Bill Anderson’s Unprecedented Life in Country Music
Bill Anderson is a songwriter’s songwriter. He wrote his first song, “City Lights,” when he was 19 and a DJ at a radio station in Commerce, Georgia. After that, the songs flowed like a rolling river out of his pen, with 88 of his singles hitting the charts, including 37 Top Ten country hits, over his seven decades in the business. In addition to “City Lights,” made famous by Ray Price, Anderson’s memorable hits include “Once a Day” (Connie Smith), “Saginaw, Michigan” (Lefty Frizzell), “Still,” “I Love You Drops,” “Whiskey Lullaby,” “Give It Away,” and his signature song “Po’ Folks.” Just last month, on July 15, Anderson celebrated his 55th year as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He’s also a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, the Georgia Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame, the South Carolina Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame, and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Anderson is also a storyteller’s storyteller. In 1989, he told the story of his life up until then in Whisperin’ Bill: A Life of Music, Love, Tragedy & Triumph (Longstreet Press). In his new autobiography, Whisperin’ Bill Anderson: An Unprecendented Life in Country Music (University of Georgia Press), Anderson, with contributions from longtime Nashville music writer Peter Cooper, takes a longer look at his life, candidly revealing the changes that he experienced between the beginning of the ’80s and today. Anderson draws us into his stories — of his youth and childhood, of his writing that first song at age 19, of his love of baseball and radio, of his early days in Nashville, of his difficult times in the ’80s that led him to get out of the game for ten years, of his love for the University of Georgia (his alma mater), of his parents — with crackling good humor and with an empathy wrought from his own years of hardship.
At what seemed the pinnacle of his career, life fell apart for Anderson. “I buckled from physical and mental strain,” he writes, adding that he was in “constant agony, even as I smiled for cameras. The painkilling medication helped in a way, and it didn’t help in other ways. … I was broken, in many ways. … I didn’t hang my head, and there weren’t a lot of people who knew what I was going through. But I was scared. … I was not strong. Thank God, I’d learned to act by then. I smiled and shook hands and introduced old friends and new stars on the Opry stage. Inside, I felt like a relic. Yesterday’s success does not obscure today’s failure. What had I proven, other than that I used to be a songwriter?”
But this is not a sad story, nor is it one where a happy ending mitigates the depth of pain that Anderson suffers. Anderson never gave up, even through his most painful days and months. By the beginning of the 1990s, when radio stations started playing Steve Wariner’s version of Anderson’s song “The Tips of my Fingers,” Anderson began the slow process of shrugging off the decade-long slump into which he’d fallen.
Whisperin’ Bill Anderson takes us on a roller coaster ride with Anderson, leaving us with stories as memorable as his songs. Indeed, many of his songs, such as “Mama Sang a Song,” grow out of his experiences. Anderson’s new autobiography is worth reading just for the opportunity it gives us to take in his sparkling, wink-and-a-nod voice that speaks of his own foibles with laughter and grace.
I caught up with Anderson recently to chat about his book.
Henry Carrigan: What prompted you to write this book now?
Bill Anderson: I did an autobiography in 1989 [Whisperin’ Bill: A Life of Music, Love, Tragedy & Triumph, Longstreet Press], but I hadn’t really scratched the surface. This felt like the right time. A lot has happened since I wrote that book. My publicist, Betty Hofer, was really the one who encouraged me to do it. Every time I’d tell her a story, she’d say, “You’ve got to write this down. Why don’t you ask Peter Cooper [at the time the music writer for The Tennessean] to help you with it?” Before I knew it, she’d called him up, and then we started working together on the book.
What did Peter bring to the book?
He brought that objective viewpoint about what I should put in and what I should leave out. Peter brought a clear vision for the book. We started with the original book and cherry-picked material to keep. Peter wrote the interludes at the beginning of each chapter that provide a broad context for what’s in the chapter.
Why did you choose this title?
Peter’s the one who came up with the title. I wanted to call it “Still Whisperin’.” When he brought this title to me, I wasn’t so sure about it; I thought the word “unprecedented” seemed kind of grand; but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it —and the folks at the University of Georgia Press really liked it. This book has a more serious tone, so this title seems to fit better.
This book is as much about your parents as it is about you. What do you recall as your mother’s most memorable traits? Your father’s?
Well, my mother was almost a contradiction. Her faith was a big part of her life, yet she was one of the most fun-loving people I ever knew. I took her to her first baseball game—we saw the Atlanta Crackers play the Nashville Vols—thinking she’d love it and not realizing she didn’t much like baseball. After that game, though, she became a huge baseball fan. She loved to sing, too; though she couldn’t sing very well, you knew that song came from deep in her heart. My father greatest trait was his integrity. He had an honesty about him, too. He’d always tell me that if any job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. He would say to me all the time, “Son, the most important thing you have is your character.” He also gave me the freedom to follow my own path.
Tell me a little about your approach to songwriting.
Every song is kind of like one of your kids; no two experiences are ever alike. I’m primarily a lyrics writer, so I write from an idea I have, or an idea that’s based on an experience I’ve had. I do a lot of co-writing these days, so I try to pair myself with someone who is stronger musically. Some writers tend to use co-writing as a crutch, but I’m always trying to prove myself, and I try never to go to a songwriting session without a couple of good ideas. You know you’ve written a good song when someone comes up and says, “you must have written that song just for me.”
You tell a story in the book about Connie Smith’s early career and the ways she felt insecure even though thousands of fans clamored to hear her sing her songs. Did you go through a similar period of insecurity?
Yes, I did, especially in the ’80s, when everything seemed to be falling apart in my life. I don’t know if there’s a moment in this business when you don’t feel insecure about something. I think there’s always a mountain to climb, or a goal to reach.
What will your fans be surprised to learn about you from this book?
To a certain degree, my longtime fans will be surprised by what I went through in the ’80s.
What themes or ideas do you want readers to take away from the book?
I hope it’s inspirational and encouraging to people. There’s a “don’t-give-up” mentality in the book. When doors would close, I’d climb in windows. [Laughs.] I also talk a lot about empathy in the book. You know, I had 20 really good years in the business — from the late ’50s to the late ’70s — and then I got out of the music business for about ten years. When I got back into it, I had more success than in the first 20 years.