Musicians are often lumped into two buckets: Those who make it big, and those who don’t make it at all. However, there’s a third group that sits in between these extremes: The artists that get a taste of success and draw the spotlight for a brief moment, but can’t sustain the momentum and watch the light quickly fade from their careers. Bittersweet as it may be, however, that brief moment can leave an lasting impression on the people who hear it, leaving them scratching their head as to why things didn’t. These are the stories of the one-hit wonders.
Today’s installment on One-Hit Wonderings is…well, given that it’s been almost a year since I wrote one of these things, I’m calling my own number and breaking my own rules to try to tell the story of a no-hit wonder that seemed poised for country music mediocrity at the very least…and then his debut single hit radio, and Anderson went down both in flames and in history as one of Nashville’s most-botched rollouts:
I ripped this piece of garbage to pieces when I reviewed it back in 2018, and the radio didn’t think much of it either, as it barely reached the Top 50 on Billboard’s airplay chart. One of my favorite lines is that country radio will give a debut #1 to just about anyone, but apparently the flip side of that argument is that if you don’t find success off the rip, Music City doesn’t have a lot of patience for you. Anderson was quickly voted off the island and disappeared from the mainstream scene, and has barely been heard from since.
So what happened? Why did Anderson flop so hard in his mainstream showcase, and where has he been since then? Let’s see if we can find some answers.
What Went Wrong
Anderson’s origin story is right out of country central casting: A Texas native, he grew up a Willie Nelson fan, cut his teeth on the Lone Star music circuit, attended Belmont University in Nashville, and became a regular on the local songwriting and performing circuit. He signed a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music in 2015, upgraded to a full-fledged artist deal with Arista Nashville in 2018, and released “Drop Everything” as his debut single in May of that year.
The speed at which Arista dropped Anderson is notable even by Nashville standards, but it’s also worth asking what moved them to sign him in the first place. “Drop Everything” is a unabashed throwback to the neotraditional sound of the 1990s, pairing a rollicking retro-toned guitar with a fiddle (which had already been banished from the radio for a while) and a real drum set, with an organ and steel guitar adding some background atmosphere to the mix. Surely this wasn’t the hot sound of the era…was it? (Honestly, after everything we’ve gone through in the 2020s, I barely remember 2018 at all…)
Looking back at my single reviews for the year, it seems like 2018 was a transitional year for the genre. The Bro-Country and Metropolitan trends were on their way out, but Boyfriend country hadn’t quite taken over, and the Cobronavirus trend was still a few years away from taking root. Instead, the preceding few years had seen a slight resurgence in traditional country music, and while it never quite rose to the level of a trend, there were a few encouraging datapoints:
- We started to see the rise of acts like Jon Pardi (California Sunrise, 2016), Midland (On The Rocks, 2017), William Michael Morgan (Vinyl, 2016), and Mo Pitney (Behind This Guitar, 2016).
- Cody Johnson finally cracked the mainstream radio charts with “With You I Am” in 2016 (although he wouldn’t truly break through for another few years), and Aaron Watson would also see his biggest radio success with 2017’s “Outta Style.”
- After spending most of the decade trapped in MCA purgatory, Josh Turner (the closest comparison to Anderson vocally) re-emerged with “Hometown Girl” in 2016 and released Deep South in 2017.
Put it all together, and you can see where Arista was coming from when they brought Anderson on board. A lot of signs were pointing to a classical country revival, and the label didn’t want to miss the boat. That being said, Arista was also well aware of the trends that had been so dominant in the decade thus far, and thus were also likely wary of alienating modern fans who weren’t keen on the old stuff. In that light, “Drop Everything” was a convenient compromise candidate: With its Metro-Bro writing and its old-school sound, it had something for everyone.
Unfortunately, it also meant that everyone had something they could point to in the track that they didn’t like. I’ll let 2018 Kyle take it from here:
“On one hand, the sound hits my neotraditional nostalgia right in the feels, and Anderson acquits himself incredibly well and demonstrates a lot of potential as an artist. This particular song, however, is pure garbage, as the typical Bro tropes and the narrator’s insufferable attitude completely ruin the song’s atmosphere…all the fiddle breaks and vocal ability in the world can’t cover up a song this slimy, and ‘Drop Everything’ is an unvarnished throwback to everything I despised about the Bro-Country era. This song belongs nowhere near country radio in 2018, and with any luck, Arista will move on to Anderson’s next single sooner rather than later.”“Song Review: Carlton Anderson, ‘Drop Everything'”, July 27, 2018
Calvin & Hobbes had a great quote years ago that summed up this situation perfectly: “A good compromise leaves everyone mad.” Bro-Country deniers like me couldn’t get past the ugliness of the writing, and Bro-Country lovers couldn’t understand why the sound didn’t sound like “Cruise.” No one could get behind the song 100%, and it flopped hard as a result.
That being said, it’s not like there haven’t been zillions of artists who fell flat on their face out of the gate, and Arista and Anderson had an EP’s worth of tracks that they could draw from to take another shot at the brass ring. (I, for one, would have totally gotten behind a track like “Keep Abilene Beautiful,” and you can’t tell me “Country Music Made Me Do It” wouldn’t have found an audience.) Arista, however, never released another single of Anderson’s, and dropped him from their roster a year later. Why?
I think the biggest issue was that the readings on the tea leaves changed significantly in a short period of time.The dream of a classic country revival was already running out of fuel in 2018, but 2019 was the year that put the final nail in its coffin. Boyfriend country took over in a big way, and acts like Dan + Shay began dominating the airwaves and the mainstream conversation. Acts like Morgan, Pitney, Watson, and Turner vanished from the radio, and though Midland’s managed to stick around, they haven’t had a true radio hit since 2018’s “Burn Out.” Pardi and Johnson are the only ones who are still in the spotlight today, and I would argue that Pardi has made some major concessions to the Nashville meta to maintain his position. In other words, traditional country was pushed to the sidelines once again, limiting Anderson’s upside and pushing Arista to cut its losses.
So Where Is He Now?
Of course, labels drop artists all the time, and although the radio climate made him a risky bet, Anderson was still a young, talented vocalist with plenty of time to work his way back to the big leagues. However, performance opportunities dried up when the pandemic hit, and while he released some music independently in the meantime (he dropped “When Baby Gets A Buzz” late in 2019, and put out an acoustic EP Yours and a separate single “No Place Like You” a year later), the songs were hit-or-miss, and without the muscle of a major label behind them, they didn’t make much of an impact. A bouncier single “Burn Me Down” (a much more palatable take on the “Drop Everything” scenario) came and went in 2022 without anyone giving it a second look.
Now, the last few years have seen artists rise to prominence through the power of social media (for example, Priscilla Block), so why couldn’t Anderson find success through the same channels? My sense is that there are two issues here:
- Anderson doesn’t seem to be any better at using social media than I am. He hasn’t posted on Twitter in almost two years, he’s an inconsistent poster on Instagram (although his activity picked up a bit at the start of the year), and his TikTok is only now starting to grow with some ‘This Day In Country Music’ videos. There’s still a chance he could find some traction, but it’s going to take more than cover songs to do it.
The truth is that Anderson has been a tough guy to find any information on this decade. He talked to the Cowboy Lifestyle Network about “When Baby Gets A Buzz” in 2019, had a lengthy profile in Sounds Like Nashville a year later to promote Yours…and that’s pretty much it. He doesn’t seem to be that good at promoting his material in any format, and that really hurts when you’re trying to build an audience.
- Honestly, I just get the sense that traditional country music remains a small niche in the grand scheme of things that people really aren’t searching for. “Burn Me Down” came out last June, and it has fewer views than my Undercover Brella gear guide from last month. You know that something’s not clicking with the public when my videos can outpace it.
The one major piece of news I can find is Anderson’s Instagram announcement from last July that he had lost his songwriting deal, which puts him right back at square one as far as building a country music career. While he mentions is both the CLN and SLN pieces that he prefers to be independent and be his own boss, there’s a reason so many artists fall in line with the Nashville meta: It puts a marketing machine in their corner to push their material to the top, regardless of how much say they have in what that material is.
So what does the future hold for Carlton Anderson? I don’t know, but I don’t think I see another major label deal in his future (although given his past associations with Cody Johnson, maybe the CoJo label is a possible fit?). The good news is that Anderson still seems to be writing songs; Ben Gallaher (yeah, I don’t know who he is either) has an Anderson cut on his album coming next week. Writing at least allows Anderson to keep a foot in the door, but whether or not he can eventually use it as a springboard back into the mainstream conversation remains an open question.
It’s really a shame: Anderson has a great voice and seemed like a really talented artist, the sort of act that Nashville could really use to diversify their musical offerings in this current climate of conformity. “Drop Everything” may have been terrible, and Anderson’s music may not have fit the era it arrived in, but I think Anderson deserved to be more than a one-and-done artist. Given a bit more time, I think he could have found at least a modicum of an audience for his style of music. Still, getting one shot (as mishandled as it was) is better than getting no shot at all, and for what it’s worth, I’m glad I got the chance to hear from Anderson and discover what he could do. In a perfect world, the rest of the world would get that same opportunity.