A vast array of bright lights and country music marks the long and winding career of country legend Bill Anderson.
Distinct of voice and song, Anderson at 81 remains as active as when he began more than 60 years ago.
Spy the spry Anderson when he steps into the spotlight at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee, on Saturday. He knows something of lights. Take one sweltering night long ago in Commerce, Georgia. He was hot and about to get much hotter courtesy his song, “City Lights.”
“What’s interesting, I wrote it on Aug. 27, 1957,” said Anderson, by phone last week from his home in Nashville, Tennessee. “It’s 62 years old as of yesterday.”
A college student at the University of Georgia, Anderson was 19 and killing time on a hot Georgian night.
“I lived in the tallest building in Commerce, Georgia, which was three stories high,” Anderson said. “A lot of times, I would go up on the roof to cool off. I took my little guitar up there, singing in the night. I looked down and saw the little lights of downtown Commerce, Georgia.”
Ray Price, one of country music’s white hot and rising stars, recorded “City Lights” on May 29, 1958. Five months later, it rocketed to No. 1 on Billboard’s country singles chart and stayed there for 13 weeks.
Meanwhile, Decca Records signed Anderson to a recording contract. He debuted on the same chart with “That’s What It’s Like to Be Lonesome” just as “City Lights” burned its brightest.
“That fueled the fire, fueled the flame,” Anderson said.
As with Price, Anderson came along as a stylist. He wore a whisper upon his voice like Porter Wagoner wore his rhinestone Nudie suits. One cannot help but to notice its distinction.
“In that day and time, if you weren’t different, you didn’t stand a chance,” Anderson said. “When you had a unique voice and style, you had a chance.”
And so emerged from Music City onto the world the man known as Whisperin’ Bill Anderson.
Hits blurred from the genial Anderson. “The Tip of My Fingers” registered as his first Top 10 record as a singer. Then twanged “Walk Out Backwards” followed by a folksy “Po’ Folks” in 1961. Two days after “Po’ Folks” debuted, Anderson was made a member of the prestigious Grand Ole Opry.
“In my early years, it was extremely important. The Opry was what everybody aspired to be on,” Anderson said. “It was the primary showcase for country music. It was on the NBC network. Now with the internet and satellite radio, more people than ever can hear the Opry. It’s amazing that a guy can hear the Grand Ole Opry in San Francisco, Anchorage, Alaska or Tokyo.”
Classics flowed like lava from a heaving volcano courtesy the whispering voice and Goliath pen of Mount Anderson. The 1960s avalanched with a hushed “Still,” a steel guitar-soaked “Three A.M.,” a tear-strewn “I Love You Drops” and the fervent “I Get the Fever.”
“I write from a combination of observation, introspection and the world around me,” Anderson said. “I have this little antenna inside me. Every time someone says something a little unusual, I immediately think, ‘Is there a song in that?’ That’s the art and the craft of songwriting. The art is the idea. I write a lyric and then get the melody.”
College did not teach Anderson how to write a song. The man who earned his way to becoming a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, first took pen to paper as a child.
“Listening to Hank Williams. I borrowed from him and extensively from Luke the Drifter (Hank Williams’ oft-recitation heavy pseudonym),” Anderson said. “I’d buy records and study them. I subscribed to Country Song Roundup magazine.”
Country Song Roundup published from 1949 through 2000. In addition to features on country singers of the era, the magazine included lyrics to a handful of songs in each issue.
“I would study those songs, study the writers — Cy Coben, Fred Rose, Hank Williams,” Anderson said. “I read those lyrics, studied them like they were in a textbook.”
It worked. In addition to membership in a stack of halls of fame and nearly 100 charted singles of his own, Anderson’s songs have been recorded by pure greatness.
Lefty Frizzell turned Anderson’s “Saginaw Michigan” into a standard. “Once a Day” spun a career into high gear for Connie Smith. Even the Godfather of Soul got in on the Whisperin’ Bill song express.
“Oh, Lord, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Bing Crosby,” Anderson said. “James Brown did ‘Still.’ Aretha recorded ‘I May Never Get to Heaven.’ They made those songs their own. What a compliment! I’m awfully proud of that.”
Take sturdy note. Whisperin’ Bill owns more songs to write, albums to record, shows to play. A living monument, Bill Anderson remains vital as he nears his 82nd year.
“I was lucky that I came along when you had to be different,” Anderson said. “Buck Owens was different. George Jones was different. Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Bill Anderson — we were different. I’m extremely blessed.”