Bill Anderson - The Nashville Cats

First Published in Country Music International – Nov 1998

Having written more than 30 top 10 hits for almost as many artists, marathon country scribe Bill Anderson leads the group of veteran artists currently bouncing back with new albums on major labels. 

When it’s all said and done, the future of country music rests on one thing—songs. Bill Anderson is Nashville’s most successful and consistent songwriter of all time. In a career that spans the past five decades, he has not only written more than 30 Top Ten country hits for himself, but also pop and country smashes for such diverse acts as Steve Wariner, Ken Dodd, Aretha Franklin, Eddy Arnold, Debbie Reynolds, Connie smith, Jim Reeves, Dean Martin, Bryan White and many others.

“The key to it is empathy,” Anderson explains. “I think the greatest attribute a songwriter can have is to be able to put himself in someone else’s place. If something hasn’t happened to me, I know a lot of people that it has happened to. 

Fortunately, I’ve been able to put myself in the place of other people, or take myself there in my imagination, and come up with a lot of these songs.”

Anderson is at the forefront of several veteran country acts being given a new lease of life by the Nashville majors, who in recent months have signed up almost-forgotten performers like Connie Smith, Don Williams and Ronnie Milsap. No one seems more surprised that he has a major label deal with Warner Bros, and the release of FINE WINE, his first album of all new material in more than a dozen years, than Anderson himself. “If there’s such a thing as a bolt from the blue, this was absolutely it,” says the legendary country hitmaker.

He’s not just one of yesterday’s legends, but someone who has remained one of Nashville’s most visible and successful artists, being active as a great songwriter and entertainer. There’s been a great deal of negative rhetoric by and about country music legends being denied access in current country music, and though he readily acknowledges that he doesn’t fit the niche of today’s mainstream country radio, Anderson has demonstrated that if you maintain a positive attitude, you can go out there and carve out your own space.

“The industry seems to have in its mind that all of our fans died with all this New Country coming along,” says Anderson, ‘and that’s not true. Loretta Lynn’s still got millions of fans. And Charley Pride, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. No one’s suffering from the delusion of grandeur that this is going to knock Garth Brooks off the charts. But at the same time, no Bill Anderson fans died the day Garth hit town.”

Whisperin’ Bill, as he is known to both fans and detractors, has been doing it for 40 years with his gentle and unique vocal style. In 1958 he wrote the country classic City Lights, a big hit for Ray Price and currently being revived by Rick Trevino. But Anderson wasn’t one of those faceless tunesmiths who was content to settle in behind the scenes. He became a regular occupant at the top of the charts with songs like Mama Sang A Song, Still, 8 x 10, I Get The Fever—37 country Top Ten hits, with several also crossing over into the American pop charts.

In the process he became one of Music City’s hottest songwriters, penning hits and album cuts for Kitty Wells, Porter Wagoner, Des O’Connor, Faron Young, Aretha Franklin and Jerry Lee Lewis, while more recently some of his old songs have been revived not only by Rick Trevino, but also Sara Evans, Lorrie Morgan and Steve Wariner. He has been named Songwriter of the Year no less than six times, as well as being named CMA Male Vocalist of the Year and half of the Duet of the Year twice (with both Jan Howard and Mary Lou Turner).

When Anderson first hit Nashville, co-writing was almost unheard of, and his many classic songs like Walk Out Backwards, I Love You Drops and Five Little Fingers were written solo. “Back then the publishing companies had a real reluctance to split copyrights,” he explains. “If you were co-writing with somebody not with the same publishing company, you really had a problem, so you were restricted to co-writing with people that wrote with the same publishing company that you did. I wrote some with Roger Miller and a few songs with Jerry Crutchfield, but beyond that, my co-writing was very limited.”

“But now all the walls are down, and I can write with any writer in Nashville or in the world, I guess, that I wanted to write with. A lot of young writers today don’t realise the restrictions that we were up against all those years ago. It would have been a lot of fun to have been able to write with Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Mel Tillis and John D Loudermilk and some of those great writers. Who knows what we would have written!”

Like most performers, Anderson’s career as both a singer and songwriter, has had its high and lows. He scored his first Top Ten hit as a singer in 1960 with The Tip Of My Fingers, and his last one came 18 years later with the country-disco styled I Can’t Wait Any Longer. As the major hits started eluding him, he turned away from songwriting, and restricted his singing to the Opry and the occasional show date and concentrated more on television work. Anderson’s easy-going charm made him a natural on TV, helping him become the first country entertainer to host a network game show, ABC’s The Better Sex.

Later he spent six years as host of The Nashville Network’s Fandango and served as co-producer of TNN’s You Can Be A Star. There were also appearances on One Life To Live, The Tonight Show, The Today Show, Match Game, Family Feud, Hee Haw... the list seems endless. He still hosts the popular TNN programme Opry Backstage, and the former DJ and journalist had his autobiography, Whisperin’ Bill, published in 1989. Four years later he completed I Hope You’re Livin’ As High On The Hog As The Pig You Turned Out To Be, a humourous collection of wild and woolly music biz tales.

He went almost 10 years without writing a song, from around 1982 through to 1992, believing that nobody would be interested in hearing his creations. “I think I got it in my head that music had changed to such a degree that I was a little intimidated,” he explains. “Then when Steve hit with Tip Of My Fingers, my song that had been lying around 30 years, it was a wake-up call.”

The wake-up call led to co-writing sessions with the cream of Music Row’s current songwriting fraternity, including Skip Ewing, Jim Weatherly, Wariner, Vince Gill, Gary Nicholson, Sharon Vaughn, Jim McBride, Hal Ketchum and Lee Ann Womack. “I think one thing that co-writing does, it really forces you to bring out the very best that you can bring out in yourself.” he says. “It’s not that you’re competing with the person that you’re writing with, but that you want your contribution to be every bit as strong as their contribution. And I think that maybe we push each other a little bit, and in that regard maybe we do write better songs today.”

Still signed as a writer to Sony/Tree, Anderson found both his new works and older catalogue songs were being cut by today’s stars including Rick Trevino, Mark Wills, Ricky Skaggs, Sara Evans, Collin Raye and many others. “One of the ones I’m most proud of is Make Sure You Got It All, a song that Steve Wariner and I wrote, on the new Collin Raye album. Steve and I really pushed each other on that song. He came up with the original idea and we rewrote and rewrote it until we got it just how we wanted it. I think that’s what co-writing brings out. Maybe if you’re writing by yourself, you tend to say: ‘Okay, this is good enough,’ whereas with somebody else, you may push yourself a little harder.”

“Lorrie Morgan cut a new version of an old song of mine called I’ve Enjoyed As Much Of This As I Can Stand,” Anderson continues, enthused about the interest in his songs. “That’s one of my favourites. The song may contain my favourite line that I ever wrote, which is: ‘There’s so much more between us than this table.’ That song has always been kind of special to me.” Always modest about his achievements, he forgets to mention that I’ve Enjoyed As Much Of This As I Can Stand had been a Top Ten hit for Porter Wagoner, and that many others, including Jim Reeves, had cut versions.

Anderson first met Steve Wariner, who produced FINE WINE, back in the early 1970s, when the fresh-scrubbed teenager was playing bass guitar for Dottie West. Over the years they often ran into each other, but it was not until Tip Of My Fingers was turned into a hit for the fifth time in 1992 by Wariner that the pair became really close friends. He pays Wariner the highest compliment by comparing him to the legendary Owen Bradley, who was not only Anderson’s producer during his first 16 years as a recording artist, but also producer for Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee and dozens of other top country acts.

“Steve is a wonderful musician, a wonderful songwriter,” Anderson eulogises. “He reminded me a lot of Owen in his attention to detail and his willingness to let the song be the star of the records. Listen to Owen’s records—he always let the song shine, picked wonderful songs and let them be the heroes—no matter how great the session players.”