Welcome to the Writers Round, a monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with Nashville-based songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey to Music City. This month, Bill Anderson sheds some light into his life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of his many hits including Brad Paisley’s “Whiskey Lullaby” and “Dying to See Her,” George Strait’s “Give It Away” and Ray Price’s “City Lights.”
Bill Anderson has been writing songs for seven decades and shows no sign of slowing down. The prolific songwriter has released more than 40 albums and amassed seven No. 1 singles. He is also the only songwriter in history who has had a song of his enter the country charts in each of the past seven decades. Recently, “Whisperin” Bill Anderson was invited to join the esteemed Songwriters Hall of Fame class of 2018. An honor Anderson says he’s still pinching himself about, the Country Music Hall of Famer and Grand Ole Opry member discusses his evolution as a songwriter and the lessons he’s learned along the way.
Anderson was 10 when he first began writing songs. He bought himself an old, cheap guitar and despite his fingers hurting from the instrument, he figured if he was going to learn to play the guitar and start singing songs he might as well make up songs of his own.
A self-professed nerd, Anderson tells Sounds Like Nashville he always loved to write. He relished writing assignments in school and was the type of student who would ask how long he could make his essay. If it wasn’t for country music, Anderson says he’d still be writing.
“I just always loved to write,” he says over the phone in his slowed Georgia drawl. “And always loved country music, and I would have ended up writing something if it hadn’t been country music but I was very fortunate to be able to put two of my loves together and make a living at it.”
At 19, Anderson penned “City Lights,” his first No. 1 hit, while on a rooftop in Commerce, Ga. At the time, he was working as a disc jockey at a radio station while attending college at the University of Georgia. The song found its way to Nashville and was recorded by Ray Price, staying in the top position for 13 weeks on the country chart.
“It’s very vivid in my mind how I wrote it. I lived in a little hotel called the Hotel Andrew Jackson, of all things, in Commerce, Georgia. It was the tallest building in town, it was three stories high,” Anderson recalls. “I lived on the third floor, and a lot of times at night, I would go up on the roof of that little hotel. I’d take my guitar and they had a couple little lounge chairs. I’d sit up there and just strum my guitar and sing to the night. I was up there one night, I can still see in my mind the clear sky with a bajillion stars in it, and what few lights there were in Commerce, Georgia. And next thing I knew, I was writing a song called ‘City Lights.'”
Anderson recorded the song himself and a small Texas record label named TNT Records released it. His record made its way to Nashville and Chet Atkins at RCA heard it and an artist he was working with at the time, Dave Rich, then recorded it. Ray Price heard Rich’s recording on the radio and then decided to cut it for himself.
“That opened the doors, and really whetted my appetite. When that happened, I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I could get used to this,'” Anderson reminisces. “So I started making trips to Nashville, and things just sort of fell into place after that.”
Price recorded the song in 1958, a year after Anderson wrote “City Lights.” Anderson went on to graduate from UGA the following year and moved to Nashville shortly after. Within the year, he had his first record deal with Decca Records and a writing contract with Tree Publishing.
Anderson moved to Nashville with a big catalog of songs and said he frequently wrote by himself before he was introduced to other writers by his publisher, including Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Darrell McCall. Long before his relocation to Music City, one publisher named Murray Mash showed an interest in Anderson when he was a teenager and his advice went on to guide him throughout his long career. He recalls Mash advising him not to write something he’s already heard on the radio and to instead write songs in his own way and be original.
“He told me that I needed to learn to write a lyric to a song where you didn’t waste the line, you didn’t waste the thoughts. You’ve only got three minutes to get your story across. And, you need to be so careful to make sure one line builds up with the line in front of it, and that you’re telling the story the most clear and concise way that you can,” Anderson remembers. “He said, ‘When you’ve got the lyric, sit down and read it like you’re reading a book, or a magazine, or a story of some kind. If there’s anything you don’t understand, anything that’s confusing, then go back and revisit it, and maybe change it, try to make it a little better.”
Clearly, Mash’s advice worked as Anderson has had his songs recorded by some of the most respected artists of every genre of music. James Brown, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Aretha Franklin and Conway Twitty have all recorded his songs. Anderson says the most surprising recording was Brown’s eight-minute version of “Still” in the late 1980s. A song he didn’t think was that great, Anderson wrote “Still” at 3 a.m. in a den in the home he was living in at the time.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’ve written a lot of songs better than this,'” he admits. “But it’s just one that somehow seemed to resonate with the public. Of course, that’s what you try to do every time. How many times do you see Bill Anderson and James Brown in the same sentence? I mean, that’s a pretty strange kinship there.”
Decades later, Anderson still proves an avid writer. He has had continued success with Brad Paisley, who he calls a dear friend. The two penned “Dying to See Her,” featured on Paisley’s latest release Love and War. Anderson also wrote “Whiskey Lullaby,” the 2005 CMA Song of the Year which Paisley took to No. 1 in 2004.
“We’ve had a lot of success together, a lot of fun together. I love writing with him, I love the fact that he will call me and ask me if I could write a certain idea with him, like he did on ‘Dying to See Her.’ I’ve got my fingers crossed that that’s gonna be a single, I haven’t heard yet. But hopefully it will be,” Anderson muses.
Anderson says “Dying to See Her” was a song that hit him personally, because it was almost the exact story of his father’s life.
“My mother died about two years before my father did, and he walked to the cemetery every day and stood there by her grave and cried, and talked about how much he missed her,” Anderson says softly. “So I really could relate to that song. And Brad could, too, because he went through a similar thing with an uncle of his.”
Recalling his 2004 chart topper “Whiskey Lullaby,” Anderson chuckles when he admits that nobody was running up and down Music Row asking for someone to write a double suicide drinking song.
“Jon Randall and I wrote it, and it was originally put on hold by the Dixie Chicks. Then when their career blew up, Brad had heard the song in the meantime and he said, ‘If the song ever becomes available, I want to record it,'” Anderson explains. “It was Brad’s idea to turn it into a duet, we had not written it as a duet. But Brad called me one day and he said, ‘What would you think if we took that song and maybe I recorded it with a female?’ And I said, ‘Golly, I think that’d be great! Who do you have in mind?’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t think there’s but two people that could really do it justice, one is Alison Krauss and the other one’s Dolly Parton.’ And I said, ‘Well, I love both of them, go for it.'”
Song ideas can come from anywhere and as Anderson explains, sometimes writers get into a room together and don’t have a concept for something to write. This is exactly what happened when Anderson sat down to write with Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson the day George Strait’s “Give It Away” was conceived.
“We didn’t have any idea the day we got together, Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson and I. We didn’t have any idea what we were going to write, and Jamey was going through a divorce at time, and got to talking about that and that’s how ‘Give It Away’ was born,'” Anderson explains. “And then of course, the greatest acceptance speech in the history of country music when it won Song of the Year and Jamey Johnson thanked his ex-wife for divorcing him, or he never would’ve written the song. What is country music if it’s not based on real life?”
On June 14, Anderson’s life will come full circle when he attends to the 2018 Songwriters Hall of Fame gala in New York City as part of the 49th Annual Induction and Awards Dinner.
“It dawned on me that staying in New York, at the Songwriters Hall of Fame, I’m going be at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square. It’s been a lot of years and a lot of miles, from the Hotel Andrew Jackson in Commerce to the hotel Marriott Marquis in Times Square in New York,” he concedes. “I’ve had such a blessed life and a blessed career. Even though I wrote a song called ‘I’d of Done a Lot of Things Different,’ I don’t know that I really would have. I don’t know that I would have chosen a very different path. I’ve been very blessed with the one I chose, and the way that it’s all played out.”
Anderson is currently out on the road with fellow singer/songwriter Bobby Bare for their American Legends Tour. Visit billanderson.com for more information.