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Nashville Scene On The Right Track

Straight-shooting Anderson maintains solid career after four decades

By Michael McCall

MARCH 15, 1999:  No other performer spans the growth of the Nashville music industry in quite the same way as Bill Anderson. His career goes back 40 years, starting in 1958, when he wrote "City Lights" for Ray Price. Mere months later, he became a hit-maker in his own right. What's even more impressive is that these days he's a successful songwriter once more, turning out tunes for a whole new generation of artists.

"I first started coming here at the tail end of the hillbilly era," recalls Anderson, who was a 19-year-old college student in Georgia when he penned "City Lights." "I remember seeing them pull their Cadillacs up to the old Clarkston Hotel and strap the bass on top and take off. I did some of that--I've ridden in a car with a bass fiddle on my lap."

After "City Lights," Anderson wrote hits for Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold, Kitty Wells, Porter Wagoner, and dozens of other country stars. By 1960, he had joined such luminaries as Harlan Howard and Roger Miller in helping to build the city's booming publishing business. Besides the often-recorded "The Tip of My Fingers," which became a top-10 hit for the fourth time when Steve Wariner revived it in 1992, Anderson created such country classics as Connie Smith's "Once a Day" and Lefty Frizzell's "Saginaw, Michigan" (the latter cowritten with Don Wayne).

As a performer, he worked with producer Owen Bradley, blending rural homilies and Southern morals into smooth, contemporary musical settings. With hits like "Still," "Po' Folks," and "Mama Sang a Song," he drew on classic country themes yet gave them a modern sheen.

With Bradley's help, Anderson learned how to use his limited vocal range to convey the quiet emotions packed into his well-crafted lyrics--hence his nickname, "Whisperin' Bill." His countrypolitan sound played a big part in moving country away from the raucousness of Webb Pierce, Faron Young, and Carl Smith toward the smoother sounds that dominated the '60s.

Then, as now, Anderson owned a conservative, low-key style and "didn't hang out as much as some of 'em," he says. Cordial and helpful, he carried a poise and a sense of responsibility that set him apart from many hard-living country music types.

That's why, in addition to recording 37 top 10 songs between 1961 and 1978, he was able to adapt so well to television. Besides hosting a syndicated country music show, Anderson struck away from the pack and started appearing regularly on daytime TV. He began with appearances as a guest on Match Game, Hollywood Squares, and Family Feud. From there, he became the first country star to host his own game show, The Better Sex, as well as the first with a recurring role on a soap opera, One Life to Live.

"I never started out to do any of that," Anderson says with a shrug. "But the opportunities were there, and I said, 'Why not?' " Such work not only augmented his career--it extended it. In 1982, after 23 years, Anderson left MCA/Decca, and he decided to give up songwriting. "The industry was into a real pop kind of sound," he says. "I had a little trouble identifying with that. So I quit writing."

Instead, he used his television experience to become a central figure on The Nashville Network, then a fledgling cable station. He hosted a music-trivia game show, Fandango, and helped develop the You Can Be a Star program. He eventually became host of the Saturday-night Opry Backstage show, on which he is still a regular.

Several years ago, when Wariner scored a hit "The Tip of My Fingers," Anderson felt "inspired to get back into writing again." It was the right move: Anderson has become one of Music Row's hottest, and most unlikely, hit tunesmiths of the late '90s. In addition to cuts by Vince Gill, Bryan White, Lorrie Morgan, Wade Hayes, and Rick Trevino, he currently has two of the fastest-rising songs on the country charts: Mark Wills' "Wish You Were Here" and Steve Wariner's "Two Teardrops."

Moreover, his newfound resurgence earned him the chance to record a major-label album for the first time in over 15 years. His recent Warner Bros. release Fine Wine features classic Anderson-style recitations, along with reflections on the values of love and the pitfalls of modern life.

"I'm having so much fun," he says. "I had never written like they do today. They make appointments and meet at the office at 10 a.m., write for a while, go to lunch, come back. It's like punching a time clock.

"Writing used to be a lonely profession; it was something you did at night with the shades pulled down. You'd see how miserable you could get, then you'd write a song. I didn't cowrite much, because I thought nobody would understand me because I was weird. But it turns out it's fun to get with people and see that they're coming from the same place you are."

Still, Anderson worries about today's country music business. "They play it so safe," he says. "The industry is in such an 'oh-gosh-we-can't-offend-anybody' mode. I liken it to a football team that only plays defense. Well, you can't score if you don't play offense, and you can't score big if you don't take some chances."

In short, he says, executives, programmers, and consultants exert too much influence on writers and performers. "Today the record companies tell the artists who they are instead of the artists telling the record companies who they are. I think we're losing something there. When I was starting out, if you didn't have your own style, forget it. Today it's the opposite."

Anderson's advice is worth pondering, and it's timely too: This week, members of the industry meet for the annual Country Radio Seminar at Opryland Hotel. "I remember a song I wrote for Cal Smith back in the '70s, 'The Lord Knows I'm Drinking,' " he says. "I knew we were going to run up against some walls with that song. But I also knew in my gut that if that song got out, people would really identify with it. It was put out, and it became a really big song that year. I think we may be missing those kinds of songs now."

Of course, as the industry moves forward, Anderson will be there, reminding everyone of the music's values, its timelessness, and its purpose. His nickname might be Whisperin' Bill, but his influence continues to echo loudly.

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