Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson was recently inducted into the prestigious Songwriters Hall of Fame in a ceremony in New York City. Anderson, who’s had many hits as an artist, and writing songs for other artists, joined an excellent class of 2018 honorees that included John Mellencamp, Alan Jackson, Jermaine Dupri, Kool & The Gang, Allee Willis and Steve Dorff.
Impressively, as a songwriter or artist, Anderson has placed songs in the charts in each of the past seven decades. Starting at the age of 19, he penned “City Lights” that became a hit for Ray Price in 1958. In 1964, his “Once A Day,” sung by Connie Smith, had an eight-week run at the top of the country charts. This was a chart record for a female artist that went unmatched for almost 50 years, until Taylor Swift matched the feat in 2012 with her single, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
Nicknamed “Whisperin’ Bill” for his breathy vocal styling, he recorded hits (as an artist) like “Po’ Folks,” “The Tips of My Fingers,” “8 X 10” and the country/pop smash, “Still.” Voted Songwriter of the Year six times, the South Carolina native continued his success in later decades, co-writing the CMA Song of the Year in 2005 (“Whiskey Lullaby,” a hit for Brad Paisley & Alison Krauss) and again in 2007 (“Give It Away” for George Strait). He also had hits with Vince Gill’s “Which Bridge to Cross, Which Bridge to Burn,” Steve Wariner’s “Two Teardrops,” Kenny Chesney’s “A Lot of Things Different,” Mark Wills’ “Wish You Were Here,” Joe Nichols’ “I’ll Wait For You,” and the CMA Vocal Event of the Year, “Too Country” that he recorded with Paisley, George Jones, and Buck Owens.
Notably, Anderson became BMI’s first country songwriter to receive the BMI Icon Award in 2002. In addition, the Academy of Country Music honored him with their inaugural Poets Award in 2008. Anderson has also written songs that were recorded by Porter Wagoner, James Brown, Debbie Reynolds, Ivory Joe Hunter, Kitty Wells, Faron Young, Lawrence Welk, Dean Martin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Aretha Franklin and many others.
A member of the Grand Ole Opry for more than 50 years, Anderson was the first country artist to host a network game show (ABC’s The Better Sex), and he was a frequent guest on the Tonight Show, the Today Show, Match Game, Family Feud, and Hee Haw. He’s also written several books including his updated autobiography, Whisperin’ Bill Anderson—An Unprecedented Life in Country Music.
We are pleased to present this new Q&A interview with Bill Anderson. He explains how songwriting has changed for him over the decades, and he tells the stories behind hits like “Whiskey Lullaby” and “A Lot of Things Different.”
BC: Congratulations on being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. What does this honor mean to you?
Bill Anderson: It was pretty special all the way from the day I found out about it, right through the ceremony up in New York a few weeks ago. It was kind of surreal. I’m just a guy from Georgia with a guitar, and I know three of four chords. I feel very blessed to have had the career that I’ve had.
BC: Was your first hit, “City Lights” (at age 19) the first song you tried to write?
Here’s the video of Brad Paisley & Alison Krauss’ hit “Whiskey Lullaby,”
which was co-written by Bill Anderson.
Anderson: No, that was not the first song I ever tried to write. I had been trying to make up songs since I was 9 or 10 years old, ever since I learned my first few chords on a guitar. It came natural to me to want to write my own songs. “City Lights] was the first one that anyone really ever heard, probably the first one that ever made sense (laughs). How that one came about and how it came out and everything—I look back on it now and I stand amazed the way it all happened.
BC: How does the songwriting process generally work for you?
Anderson: I usually write from an idea if not a hook line, at least from a lyrical idea. One of your challenge as a songwriter is to try and say something a little bit different from the way somebody has said it before or the way you said it the last time. You’ve always got that challenge. Some writers will get a little melodic riff going. They’ll have a melody and then put words to it. I don’t find it easy that way. I find it easier to create the lyric and tell the story. I think the lyric kind of suggests the melody a lot of times.
BC: You’ve written hits by yourself and you’ve co-written hits with others. Can you describe how each of those two scenarios works best for you?
Anderson: For 25 or 30 years after I came to Nashville, I had written nearly everything by myself. I wasn’t into the co-writing. I had written a few songs with other people, but I wasn’t into the co-writing, make an appointment, sit down, take your guitar, sit there and try to create a song. I didn’t really know if I could do it or not, but when I first got in to try to co-write in the ‘90s, I found it was a pretty cool thing. I thought I was the only guy in the world that would write the second verse of a song first (laughs). I came to find out with other writers. They’re all just as crazy as I am, and all write in particular ways. The danger of co-writing is that you tend sometimes to use it as a crutch, and I’ve been going back recently and trying to write some songs by myself again, because I don’t want to feel like I’ve got to have that co-writer sitting across from me in order to create something. There are different kinds of challenges in writing by yourself and writing with somebody. I enjoy one as much as I enjoy the other.
BC: You’ve written hits for almost 60 years. How do you keep it fresh and continue to find new inspiration?
Anderson: Ideas are all around you. You just have to go out and find them. I was just born with one of those songwriter antennas coming out of my brain and seeing life in terms of a song. Somebody says something that doesn’t mean anything to them like a song, and to me, everything kind of comes to me and I adapt it into a song. That’s kind of the way I look at life, and I have no idea why.
BC: One of your big crossover hits was “Still,” that James Brown had recorded. How did that song come about?
Here’s the lyric video of George Strait’s hit “Give It Away,” which was
co-written by Bill Anderson.
Anderson: I had gone back down to Georgia, where I grew up and ran into a girl I had dated several years before. She had broken my heart at the time. I didn’t write the song for her, but I came back to Nashville, and I wrote the song because of her. Seeing her again rekindled some of the old thoughts and memories, and a lot of songs come like that. I don’t write every song from a personal standpoint…people have asked me if I’ve lived every song I’ve written. I said, “Lord no!” I’d be 400 years old if I had lived all of them, and I’d be in a lot worse shape than I am now (laughs). But I draw from my own personal experiences as well as the experiences of others.
BC: What’s the story behind your hit, “Whiskey Lullaby?”
Anderson: I went to the session that day to write with (artist & songwriter) Jon Randall with the idea of writing a song called “Midnight Cigarette.” The basic idea of it being that the relationship kind of slowly burned out like a cigarette would in an ashtray in the middle of the night. Jon loved the idea! Then, he said to me that he had some personal ups and downs in his life. He told me somebody had said the line to him one time. Jon had apologized for kind of going off the deep end, and his friend said to him, “Don’t worry about it Jon. I’ve put the bottle to my head and pulled the trigger a few times.” As soon as Jon said that, I forgot about midnight cigarette (laughs). I said, “Man, we need to write that.” The opening line of “Whiskey Lullaby” is, “She put him out like the burning end of a midnight cigarette.” So, I got my line in there, and then we took Jon’s experience and line to build the framework for the rest of the song.
BC: You also scored a big hit with George Strait, “Give It Away.”
Anderson: I was writing with Buddy Cannon and Jamie Johnson. We were struggling to find an idea, and Jamie finally said, “Well, I’m going through a divorce.” And I said, “Well, if you’re going through a divorce and you can’t write a song about that, then you need to turn in your guitar. You’re not a songwriter” (laughs). Of course, he’s one of the great country songwriters. “Give It Away” came from that. He picked his guitar up and started strumming along, and then Buddy Cannon came up with the idea of doing the little talking part. Everybody thinks because I’m known for the recitations, that they think the talking part was my idea.
BC: You also penned Kenny Chesney’s hit, “A Lot of Things Different.”
Anderson: I wrote that with (hit songwriter) Dean Dillon. I loved the process and loved the song. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever been a part of. Dean and I didn’t know each other very well. We met for breakfast early that day when we had an appointment to write at 10 o’clock. We got acquainted with each other, talking about our lives. We had very different backgrounds. It was kind of interesting to sit there and talk about it. I got very fascinated with his life, and he got fascinated with mine. We went back to the office and continued our conversation and set it to music. (He sings) “Wish I had spent more time with my dad when he was alive.” Dean never knew his father, and I had a really close relationship with mine. Those things came out of our own personal thoughts and feelings. I wish it was that magical every time.
Here’s a video of Bill Anderson singing his new song, “Until the Light
Comes On Again.”
BC: Your latest single as an artist is “Until the Light Comes On Again.” What did the woman friend that you wrote it for think when you first performed that song for her?
Anderson: That’s one that I wrote by myself and totally wrote it from my heart. I think she cried the first time she heard it. I cried while I wrote it. It was a very personal song that came out of a very unfortunate and sad situation that we’re still struggling to get through it. When I heard she had been diagnosed with cancer, I couldn’t find the right words to say until I wrote the song. When I wrote the song, I said everything to her that I had been trying to say and couldn’t get it out.
I have heard from so many people who tell me how much they relate to it. A lady wrote me the other day and said her father was terminal, and she said more than anything I want to take that song up to the hospital and sit there with my guitar and sing it for him. Could you send me the lyrics? And I did. I’m learning that the song touches a lot of people in a very personal way as it did me. If it can help somebody, then I’m really glad that I wrote it.
BC: What do you get out of songwriting creatively that you don’t receive from performing?
Anderson: People ask me, which one would I rather do? Fortunately, I haven’t had to choose because I get a different type of satisfaction from both of them. When you write a song and it’s successful…when you perform and sing the song somewhere you get a standing ovation in Pittsburgh, they don’t know a thing about that in Philadelphia. You have to go to the next town and prove it all over again. It’s a different type of a high, maybe a little bit more of an emotional high when you’re performing and get that great reception to it. Then, that’s limited and you have to do it all over again the next day somewhere else. Maybe the high isn’t quite as much when you write the song, but it maybe has more of a lasting effect. It’s really different kinds of satisfaction, and I would hate to think I had to give up either one of them.
Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, ParentLife, Homecoming, and Singing News and is currently writing a biography on The Osborne Brothers with Bobby Osborne. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is also on Google+