Last fall, Nashville’s Bill Anderson released music both half a century old and brand new—songs that were the country chart fodder of yesteryear along with those that could, in the right singer’s hands, become hits today.
Anderson may not have the Hollywood biopic to show for it, but he was right up there with Johnny Cash as a country hit-maker in the 1960s. What’s more, he’s the rare talent from that era who’s in the thick of the Music Row songwriting scene right now.
FROM SONGWRITING TO THE SMALL SCREEN
It’s hard to believe that the writer behind “City Lights”, a lonesome shuffle that gave Ray Price a no. 1 in 1958, also collaborated on “Whiskey Lullaby”, a tragic ballad that made a big impact for Brad Paisley in 2004. Or that the same guy who wrote and recorded the 1961 hit “Po’ Folks”, a homey, sentimental tune, also co-wrote the 2007 George Strait chart-topper “Give It Away”, a blunt, bluesy honky-tonk number.
But Anderson did all that, some four decades apart.
His new box set on the German boutique label Bear Family Records spotlights his heady, hit-filled first decade in the business, “City Lights” and “Po’ Folks” included. Not that his career hasn’t been one long, uninterrupted streak.
Anderson’s reign as a heavyweight songwriter and recording artist had faded by the dawn of the 1980s, which is when he played one of his new compositions for a big-name producer and met with a veteran songsmith’s worst nightmare—the none-too-subtle suggestion that his time had passed.
“He said ‘Who do you want me to record it with—Kitty Wells?’” recalls Anderson. “Well, Kitty Wells, for all her greatness, had not had a hit since back in the early ‘60s, mid-‘60s or so. So it was a put-down kind of a comment.”
So Anderson walked away from songwriting, and focused instead on his burgeoning television career. He spent a few seasons on the daytime soap opera One Life to Live—playing a fictional version of himself—and hosted a country trivia game show called Fandango—no relation to the online box office of that name—on The Nashville Network.
PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS
Then, in 1992, Steve Wariner took the old Bill Anderson tune “The Tips of my Fingers” (originally titled “The Tip of My Fingers”) to the country top ten. That got Anderson’s attention alright, and he soon launched his second songwriting career—which called for co-writing, something he and his contemporaries rarely did in the old days.
Co-penning songs with then-king of country radio Vince Gill helped Anderson get back on the commercial country radar.
“I had to prove that I could co-write,” he explains, “that I could write with these young artists, who a lot of ‘em I didn’t know, young writers, please young producers.”
It’s human nature for an old pro to feel more competition than camaraderie toward the young guns. But it’s clear that hasn’t been Anderson’s attitude at all.
“The first thing I look for when I try to see if I can work with a co-writer is that difference in musical sensibilities,” says Anderson. “I never wrote a song with Harlan Howard [Howard, a hit-writing legend, was a contemporary of his]. That would’ve been like looking in the mirror and writing a song, because we wrote so similar. …I like to sit down with these young writers and see if I can get on their wavelength. …We share our experiences. We share our sensibilities. And that’s when you write the good songs.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
Two decades after his reentry to Music Row songwriting, Anderson, the 74 year-old Country Music Hall of Famer, is collaborating with a whole new generation, like thirty-something outlaw type Jamey Johnson. Johnson was one of his co-writers on “Give It Away”, and the two of them traded sung-spoken lines during the title track of Johnson’s acclaimed 2010 album The Guitar Song.
Anderson had no less than 16 other hot co-writers—Brad Paisley being one—on a collection of new material he released last year titled Songwriter. As a rule, veteran acts might earn respect and positive reviews when they release a late-career album, but with Anderson there’s always the possibility that new songs could get recorded by a current star and actually impact the charts.
ADAPTING LIKE A PRO
Anderson has been at this songwriting thing long enough to see more than names and faces change. This far into the MTV age, sarcasm permeates pop culture. And making an emotional impact with a song might call for different approach now—say, a little less earnestness and more of a wry twist.
Here’s how Anderson tackled the topic of being left by a woman in his 1963 hit “Still”, which is on the box set. His tender, honeyed recitation plucks the heartstrings: “I don’t know who you’re with/I don’t even know where you’ve gone/My only hope is that someday you might hear this song/And you’ll know that I wrote it especially for you/And I love you, wherever you are.”
Today, Anderson’s take on the topic has a little more bite. Witness the tongue-in-cheek hook of “Wherever She Is” from his 2011 album: “Wherever she is, I hope she stays there/Whoever she’s with, they’re welcome to my nightmare.”
“It’s a song about a guy who has lost the love of his life,” says Anderson. “In ‘Still’ he’s sitting there really moaning and groaning and wanting her to come back, and in ‘Wherever She Is’ he’s just saying ‘Well, I don’t know where she is, but wherever she is, I hope she stays there.’ I mean, that’s a totally different reaction to a similar situation.”
Whatever the situation, Anderson likes writing songs that are unmistakably set in the here and now, not stuck in the past. His latest lyrics are peppered with references to email, cell phones and Dr. Phil.
“Well, you may not believe this, but I can do email,” he laughs heartily. “I have a cell phone. …Basically I try to stay up with the trends and the things that are going on, whether it’s musically or lyrically or whatever. But, again, I lean on my co-writers for some of that stuff.”
Anderson is still in demand. And that’s what sets him apart. After all, not every accomplished songwriter has the ability, or the desire, to keep on keeping up.