Carl Anderson brings Nashville lessons to bear on his debut album

In 2009, when young adults everywhere were happy just to be gainfully employed, Carl Anderson was trying to write the next pop-country megahit. The 22-year-old Virginia native was recruited as a ghostwriter by Ash Street Music after following his erstwhile girlfriend and collaborator Carleigh Nesbit down to Nashville. A few times a week, Anderson would meet with other songwriters to compose a chart-topper, which, in his words, often felt “pretty pointless,” and usually amounted to “hanging out for an hour and grabbing lunch somewhere.” Less than a year later, with a few industry contacts and co-writing credits to his name, Anderson pulled the plug on his ghostwriting career and moved back to Charlottesville. 

Singer-songwriter Carl Anderson, who debuted as a solo act last year with the EP 20-Something Blues, releases his first full-length, Wolftown, this Saturday at the Southern. Publicity Photo.

There was a time when giving up on Nashville dreams meant giving up altogether for a young singer-songwriter, but if Anderson’s first full-length album, Wolftown, is any indication, keeping his own name on his songs might have been the best career decision Anderson ever made. Recorded in a week at White Star Sound in Louisa, Anderson’s debut is a testament to the virtues of self-releasing. Why wait for a label or songwriting credit when you can put out something strong and let the support come to you?

Wolftown arrives almost a year on the heels of Anderson’s first EP, 20-Something Blues, whose hurtling title track casts youthful angst as a boxcar-jumping Dust Bowl narrative. Anderson admits that the song has become “more and more ironic in the year since it was written,” but as easy as its title is to bash, “20-Something Blues” is a cool, calculated, utterly un-whiney anthem to aimless early adulthood, and in the same vein, Wolftown is thematically youthful without being off-putting. The love songs want to buy her a ring, the quiet barstool lamentations simply want, but there’s a spareness to Anderson’s songwriting that gives these expressions an ageless quality. He would rather repeat a verse than mess up a good one, and whether this is risk-aversion or austerity, the results are what make Anderson’s brand of country so pleasant on the ears.

Anderson’s full band, which appeared with him at The Festy in October, shines most on “1945,” the liveliest song on the album. (No relation to the Neutral Milk Hotel track, but it’s similarly attention-grabbing and ear-wormy.) If Anderson were ghostwriting this song for anyone, it would be for a Being There-era Jeff Tweedy; it’s a punchy, fraught love lyric that whets your appetite for more like it, acting as a foil for the low-key, traditional country songs that make up the rest of Wolftown, of which “Don’t Stop Trying” stands out, recalling the muted urgency of Ryan Adam’s “Kindness.” 

In addition to playing bass in Anderson’s band, Stewart Myers of White Star Sound also produced the album, often recording with microphones set in chimneys and old radio horns. “We sort of approached everything backwards,” said Anderson. “We knew at the beginning that we were at risk of making a singer-songwriter album that sounded too much like one, so we wanted to mess up the sound some, without changing the essence of the songs as they were written.” At least on the first few listens, it’s hard to hear evidence of techniques like this on Wolftown. Aside from the other-worldly organ that opens up “Hold Me,” there isn’t anything there you wouldn’t expect from an alt-country singer-songwriter. But the upshot of Anderson’s controlled approach to making songs is the polish with which he pulls them off.

Wolftown, which is named after Anderson’s Madison County hometown, sees release this Saturday at the Southern, after which Anderson plans on doing some East Coast touring until he can afford to bring the band with him. And though it takes its name from where Anderson grew up, the album unfolds like a guide to writing understated country hits: keep it simple, tell a story, and get to the chorus, but not too fast. But at the heart of Anderson’s songs is an emotional urgency that might have slipped through the cracks of those Nashville hit-writing sessions. Which is why we’re glad to have him back.