Fred Anderson may have received his best blues lesson in 1991 while traveling through the Mississippi Delta to a concert in Florida. He stopped in a small Mississippi town and felt the ambiance of the South, a place where, Faulkner once argued, "The past isn't even the past."
"I thought about Robert Johnson or Mississippi John Hurt walking by with a guitar on their back," says Anderson. "I walked through a cemetery next to a run-down church reading the gravestones. One stone read, 'died by lynching.' The Rev. Gary Davis song, 'Death Don't Know No Mercy in This Land,' came into my mind. Mississippi is a paradox that spawned the blues, and without it, we wouldn't be enjoying rock and roll or jazz like we do today."
Anderson himself is something of a paradox. A pleasant, soft-spoken, articulate man with silver hair and mustache, he's a modest elementary teacher on the Fort Hall Reservation north of Pocatello. On stage, with his cowboy hat, mandolin and Martin guitar, the audience might assume Anderson is a country singer. He can play country music, but he reveals a wilder soul when he plays slide guitar and invokes those legendary bluesmen.
The Mississippi Delta was only one stop in a long musical journey. He was born in eastern Nevada in a remote town called Ely.
"It was—and still is—a wide open mining town," Anderson says. He grew up near three legal brothels and casinos open 24 hours a day.
When he was young, Anderson listened to stories and picked up rhythms from those around him.
"My father invited everyone home to stay: tramp miners, cowboys, railroad hands, people who were down and out, and millionaires who were involved in mining deals," he says. One guest was the film director, Cecil B. DeMille. The experience, he says, later affected his songwriting.
Anderson's first attempts at music weren't promising. His mother wanted him to learn piano.
"It was like going to the dentist once a week. I hated it," he says. The school's band teacher wasn't impressed, either. He sent a note telling Anderson's parents he had no musical talent.
"At 14 years old, when I came home and asked for a guitar, my father was not enamored with the idea," he says.
But after he heard a friend play a T-Bone Walker song on his guitar, Anderson says he had to learn to play.
His mother finally caved and bought him a used Harmony guitar and amp for $75.
"I couldn't put it down. I was on fire," he says. "The guitar players that I loved were people like Keith Richards, Johnny Winters and others that were deeply influenced by the blues."
But one album affected Anderson the most. When he was 18, he bought the Muddy Waters' London Sessions.
"For the first time, I realized the power of the blues and how the black blues players had influenced all my rock heroes; I had found the source," he says. A life on the road followed shortly.
At 23, he started touring professionally. This amazing journey would last 20 years. He went to Alaska during the pipeline boom and through the deep South where he explored the blues even further. While on the road, Anderson met and learned from other players.
He made friends with some of the finest blues players in the country, such as Rollie Tussing III who, he says, is considered to be one of the finest slide players in the world. He also met R.L. Burnside, Robert Johnson's stepson.
"It was an honor to meet him," he says.
Anderson found Nashville to be too fast and commercial. He thought Memphis a magical place and met great players there, but says he knew Memphis just wasn't his town.
"I will be honest—I have never had dreams of being a star, anyway," he says.
But Anderson is certainly a potential star in Pocatello, a city boasting some exceptional local musicians and songwriters, including Uncle Bob Merle, Dan Hillebrant and Angier Wills.
Anderson's star power seems to come from something more than just his technique. He seems connected to a higher power when he performs and his praise of Hendrix illustrates a point. Anderson says he was 14 years old when he first heard Hendrix and is still in awe of him.
"I think of him as someone who was connected to the source," Anderson says.
Films of Hendrix performing do suggest some god of music is playing through him and Anderson himself does a dramatic version of Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary." Anderson also conjures up Robert Johnson's spirit when he plays his versions of Johnson's "Come in My Kitchen" and "Crossroads."
Playing bottleneck blues in open tuning on a national steel guitar is fairly standard. But not many performers play blues on a mandolin like Anderson does. It's an instrument usually reserved for folk music.
"I have played the mandolin for years," he says. "I never really thought about using it for the blues until I heard a recording of the late Yank Rachell playing. He tuned the instrument differently, so I decided to approach it with my own feel. It surprises many of the blues musicians I have worked with or opened for."
Anderson is quick to praise other musicians. At the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland he met Steve James, a blues mandolinist he calls "a walking encyclopedia of the blues."
The same could be said about Anderson's knowledge of not only blues but also popular and jazz standards from "Ain't Misbehavin" to covers of Bob Dylan and James Taylor songs. He demonstrates a broad range of guitar styles from jazz chords to folk-styled finger picking. (Anderson also mixes in a few comic numbers. "I Don't Look Good Naked Anymore" is a crowd pleaser. Another song is about an old man warning his son to stay away from local beauties because he probably fathered them. The young man's mother reveals his father isn't really his father.)
Anderson has developed a local following, and over the years, he has also gathered considerable praise from other working musicians and national critics.
According to Wayne Waits, a booking agent, "He can twist and bend a note at just the right time, and sing like he means it ... a great picker and haunting voice in all." Mary Flower, a Portland, Ore.-based acoustic guitarist, says "Fred Anderson is a fine performer and a great guitarist." Warren Mason, who taught Kurt Cobain, considers Anderson "an articulate player." Angier Wills, local singer and songwriter for Elvis Has Left The Building, has this observation: "He's technically one of the most precise slide players I've seen."
Wills also performs Anderson's original "Coyote," about the "guides" who exploit Mexican Nationals trying to enter the United States illegally. Latino immigrants pay money to these "coyotes," who often rob and abandon them in the desert. Considering the national debate over illegal immigration, Anderson's song appropriately dramatizes the tragedy of these exploited people. One stanza is particularly poignant:
"The morning leads the border guards to your body in the desert / they find you there without your boots and an empty pack / your family they will cry for you and go on without knowing / the coyote took your pesos then shot you in your back."
The chorus is particularly sinister:
"Oh the coyotes never cry at night down South along the border / They glide amongst the cactus with the moonlight on their back / Life is cheaper to them than the muddy Rio Grande water / and if the saints aren't with you, you just might lose your life."
Anderson's rich baritone voice evokes an eerie yearning when he sings this song. He also does a blues-slide interpretation of Woody Guthrie's "Vigilante Man" about the hired thugs who attacked union men during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl days. His blues approach gives Guthrie's folk song a disturbing edge.
Pocatello marked not an ending but another beginning for Anderson.
"I came to Pocatello after years on the road and a divorce. I thought that this would be the end of music for me," he says.
One night he stepped into the Back Stage Bar in Old Town, and heard Dan Hillebrant and bar owner Pammy Petty singing a duet.
"That bar rejuvenated my songwriting," he says. "I thank the songwriters here like Angier Wills and many others. They were inspiring to me."
The Back Stage Bar is now gone, but Anderson still enjoys living in Blackfoot and playing in the Pocatello area.
"I want everyone to enjoy my show. Pocatello audiences have always been good to me, and it is wonderful to be back," he says. "I have been invited to tour Ireland this summer. I have found that it doesn't matter where I play. I just love to play ... especially the blues."
He may discover that the Irish love American blues.
"I have to believe in what I am writing." he said. "I could never write commercially because I write what is in my heart."
It's a common dilemma for artists, whether to write for art or for money. Anderson doesn't compromise: "I would rather write one heartfelt song than a thousand meaningless songs."
He was invited to join a small label in Oregon two years ago. His CD, Cool Blue Northern, is a collection of folk and western originals.
"I write about wild horses, mining towns, things that happened and some that didn't," he says.
His fans hope he also releases an album of traditional blues. Anderson has a strong message for any potential artist: "I stay in music because I am always learning. To stop learning as a musician or songwriter is a bad sign."
Dylan would probably agree. In the recent documentary, No Direction Home, Dylan suggested that "an artist is always becoming. Once they have arrived, they are no longer artists."
For more information on Fred Anderson, visit FreddieAndersonLive.com