Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Bill Anderson

December 12, 2009
Bill Anderson, early in his career, absorbed two important points about songwriting. “Number one, if you’re going to be a songwriter, you need to have a good imagination,” he said. “Number two, you need to realize truth doesn’t always rhyme.”

Anderson cited these principles during a ninety-minute interview as the subject of Poets and Prophets, a quarterly series sponsored by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum that honors songwriters who have made a significant contribution to country music. Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, and to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1975, Anderson is responsible for an impressive list of hits—some he recorded himself, many others that were cut by fellow artists. 

Speaking to a sold-out audience in the museum’s Ford Theater, Anderson addressed the imprecise meaning of “truth” when it comes to lyrics. “I’ve been asked a million times over the years if me and my family were as poor as I made out in the song ‘Po’ Folks,’” he said. “No, we weren’t. What I really tried to say in the song is summed up at the very end, ‘We patched the cracks and set the table with love.’ It’s not the material things that matter in this life. It’s the people we had with us, the people beside us, the people in our lives. To that extent, ‘Po Folks’ is a true song.”

Anderson’s fame extends beyond songwriting, as program host Michael Gray stated in his introductory comments. Anderson has been a successful recording artist, actor, TV host, author, spokesman for a national restaurant chain, and stage performer. Besides “Po’ Folks,” the hits he wrote and recorded include “Mama Sang a Song,” “Still,” “Walk Out Backwards,” “I Get the Fever,” “Five Little Fingers,” “My Life (Throw It Away If You Want To),” “8X10,” “If You Can Live With It (I Can Live Without It”), “The Corner of My Life,” “Sometimes,” and others.

His list of hits for others is substantial as well, with Ray Price’s “City Lights,” Connie Smith’s “Once a Day, Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw, Michigan,” Roger Miller’s “When Two Worlds Collide” (also a hit for Jim Reeves and Jerry Lee Lewis), Ray Price’s “That’s What It’s Like to Be Lonesome,” Jan Howard’s “Bad Seed,” Cal Smith’s “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking,” Mark Wills’s “Wish You Were Here,” Steve Wariner’s “Two Teardrops,” Kenny Chesney’s “A Lot of Things Different,” Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss’s “Whiskey Lullaby,” George Strait’s “Give It Away,” and Sugarland’s “Joey,” among others. Anderson’s “The Tip of My Fingers” has been a hit five different times, first for the songwriter in 1960, then in later years by Roy Clark, Eddy Arnold, Jean Shepard, and Steve Wariner. 

Anderson was born in Columbia, South Carolina, and later moved with his parents to Atlanta, Georgia, where he spent the latter part of his youth. His mother’s singing around the house remains a favorite memory; her habit of turning to music in times of difficulty and stress is something Anderson sees in himself. He also recalled listening to WIS radio in Columbia, which featured live country artists on air through the day; one WIS artist, Byron Parker, proved to be a big influence on Anderson. (Gray introduced a 78-rpm song by Parker, released on Bluebird Records, from the museum’s Frist Library and Archive, one of several songs and TV clips played during the program.)

In high school, Anderson formed a band called the Avondale Playboys, named after his suburban Georgia high school. A good baseball pitcher with a wicked curveball, Anderson gave up sports in college to study journalism and to play music. He also became a deejay, working first in Athens, Georgia, and then in Commerce, Georgia. “That’s where all the good things started happening for me,” he said.

In Commerce, Anderson tackled songwriting with vigor. Living in a three-story hotel, he wrote “City Lights” while escaping the summer heat by sitting in a lounge chair on the hotel’s roof. Despite Commerce’s small-town status, Anderson used the rooftop view as inspiration for the classic song’s opening line, “The bright array of city lights as far as I can see / The great white way shines through the night for lonely guys like me.” After the song hit, Anderson’s father told him, “Son, if you could look at Commerce, Georgia, and write, ‘The bright array of city lights,’ I should have known you had the imagination to be a songwriter.”

Anderson recorded “City Lights” for a small record label, TNT, out of Texas. RCA artist Dave Rich quickly recorded the song, too, and one day Ernest Tubb and Ray Price heard the Rich version on the radio while playing golf. Tubb advised Price repeatedly to record the song, and he finally agreed. Price’s take on “City Lights” spent 13 weeks at #1 in 1958, giving Anderson his first country hit.

The success of “City Lights” led Anderson to sign with Tree Publishing, now a part of Sony Music, which remains his publishing company more than fifty years later. At Tree, Anderson worked with the company’s longtime executive Buddy Killen, from whom Anderson said he learned significant lessons about the art and craft of songwriting. “Buddy taught me that a song isn’t always finished when you think it’s finished,” he said.

To illustrate, he recalled a story about how Killen gave him the original version of “The Tip of My Fingers” back, saying the chorus needed work. Killen liked the first line of the song’s hook, “I held you right on the tip of my fingers.”  But he felt it needed a stronger second line. Spending more time with it, Anderson came up with the second part of the couplet, “But I let you slip right through my hands.” As Anderson said, “I never would have come up with that if Buddy had not told me, ‘Your song’s not finished.’”

When Anderson arrived in Nashville, the songwriting community largely consisted of the first wave of professional writers, such as Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, Vic McAlpin, Danny Dill, and others. But within years country music songwriting would be transformed by Anderson and other young newcomers, including Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, John D. Loudermilk, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, and Mel Tillis.

“That’s when the winds of change started to blow,” said Anderson, who gained the nickname “Whisperin’ Bill” for his distinctive vocal style. “We were writing about things other than wrecks on the highway, and whiskey and blood running together, and train songs. It became a different type of communication.”

Anderson’s stories often recalled the colorful side of Nashville’s early songwriting community. He told of how, in the days before cassette recorders, he and Roger Miller had to sing a song they co-wrote, “When Two Worlds Collide,” to each other throughout a long road trip so that they wouldn’t forget the words and melody they had just written. When they arrived in San Antonio they talked a deejay into letting them use his radio station’s equipment to get a rough recording of the new song. Anderson also recalled crawling under a stage curtain to whisper the lyrics of “Saginaw, Michigan” to Country Music Hall of Fame member Lefty Frizzell, who hadn’t remembered the words because he hadn’t yet started singing it onstage at the time the song became a #1 hit.

Anderson’s significant role in discovering Connie Smith and providing her with several hit songs—including her first #1, “Once a Day”—became another important milestone in his career. “Connie was a contestant at a talent contest in Columbus, Ohio, that they asked me to be a talent judge for,” he said. “She just totally blew me away.”

Anderson promised to help her if she wanted to come to Nashville. A new mother, Smith declined the invitation at the time, but six months later called Anderson to let him know she wanted to give Nashville a try. At Decca Records, where Anderson recorded, Nashville label chief Owen Bradley said he had just signed another young woman, Loretta Lynn, and didn’t think he could adequately invest  in developing both careers. At RCA, Chet Atkins worried about finding material for Smith, since he already had to try and locate hits for Skeeter Davis, Norma Jean, and Dottie West. Anderson volunteered to write songs for Smith to start her career, so Atkins agreed to sign her. Besides her signature “Once a Day,” Anderson wrote such Smith gems as “Then and Only Then,” “Cincinnati, Ohio,” “I Never Once Stopped Loving You,” “Nobody But a Fool (Would Love You),” and others.

In the 1980s, as country was changing to a more modern sound, Anderson concentrated on television work. He appeared regularly on several network game shows (Hollywood Squares, Match Game, Password) as well as co-hosting his own ABC-TV game show, The Better Sex. For two years he played himself on the soap opera One Life to Live.  When The Nashville Network started, Anderson hosted the game show Fandango and produced another TNN show, You Can Be a Star. He also served as national spokesman for a restaurant chain, Po’ Folks, named after his song.

Anderson had remained a regular on the Grand Ole Opry, and he continued to tour. “But music was not the primary focus of my life for about ten years, particularly the songwriting,” he said. When Steve Wariner remade an old Anderson classic, re-titling it “The Tips of My Fingers” (as Roy Clark had done in 1963), Anderson began to consider that maybe he could still write for younger performers.

To start back, Anderson realized he had to meet the new generation of artists, producers, and songwriters. A friend suggested he call Vince Gill, a top star with an affinity for classic country and its artists. “Vince Gill doesn’t know who I am,” Anderson insisted. “I’m a dinosaur.” But the friend gave hm Gill’s phone number, and the veteran got up the courage one day to call. “Do you know what was on his answering machine?” Anderson asked the crowd, then mocked his own famous whispering vocal tone. “Hi, this is Whisperin’ Gill.” After an explosion of laughter, Anderson continued, “He not only knew who I was, he was stealing my act!”

The two wrote two songs, including the “Which Bridge to Cross (Which Bridge to Burn),” a #4 hit for Gill in 1995. The hit gave Anderson new validity among modern country hitmakers. “They figured, ‘Hey, if this old-timer is good enough for Vince Gill, maybe I should give him a few minutes of my time.’ And that’s how the doors began to open again.”

From there, Anderson enjoyed a resurgence as a songwriter, contributing Mark Wills’s “Wish You Were Here,” Steve Wariner’s “Two Teardrops,” Kenny Chesney’s “A Lot of Things Different,” George Strait’s “Give It Away,” and Sugarland’s “Joey,” among others.

Anderson addressed co-writing Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss’s “Whiskey Lullaby,” the 2005 CMA Song of the Year. His co-writer, Jon Randall, went on a drinking binge after losing his marriage, his record contract, and his songwriting deal all in the same day.

“He was really, really down,” Anderson said. “He’s told this story many times. He went and crashed at a friend of his for a couple of weeks. He drank and spent a lot of time passed out. He had to get away from it all, and he did.”

At the end of the two weeks, as Randall apologized to the friend who had let him stay there, he heard some prophetic words in reply. “His friend looked at him and said, ‘I’ve put the bottle to my head and pulled the trigger a few times, too,’” Anderson recalled. “That’s where that part of the song came from.”

At the program’s end, Anderson acknowledged that the program “took him back to some places I hadn’t been in a long time.” Then he looked to the future, as two of the three songs he ended with were so new that they’ve yet to be released by anyone. Both received huge ovations from the crowd.

—Michael McCall