They don’t come more prolific, or certainly more adaptable, than Bill Anderson. The soft-spoken singer/songwriter and Country Music Hall of Fame member wrote his first big tune in the 1950s, and has continued to pen songs in the current decade. That rigorous output makes him the only country songwriter in history with chart hits in seven consecutive decades, a mark not likely to be broken. Anderson has written them solo and with collaborators, many of them from a younger generation, proving that he’s both flexible and dutifully determined to stay relevant. Anderson’s songwriting credits include No. 1 hits he recorded himself, like “Still” and “Mama Sang a Song,” along with chart-toppers for other artists, including his first major cut, “City Lights” by Ray Price, and “Give It Away” by George Strait.
Recently, Anderson released new versions of ten of his best-known songs in the 73rd album of his career, The Hits Re-Imagined. Among the revisited classics are “Still,” the ever-popular “Po’ Folks,” and a bluegrass-tinged rendering of “Give It Away.” The album also features instrumental renditions of those same songs.
Anderson notes that the seed for the instrumentals was planted a few years back. The inspiration came when he was narrating the audiobook for his 2016 autobiography, Whisperin’ Bill Anderson: An Unprecedented Life in Country Music. “It sort of happened backwards,” Anderson recalls to Sounds Like Nashville. “Thomm Jutz, who is a wonderful musician, was the engineer on the audiobook and he told me about one that he had done for Tom T. Hall, where he played these instrumental bits under the narration. I asked him if we could do the same thing for mine. So, he played these instrumental vignettes during the reading. That gave me the idea to do full instrumental versions of my songs.” Jutz and a couple extra players recorded the instrumentals, after which Anderson came in and laid his vocals on top of the tracks. “I liked the idea because nobody does instrumentals anymore,” Anderson says.
Another facet of a bygone era – writing songs solo. In Anderson’s early days on Music Row, the accepted notion was that writers were mostly expected to craft songs by themselves, holed up in some lonely motel or in a publisher’s writing room. Co-writing existed, but the process wasn’t exactly encouraged. “The publishers didn’t like splitting the royalties in those days,” Anderson says. He made early progress as a solo writer when he penned “City Lights” in 1957, at the age of 19. Anderson was living in the small town of Commerce, Georgia, working at the local radio station as a disc jockey while also pursuing his studies at the University of Georgia. As he perched himself on the roof of the hotel where he was staying, young Anderson found illuminated inspiration in the stars of a clear night sky, contrasted with the lights of the city below.
“The town had two traffic lights,” Anderson laughs. “It wasn’t really a big city. But I started picturing a ‘great white way’ and comparing the stars to the lights. I sat there on the roof and wrote the song. After I finished it, my dad told me that I would probably be a good writer because I had used my imagination.” Anderson actually recorded the song first, for a tiny label called TNT Records. “City Lights” eventually made its way to Ray Price, who released it as a single in 1958. The song soared to No. 1 in October of that year and stayed at the top for an incredible 13 weeks. Anderson had his first chart-topper as a songwriter before officially turning 21.
Through the years, Anderson has proven to be open-minded enough to write with some of the younger craftsmen on Music Row. More than 40 years after “City Lights,” Anderson collaborated with Jon Randall for “Whiskey Lullaby,” a duet hit for Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss and winner of the 2005 CMA Song of the Year honor. Anderson reprises “Whiskey Lullaby” for The Hits Re-Imagined album. He and Paisley have also written together several times, most recently through a ZOOM call – out of necessity during the current Covid-19 pandemic – proving that the much older Anderson harbors no apprehension about modern technology.
“Brad and I did write a song on ZOOM,” Anderson confirms. “I think he’s going to record it.” Anderson shares that his in-person sessions with Paisley, who’s totally into technology, often include playful jabs at Anderson’s old-school writing process. “I still write everything down in notebooks,” Anderson explains with a gentle laugh. “I even write them in pencil. It just works for me. There’s something about that sense of an idea going from your brain to your hand to the paper. Brad, of course, puts everything into his computer and he’ll poke fun at me. One time, he even called me ‘Moses,’ which I thought was hilarious. But I do put lyrics into the computer after I’ve written them down first.”
Anderson’s soft and often poignant vocal style, which earned him the nickname “Whisperin’ Bill,” is fully evident on The Hits Re-Imagined. Anderson quips that he now has to render the songs about “three keys lower” than he did in his heyday. “I can’t hit those high notes the way I used to,” he says, letting go a lighthearted chuckle. That isn’t all that’s changed for Anderson upon revisiting these seminal hits. Some songs, he’ll allow, took on different meanings as he re-recorded them, perhaps the result of the passage of time. He points to “A Lot of Things Different,” a Top 10 single for Kenny Chesney in 2002 that he wrote with the estimable Dean Dillon.
“On that particular song, you have to have lived a little to get the full meaning of it,” muses Anderson, who turns 83 in November. “I even told Kenny at the time that he was probably too young to really understand it. But as he got older, he would appreciate it more. And now that I am older, I think the song means more to me, because it talks about the things that you wish you would have done or could have changed.”
In a wistful tone, Anderson adds, “I think most of these songs carry a different meaning to me now as I look back on them. I really enjoyed doing them again. It was like visiting old friends.”