On July 15, 1961, Bill Anderson made history, becoming the youngest member of The Grand Ole Opry at 23 years old. Upon his entrance, the breakthrough artist was adoringly deemed “Whispering Bill” for his soft-spoken vocal delivery.
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The Country Music Hall of Famer’s career began in 1958 when Ray Price brought his song “City Lights” to the top of the Billboard country charts for 13 weeks in a row. In the decades since, the Grammy-nominated and ACM Poet Award honoree collected 80 Top-charting songs—37 of which were Top Ten hits and seven No. 1 singles. Earlier this year, his hit, “Once A Day”—made famous by Connie Smith in 1964—was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
On Saturday (July 17), The Opry honored Anderson on his 60th anniversary as a member— only the third in Opry history to reach this milestone, alongside Jean Shepard and Stonewall Jackson. The Saturday evening special featured performances by Anderson, Sara Evans, Vince Gill, and Mark Wills with host Bobby Bones. To commemorate the day, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Nashville Mayor John Cooper proclaimed July 17 as “Bill Anderson Day” across the state and in Music City.
“Well, they didn’t make a big deal out of somebody becoming an Opry member back in the day, not like they do today,” Anderson tells American Songwriter over the phone. Laughing, he says, “Sometimes I think I was born too soon, and sometimes I think I was born too late.”
He recalls his experience all those years ago, adding, “They sent out a little one-page type-written press release that said I would become the 61st member of the Opry on Saturday, July 15. But golly, it was big to me.
“The Opry is such a special space, and it’s been such an important part of my life. In one way, it’s hard to comprehend that I’ve been there for 60 years,” Anderson continues. Struggling to put the honor into words, he continues, “It seems like a long time ago, but in another way, it seems like yesterday.”
After his “City Lights” success, Anderson signed a deal with Decca and began recording his own hits like “Po’ Folks,” “Mama Sang A Song,” “Bright Lights and Country Music,” among an expansive list of others. His songwriting career has been equivocally fruitful. To date, Anderson is the only songwriter in history to chart country songs in seven consecutive decades. “City Lights” got the ball rolling in the late ‘50s, while Connie Smith’s “Once A Day” set the pace for his ‘60s success. The ‘70s were marked by Jean Shepard’s “Slippin’ Away” in 1973, and later Conway Twitty recorded “I May Never Get To Heaven” in 1979.
As he moved into the ‘80s, Anderson’s writing and recording career slowed in tandem with country music’s shift into crossover pop. The unfamiliar territory gave the artist pause and led him into television projects. Struggling to find his place, he paused other writing projects but still managed to claim charting singles from his albums Southern Fried (1983), Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1984), and A Place in the Country (1986).
Anderson got his mojo back as he entered the ‘90s. In one of the most notable comebacks in country music history, the songwriter racked up charting singles starting with Vince Gill’s 1995 hit, “Which Bridge to Cross.” His other compositions became hits for artists including Steve Wariner (“Two Tear Drops”) and Mark Wills (“Wish You Were Here”) in 1999.
Kenny Chesney kicked off the new millennium for Anderson, recording “A Lot of Different Things” for his No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem album in 2002. Anderson was credited for CMA Song of the Year for the Brad Paisley and Allison Krauss duet, “Whiskey Lullaby” in 2004. A pair of cuts by Joe Nichols (“I’ll Wait For You”) and George Strait (“Give It Away”) highlighted 2006 as another milestone year for the songwriter. To close the decade, Anderson teamed up with Jennifer Nettles for “Joey” from Sugarland’s Love on the Inside.
In 2014, Anderson was credited on Mo Pitney’s Top-30 track, “Country,” from his debut LP —officially making his mark on the seventh consecutive decade.
Much has changed over the years, but Anderson points to the steadfastness of the genre. He says, “Country music has always been the music of the common people. Country songs tell stories. They paint pictures with words and speak to people in a language they can understand. And I think that’s what I’ve tried to do for all these years is to communicate feelings and stories—empathy and sympathy when necessary—to just talk to people in a way that’s not too complicated. Hopefully, people can say, ‘Hey, I’m not the only person that ever felt this way; the guy that wrote that song felt this way, too.'”
Anderson credits his ability to evolve in the country music world by collaborating with young writers and artists. “I hope they’ve learned from me because I’ve certainly learned from them. It’s a mutual exchange,” he says. “I try to stress to them to be original, try to say something in a way that it’s never been articulated before. I’ll have young writers say ‘This sounds like a Merle Haggard song, and I’ll say of course it does because Merle wrote that same idea 40 years ago. Maybe from some of the years and miles, I can impart a little bit of that to them.”
From young folks, Anderson has stayed hip on modern “lingo.” he says, “They have a different way of saying things, and they’ll kindly let me know, ‘We don’t necessarily say it like that anymore.'”
Additionally, he is mesmerized by the use of technology like ProTools in the writing room and the ability to track demos with bass and drum kits while writing.
During the pandemic, Anderson feels he learned to “dig a little bit deeper.” As a result, his forthcoming EP includes six songs that are more personal and autobiographical than any of his previous, expansive discography. Three are co-written, and the other half were penned alone during 2020.
“Lyrically, I think I’ve touched on some subjects in a way that I wouldn’t have done if somebody was sitting across the table from me. At this point in my life, I’ve been through a lot,” says Anderson. Pausing, he then cites the loss of a “significant lady” he was involved with for over 20 years to cancer in 2019.
“I think when you go through something like that, you feel things you haven’t felt up until that time, and you write about it,” he continues. “I found myself writing about coming through that and into a new period. And those are the kinds of songs you write by yourself. It’s not something a co-writer could understand, you just have to flesh it out yourself.”
Watch the July 17 Opry celebration below. Keep up with Bill Anderson on his website.
Photo Credit: Chris Hollo