On July 15, 2011, Bill Anderson will celebrate his 50th anniversary as a member of The Grand Ole Opry. “It seems like yesterday. Where did 50 years go?” he asks. “But it’s been good. I’ve been very happy.
Country star notches 50th anniversary at "Opry" in 2011
Story by KEN BECK.
Country music star Bill Anderson’s current abode sits beside Old Hickory Lake barely inside the northwest boundary line of Wilson County. It makes his fourth residence in 40 years in the county he considers home.
One afternoon recently, after a meal of fried chicken, vegetables, cornbread, banana pudding and sweet tea at one of his favorite spots, Courtney’s Restaurant on North Mt. Juliet Road, the singer-songwriter shared reflections on his career and life in Lebanon and Mt. Juliet.
Anderson, 73, made an indelible impression in country music at the age of 19 whenthe Georgia teenager penned the song “City Lights”, a No. 1 hit for 13 weeks in 1958 for Ray Price. Now, six decades later, he’s still churning out hits for country stars that include “Give It Away” for George Strait, “Whiskey Lullaby” for Brad Paisley, “A Lot of Things Different” for Kenny Chesney and “Joey” for Sugarland.
In six months the man known as “Whispering Bill” celebrates his 50th anniversary on WSM’s famed program, The Grand Ole Opry. In a funny sort of way, the artist, who was to become male vocalist of the year as well as songwriter of the year, recalls that his initial adventure onto the Opry stage was as a photographer.
“The first time I stepped on to the Opry stage it was not to perform. WSM had a radio show on Friday nights, Mr. Deejay U.S.A. They would invite disc jockeys to come in from around the country and play records and interview Opry stars for a couple of hours,” said Anderson. “Well, a buddy of mine from Georgia was ‘Mr. Deejay U.S.A.’, and I came up here with him. I was just tagging along, and just as he went to step out on the stage, he turned and handed me his camera and said, ‘Please take a picture of me on the Opry stage.’ So the first time I ever walked on the stage, I was holding a Brownie camera taking my buddy’s picture.”
With a vivid memory, he recollects clearly the night of July 15, 1961, when he joined the cast of that elite country radio club as its 61st member.
“Billy Grammer introduced me. . . . I sang ‘Po Folks’ because that was what the hit was at that time, and that’s really what led me to being on the Opry,” he said. Anderson had moved to Nashville in 1960 as a songwriter but was soon a singer on the Decca Records label. Eventually to be a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, he has written thousands of songs and had more than 600 recorded by a swath of singers that includes Porter Wagoner, Jim Reeves, James Brown, Eddy Arnold, Debbie Reynolds, Kitty Wells, Faron Young, Lawrence Welk, Dean Martin, Aretha Franklin and Walter Brennan.
As of now Anderson plans to perform “Po Folks” and “Still”, his best-known hit, on the big anniversary date. The Opry has remained his home base in Music City. “The Opry’s kinda like, no matter where you go, you come home and you’ve got that place, got that group of friends, you got that kind of a support group, your friends and your buddies,” he said. “I remember in the old days, we’d get together at the Opry and say things like, ‘Well who gave you a bad check out on the road?’ ‘Where’d your car break down?’ ‘Have you found any good restaurants?’ It was always just kind of a family. I think it kept us all rooted and grounded.”
While his first pad in Nashville was a carriage house, sort of a cabin, off 21st Avenue South, where his rent was $50 a month, he bought his first house in Wilson County in late 1967 or early ’68 on Harbor Island, where he lived for 11 or 12 years. Next he moved to a place on Coles Ferry Pike, less than a mile from Friendship Christian School. From there he moved back a bit closer to Nashville in the Indian Lake Farms area and now resides in his fourth different location in the county, back beside Old Hickory Lake.
What made him move to Wilson County in the first place?
“I think the initial attraction was the water, being on the lake. I got very comfortable on this side of town. It felt more like where I grew up in Georgia,” said Anderson. “I just never was the Brentwood type. I was a whole lot more Hermitage and Mt. Juliet and all that. It was more like where I wanted to be and the kind of people I wanted to be around.
“I loved living in Lebanon. It was like really coming home. In those days I was working on the road 200-250 days a year. I was gone a lot and doing a lot of television and stuff. I could come home to Lebanon. I loved the place that I lived. I had almost 35 acres.
“I bought me a tractor, and I’d get out there and mow the grass and bush hog. One winter I went to the Farmers’ Co-op and bought me a snow blade, a scraper blade, for the front of my tractor, and nobody out in that area had one of those. And when it snowed, I’d clean off my driveway, and then I’d go clean off all the neighbors’ driveways. “I had more fun. I cleaned the driveway of Danny and Judy Norton and the driveway of the lady, Kathleen Greer, who used to run the little store across the street (Greer’s Grocery).
“I just felt a real sense of community down there. I’d go down and sit at Charlie’s Shoe Shop (off the Lebanon square) and watch him put soles on shoes, and we’d talk. I just loved that. I grew up in Decatur, Ga., which at that time was a small town outside of Atlanta. I liked that. I liked the people. It just felt like home. I actually liked it better than any place that I’ve ever lived.”
His neighbors, such as Judy and Danny Norton, who lived next door to him for the 6½ years he hung his hat in a house on Coles Ferry Pike, enjoyed his company and down-home ways. “We never treated him like he was a star, and he never acted like one,” said Judy. “As a neighbor Bill Anderson didn’t exploit his fame. He was just like a regular person being around us. He was just your regular Joe, but he treated us like royalty. He even came over and helped us plant a garden and helped us chop wood. We just had a terrific relationship like we were best friends instead of neighbors. Everybody around here hated it when he left.”
Now living beside Old Hickory Lake, Anderson enjoys the conveniences that exist on the western edge of Wilson County, such as Providence Market Place where he regularly shops and goes to the movies.
“Two of my three children live in Wilson County. All seven of my grandchildren are in schools in Wilson County. We’ve got pretty deep roots out here,” he said.
Many Wilson Countians will be amazed to know that Anderson recorded dozens of songs in Mt. Juliet at the long gone Bradley’s Barn, where legendary producer Owen Bradley orchestrated hits for many of Nashville’s brightest stars a generation or two ago.
“I recorded a lot at Bradley’s Barn. The first song I ever cut there was a No. 1 record called ‘I Get the Fever’ in 1966,” he said. “I had done some demos there prior to that, but Owen was my producer for 19 years. Of course, he didn’t have Bradley’s Barn when I first started recording for him over on 16th Avenue at the old Quonset hut (on Music Row). But once he moved all of his operation out here, yeah, I came right out here with him. Gosh, there’s no telling how many songs I made here. Everything that I recorded from 1966 to 1980, 14 or 15 years.”
As for his nickname of Whispering Bill, well, that tag came in 1968 or 1969 from friend Don Bowman, the comedian on his TV show. “He would tease me. I was doing a lot of narrations, and I guess I had kind of a soft voice. He started calling me that and then Ralph Emery started calling me that. Back in those days, all the disc jockeys listened to Ralph on WSM, and they picked it up. It just kind of stuck. It bothered me a little bit at first. I thought, ‘Well, they’re making fun of me.’ Then I realized it really turned into an asset because Bill Anderson is a very common name, and it gave me a little bit of uniqueness.”
Born in Columbia, S.C., Anderson moved at eight to Decatur, Ga., with his sister, mother and father, who owned an insurance agency. At Avondale High School he played football and baseball and was editor of the school newspaper and yearbook. At nine or 10 he began playing the guitar. “I wanted to be Webb Pierce and play those hillbilly songs and country chords. I basically taught myself. I’m left-handed and when I couldn’t find any chord books (for a lefty), I made myself learn to play right-handed.”
At 15, the budding singer and songwriter formed a band, the Avondale Playboys, which played the popular country hits of the day. And at 18 he got his fi rst job as a deejay at a radio station in Athens, Ga.
“The station didn’t want to play country music, so I got ceremoniously fired. I let some country music sneak on the air. So I went to a little town called Commerce, Ga., and that’s where I was working when I wrote ‘City Lights,’ and that opened all the doors for me up here,” said Anderson, who earned a journalism degree at the University of Georgia. He also served as the sports editor of a weekly newspaper in Decatur and did stringer work for The Atlanta Constitution covering high school sports. Somehow he still found time to play baseball as a southpaw pitcher and form a band in Athens, the Classic City Playboys.
Anderson remembers writing “City Lights” in August of 1957 on the roof of his hotel in Commerce. While staring up at the stars and glancing at the lights in town, he began to draw a parallel between the heavenly lights and the manmade lights.
He recorded the song first himself, and later Charlie Lamb pitched the tune to Chet Atkins at RCA Records, who had Dave Rich cut it. Nothing happened until Ray Price heard the song one day on the radio and decided to put it out himself, and a new young songwriter’s name began to be spread around town.
Songwriting was a different game in Music City in the early 1960s, and one of the main differences was that tunesmiths usually wrote alone. “We wrote almost entirely solo back in those days unless you wrote with somebody within the same publishing company. I wrote some with Roger Miller and some with Buddy Killen and Jerry Crutchfield. I did very little co-writing until I got into sort of my second career, which started back in the ’90s. I enjoy co-writing very much, and it’s very rare I write anything by myself anymore,” said Anderson.
“Back then, I used to think you had to get real miserable, wait until nine or 10 at night, pull down all the blinds in the room by yourself and write some sad country songs. I did an awful lot of that. I wrote a lot of songs between midnight and three in the morning.
“I used to laugh and say you can’t make an appointment with somebody and sit down and write a song. I mean how you gonna do that? I’ve learned that you really can if you get with the right person and get the right communication going.
“And it’s a lot of fun to write with other people. I can’t imagine now just writing all the time by myself. I love the experience of co-writing. I learn from these younger people,” said Anderson, who most recently has been partnering with Jon Randall and Randall’s wife, Jessie Alexander, and with Jamie Johnson and Buddy Cannon.
Anderson’s career moved in a different direction in the early 1980s when he gave up songwriting for a while and concentrated on television. He appeared regularly on a soap opera, One Life To Live, and hosted a game show, Fandango, on The Nashville Network.
“The music was changing. It seemed like a good time to do different things, and I kind of got away from songwriting,” he recalled, but by the early 1990s, Anderson was drawn back to lyrics and melodies.
“When Steve Wariner’s record of ‘Tips of My Fingers’ hit as big as it did in the early ’60s, I got to thinking, ‘Maybe the music has not changed as much as I thought. I wrote that song in 1960, and it’s a hit today. I can write some more songs like that.’
“The biggest encouragement I got was from Vince Gill. Through a mutual friend we got together and wrote a couple of songs, and he recorded both of them. He said some nice things about me, and word kind of got around. I was afraid they would say, ‘Bill Anderson is just an old dinosaur,’ but Vince kind of legitimized it for me and that opened doors to write with other people.
“It was kind of like, ‘OK, that’s the end of one career, and here’s the beginning of a new one.’ But it’s been great. I have enjoyed this career a whole lot more than the first one. I was so busy and so wound up and couldn’t enjoy having a No. 1 record for fear of wondering what’s the next one. There wasn’t time to relax and enjoy it.”
Anderson, who estimates he will play about 20 Saturday nights at the Opry this year, is considering updating his autobiography, and Bear Family Records in Germany plans to release a box set of some of his early records, just about everything he cut between 1958 and 1966, as well as some of his demo records that became hits for other artists, like “Once a Day”, a No. 1 song for Connie Smith.
When music is not on his mind, Anderson’s favorite hobby revolves around sports. “I’m a sports junkie,” he admits. “I’m a season ticket holder for Titan games and for Vandy football, basketball and baseball. I go to spring training every year with the Braves. (Manager) Bobby Cox and I became great friends in the 1970s.”
As for the future the country music legend says, “After my 50th celebration at the Opry in July, my plan now is to take a little time off … maybe travel … I’ve been to a lot of places but haven’t seen a lot. I might like to go back to some places and play tourist. I think what I really want to do is take a little time and weigh my options. I don’t intend to retire. I’d love to spend a little more time with my grandkids.”
And somehow one suspects that Whispering Bill Anderson might just find the time to write another song or two.
Bill Anderson’s No. 1 hits as a singer
“Mama Sang a Song” 1962
“I Get the Fever” 1966
“For Loving You” (with Jan Howard) 1967
“My Life (Throw It Away If I Want To” (1974)
“World of Make Believe” 1974
“Sometimes” (with Mary Lou Turner) 1976
Hit songs that Anderson wrote or co-wrote for others:
“City Lights” Ray Price
“Once a Day” and “Cincinnati, Ohio” Connie Smith
“When Two Worlds Collide” Roger Miller
“I May Never Get to Heaven” Conway Twitty
“Saginaw, Michigan” Lefty Frizzell
“The Cold Hard Facts of Life” Porter Wagoner
“The Lord Knows I’m Drinking” Cal Smith
“Wish You Were Here” Mark Wills
“Two Teardrops” and “Tips of My Fingers” Steve Wariner
“Too Country” Brad Paisley
“A Lot of Things Different” Kenny Chesney
“Whiskey Lullaby” Brad Paisley and Allison Krauss
“Give It Away” George Strait
Grand Ole Opry members who live or have lived in Wilson County:
Tom T. Hall
Uncle Jimmy Thompson
DeFord Bailey (also claimed by Smith County)