Bill Anderson: Looking Back… and Looking Forward

Anderson dishes on his iconic co-writes, like Vince Gill, and one he regrets not following through with.

Written by Chuck Dauphin
Bill Anderson: Looking Back… and Looking Forward
Bill Anderson; Photo courtesy Adkins Publicity

A new outlook on life – or at least, songwriting.

That’s what Bill Anderson’s new autobiography, Whisperin’ Bill: An Unprecedented Life In Country Music, is about. In the book, released earlier this month, Anderson talks about his shift into co-writing in the mid-1990s, which resulted in number one hits from acts like George Strait, Brad Paisley, and Mark Wills. That phase of his career began in earnest with his collaboration with Vince Gill on “Which Bridge To Cross (Which Bridge To Burn)” in 1994.

“He was the first one that welcomed me into the co-writing fraternity,” the Country Music Hall of Fame member told Sounds Like Nashville. “I owe him so much as an artist and a songwriter. I credit him with my rebirth as a songwriter and my second career. Had he not given me that opportunity to get with him, and had that song not had been a hit, I don’t know what my life would have been like for the last twenty-plus years.”

And…..he owes at least part of that success to his hair stylist.

“She’s the one that kept trying to get us together. She was doing Vince’s hair at the time, and she’d keep telling us that we needed to get with each other to write. I thought ‘Vince Gill don’t have to mess around with an old dinosaur like Bill Anderson. He’s got everything going great around him with all he was doing.’ Finally, she gave me his number, and I carried it around with me for months.”

The first time Anderson called Gill, he didn’t connect with the singer, but he realized he might have a pretty good chance of a future collaboration. “I got up the nerve to call him, and was met with him doing an impersonation of me on his voicemail. ‘Hi, this is Whisperin’ Gill.’ I knew then we were going to get along just fine,” he says with a smile.

The book, co-authored with highly respected journalist Peter Cooper, deals with all facets of Anderson’s storied career – including his early run as a radio personality. There was a radio station in the same building as his father’s insurance office, and he was infatuated with the on-air jocks and live performers. Getting a job in radio wasn’t the easiest task, however.

“I begged everyone I could find. I got down on my hands and knees. I drove all over north Georgia after my freshman year at the University of Georgia, begging anyone to give me a job. There’s this standard question people will ask – ‘Do you have any experience?’ You tell them ‘No,’ and they say ‘Well, come back when you do have some experience.’ How do you get experience when somebody won’t give you a job? It becomes a vicious circle, and that’s what I was in. I finally found a job at WGAU in Athens, which really opened a lot of doors for me. I was seventeen years old when I got my first job, and I knew that I wanted to do something with radio. I was so fascinated with radio. It was my best friend.”

In fact, his on-air stint led to his first nickname. You see, long before comedian Don Bowman dubbed Anderson “Whisperin’ Bill” in the mid 1960’s, he was known as……”Peanut Butter Bill?” He explains.

“Nobody knows about that outside of Commerce, GA, where I was working on the radio. I went to school at Athens in the morning, drive for about an hour to go on the radio. I never had time to stop and eat lunch anywhere, and there was nobody to make me a home cooked meal once I got to the station. So, I kept this jar or peanut butter and a loaf of bread at the station. I’d come in dragging about 1 o’clock, starving to death. While a record was playing, I’d make me a peanut butter sandwich. So, I would have me an excuse, because we read most of our commercials live in those days. I learned when I messed up, I could just say ‘I was eating a peanut butter sandwich, and that peanut butter was sticking to the roof of my mouth. That’s why I couldn’t make my mouth go where it needed to go. Soon, they started calling me ‘Peanut Butter Bill.”

One Christmas in the small town proved to be especially memorable for Anderson.

“There was one Christmas where the postmaster called me at the station, and told me to get down there. The whole post office smells like peanut butter. People have brought you peanut butter candy, cakes, jars of peanut butter. I went down there, and I felt like I was in the Peter Pan factory when I first walked in the door. That was one of my first introductions to the loyalty of Country Music fans, and the relationship between people in the industry and the fans. I was just a small-town disc jockey, but those people cared about me to see that I had some of my favorite food at Christmas time.”

Photo courtesy Webster PR

Photo courtesy Webster PR

Anderson goes into great detail about the writing of such hits as “Give It Away” and “Whiskey Lullaby,” both award-winning songs, but admits that first hit – 1958’s “City Lights” also remains a special one. In the book, he talks about a charity event in Commerce where Vince Gill and Ray Price – who took the song to the top – joined him. Needless to say, it was a moment Anderson would never forget. “Had it not been in the summertime, we could have probably stood there on that stage and seen the hotel (where he wrote the song on the top of the building) in the distance. When the twin fiddles kicked off the intro, Ray saw me standing on the side of the stage, and said ‘This is for you Bill.’ Then he started singing ‘A bright array of city lights,’ less than a mile from where I had written it. The song changed my life, taking me from a small town in Georgia as a kid to the Grand Ole Opry. It all happened because of that song. It was a very emotional night. I cried like a baby, and I still get emotional just talking about it.”

Anderson wasn’t the only one who was moved. Vince was watching Ray that night, and had never seen him perform. Once he was done, Vince had tears running down his cheeks and he said ‘I feel like I’ve been to school. Ray Price taught me things tonight I didn’t know.’ It was an amazing night, truly amazing.”

If Anderson could, would he go back to the 50s and 60s, and write with some of the top songwriters of the day? He said he would be game, but the rules were different back then. “Unless you changed the laws and the rules from the 60’s, I couldn’t write with people like Harlan Howard. I could write with Roger Miller, and we did only because we worked for the same publishing company, and our songs were both registered with the same performing rights organization in BMI. Back in those days, Harlan wrote for Pamper Music, which was partly owned by Ray Price and some other people. I wrote for Tree Publishing, and later for Moss Rose, but I couldn’t write with Harlan. Publishers would not split the copyrights.”

In 2016, things are very different, something that Anderson credits, in part, to the 1970’s “Outlaw Movement.”

“Today, they are more than willing to do so. I can write with anyone I want to. The walls came down in the late 70s, and Willie [Nelson] and Waylon [Jennings] were kind of responsible for a lot of that. I wish I could have written with Harlan. Willie. Hank Cochran. John Loudermilk. Mel Tillis. Marijohn Wilkin. I could sit here and talk all day about people I couldn’t write with back then because we weren’t under the same publishing umbrella.”

There is one co-write that Anderson could have had, but it failed to materialize. And, it partly has to do with the singer’s status as a matinee-like idol – at least in one fan’s eyes!

“You stretched the truth a little on that one, but you made a good story out of it,” Anderson said with a hearty laugh. “Scott Swift, who is Taylor’s father, was a fan of mine in Redding, PA. At some point, when he was young, his mother said ‘If Bill Anderson ever came to our front door and asked me to run away with him…..I’d go.’ Scott said he grew up with this fear that he’d go to the door, and I’d be standing there. Of course, I didn’t find out about this until many years later.”

As it turned out Anderson and Swift became good friends after the latter moved to Nashville. “He brought Taylor out to my fan club dinner one night, and she got up and sang a couple of songs. I thought ‘She’s really different, not like anyone else I’d had come out there.’ He invited me out to their house, and said ‘Why don’t you and Taylor write together?’ I thought ‘What does Bill Anderson and a fourteen-year old Taylor Swift have in common that we could write about? The biggest mistake of my life was not taking him up on that invitation.”

Whisperin’ Bill: An Unprecedented Life In Country Music is available in stores and online now.