr. Johnson'' — a quintessential Anderson title — and it was up for best blues song fo the year. Leigh and her band, the Blue Devils, performed the song at the awards ceremony in May; alas, it did not win the prestigious award.
“Moon Going Down'' is a success for Anderson, anyway. He said it's his “purest'' album.
“This one is the closest to what I heard in my head,'' he said. “The songs I heard in my head this time I pretty much succeeded in getting onto the tape that way. We really nailed it this time.''
Someday he'll hit. Someday we'll be writing reviews of the Thomas Anderson tribute album on Columbia Records featuring Bettie Serveert, Giant Sand, King Missile and Aunt Beanie's First- Prize Beets. Until then, he'll keep puttering down the lost highways full of America's hidden relatives and just do his thing. Before we called him, he'd just spoken to a label in Sweden about cutting a mini-album.
“You do what you can, you know?'' he said. “If the steps are only upward, even if they're tiny, it's better than selling tires.''
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.