Bill Anderson Builds Legacy as Songwriter

American Icons, Celebrities, People
on April 14, 2011
David Mudd

The title of Bill Anderson’s latest album, Songwriter, singles out the most successful of his many talents. But it’s far from the only one: He’s been a radio DJ, a sports journalist, a recording artist, an actor, a television-show host and an author of several books.

But songwriting provided his ticket to Nashville, Tenn., in 1958, the year he relocated from Commerce, Ga., after Ray Price took a song Anderson had written, “City Lights,” to No. 1 on the country charts. More than 52 years later, it’s still Anderson’s way with lyrics and melody that repeatedly takes him back to the top of the charts.

At age 72, the native of Columbia, S.C., remains one of country music’s go-to songwriters. In recent years, he’s provided hit material for country’s hottest acts, including Kenny Chesney (“A Lot of Things Different”), Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss (“Whiskey Lullaby”), George Strait (“Give It Away”) and Sugarland (“Joey”).

However, 20 years ago, Anderson had given up on what would turn out to be his primary vocation. His stream of hit songs seemed to dry up, radio didn’t embrace him anymore, and the tide of country music had turned to younger, hotter acts.

“Frankly, I didn’t feel like I was relevant anymore in country music,” Anderson says, his voice a light, lilting rasp. It’s the same tone that, thanks to a distinctively gentle singing style, earned him the enduring nickname “Whisperin’ Bill.”

But then country singer Steve Wariner covered an older Anderson song, retitling it “The Tips of My Fingers,” and made it a hit in 1992. This success prompted Anderson to reconsider whether he could contribute to country music again as a songwriter.

A friend suggested Anderson contact Vince Gill, known for his love of older country music. “Vince Gill doesn’t know who I am,” Anderson insisted. “I’m a dinosaur.”

Nonetheless, Anderson took Gill’s phone number. One day, the veteran mustered the courage to call the superstar. “Do you know what was on his answering machine?” Anderson asks, chuckling at the memory. Mocking his own famous whispering voice, he repeats what he had heard: “Hi, this is ‘Whisperin’ Gill. Please leave a message.” After another chuckle, Anderson adds, “He not only knew who I was, he was stealing my act!”

Gill readily agreed to co-write with Anderson. Their first session resulted in “Which Bridge to Cross (Which Bridge to Burn),” a Top 10 hit for Gill in 1995.

The success granted Anderson validity among a new generation of songwriters and modern country stars. “They figured, ‘Hey, if this old-timer is good enough for Vince Gill, maybe I should give him a few minutes of my time,’” Anderson says. “That’s how the doors began to open.”

This year, Anderson is celebrating his 50th anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. “Whenever I introduce someone to Bill, I always make a point of saying that this guy has written at least one No. 1 hit in each of the past six decades,” says Opry vice president and general manager Pete Fisher. “Through his songwriting, Bill has a unique ability to connect with folks from several generations.”

At this point, Anderson has achieved his field’s highest honors. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, and the following year, the performing-rights organization BMI gave him its prestigious Icon Award, marking the first time a country songwriter had been so honored.

Today, Anderson lives in a comfortable lakeside home in Old Hickory, Tenn., where he watches baseball passionately, blogs to fans on his website and continues to master the craft he’s honed for half a century.

“I like staying busy,” Anderson says. “I know I’m fortunate to be active in the entertainment world at my age. I’ve lived a blessed life, and it’s important to me that I get up every day and live it to the fullest.”