Much like when I sat down years ago in Nashville to ask Dolly Parton a single question during a group press interview, I’ll admit to some trepidation upon sitting down to a phone interview early this fall with legendary songwriter “Whisperin’ Bill” Anderson. A member of the Grand Ole Opry and BMI’s first-ever “Country Songwriting Icon,” Anderson’s career has spanned seven decades, and he’s written hits with and for some of country music’s most legendary artists, including Vince Gill, Lorrie Morgan, John Michael Montgomery and Jon Randall in recent years, and back in the day notables like Porter Waggoner and, one of my all-time favorites, Roger Miller.
What is amazing to me about a songwriter like Anderson is how he’s adapted over the years. He started out working in radio while in college, and through elements of chance and hard work, he found his way into a huge hit with “City Lights” in 1957, a song he says he still can’t believe he had the ability to write, considering he hadn’t lived half the experiences yet. With the power of empathy, the ability to see through others’ eyes and write stories through them, he developed a skill few other songwriters have, and was able to turn that into decades of writing for legends of country music during the 60s and 70s.
And after a decade of acting during the 80s, during which he created TNT’s Be A Star program, an early precursor to the American Idol format and acted on various soap operas, he found his way back to country music via co-writing, turning his skills toward working with younger songwriters in Nashville’s more team-oriented setting of the modern era. As many of the writers of his age stagnated, refusing to adapt, he began crafting some of his finest work, including one of my all-time favorite songs of any genre, “Whiskey Lullaby,” which he co-wrote with Jon Randall.
In his book Whisperin’ Bill Anderson: An Unprecedented Life in Country Music, which came out this September via University of Georgia Press, Anderson opens the door to his songwriting past in great detail, something few other memoirists have been able to do in the genre. The detail in which he breaks down his songwriting process, including stories that often discuss, song by song, how he came to his ideas, is of great value to anyone who claims to love country music of that or any era. It is particularly enlightening if you’re, like me, interested in how the group writing process works in Nashville in the post-80s era.
I sat down to speak with Anderson by phone for a 15-minute interview that ranged widely and featured a great deal of personal insight into his songwriting and the experiences he’s had. From our shared laughter over my experiences at the Tick Tock Lounge experimenting with “Bill Anderson Karaoke” to his relief being able to finish the final line of a song Porter Waggoner wanted to record in the early 70s, there’s plenty to pick over for any aspiring songwriter.
– – – – –
I got your book back in July, and I read it in three days. It’s a great read.
I wish I could’ve written it that fast! [Laughs]
There were a couple nights I was up until three in the morning, I just couldn’t put it down.
Oh my goodness, well I’ll take that as a compliment. I hope it didn’t hurt you too bad.
One question I like to ask bands that have a lot less experience than you, so I’m sure you’ll have something to say about it — is there a song you wish you’d written, something someone else beat you to?
[Laughs] Oh there’s a bunch of ’em! You mean songs other people have written that I wish I’d have written? Every other time I turn the radio on I hear something I wish I had written! Oh golly, you want a specific title? There was a song … Tricia Yearwood had a song out several years ago that I really, really loved and it spoke to me I guess because I’m a songwriter. It was a song called “The Song Remembers When.” I just love that song.
I got a kick out of all the stuff in the book about you and Roger Miller, your friendship as songwriters. When you’re asked to give advice to up-and-coming songwriters, do you ever tell them to find someone to work with who they can bounce ideas off of like you and Roger did?
Mostly when people ask me about songwriting, they ask different questions. “What do I do with my songs?” They do that more than “how do I write a song?” Usually it’s more what do I do with these songs I’ve written? The thing that I stress to ’em is when they say “I’ve written a song just like ‘Folsom Prison Blues’” I say “Well that’s already been written, go back and write your own song! Be original.” That’s what I stress to them, because there’s already been a Johnny Cash, there’s already been a Merle Haggard and a Roger Miller or a Marty Robbins. Be yourself. Find your own voice, say your own thing and say it your way!
I like that you talked about the greatest asset a songwriter can have being empathy. I wondered if there were specific writers you’ve heard who you think have used that asset well to their advantage?
I think that’s maybe something … two things about that. Number one, I think that’s either something you have in your make-up or you don’t. An awful lot of writers, especially today, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, it may be the best way to write, they like to write about themselves. About things they really know rather than trying to necessarily empathize with somebody else. So they write about their own experiences, and I think that’s what the Guy Clarks of the world, and Kristofferson to a great degree, and Willie to a great degree, and Waylon you know, they kinda just wrote what they felt themselves and they hit the target with that a whole bunch of times.
That can be great if you’ve had all those experiences, right?
That’s true too, and you can’t write those kinds of songs when you’re thirteen years old, you’ve gotta get out there and live a little bit. I don’t know how in the world I wrote “City Lights” when I was nineteen because I’d never experienced half of what I wrote in that song. But I was just fortunate in being able to somehow make it make sense. But you’re right, you’ve got to live a little bit to be a songwriter. And the more you live and the more you try to absorb life around you, the more of a songwriter you can become!
Well that story you told about “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” that blew my mind. Do you ever think you’ve written a better line than that closer?
[Laughs] I … I’ve never wrote one I was more thankful for! I’d painted myself into a corner!
I played that song for a friend of mine who’s in a punk rock band and he had never heard the song. And he’s like “oh my God, that song is boss!”
[Laughs] Well I spent all that time writing the story and painting myself into a corner, and I’m thinking how in the world am I gonna get myself out of this mess? And then I guess the good Lord just gave me that line. It just came, thank goodness.
I’m sure Porter was glad for it.
Well yeah, yeah. Porter was pretty happy about it. I was talking to someone the other day and they were reminding me how excited he was between the time he recorded that song and the time it came out. He went around tellin’ everybody about that song and singing it for ’em. He was proud of that one. And of course that made me proud in return.
That’s what I’ve always liked about country music. It’s a genre of music where the songwriter has a lot of power, because you get to write a song that you might not necessarily be able to perform yourself, but then it can take on a whole new life when you give it to somebody else. They get to do something to it and make it their own. And then the audience gets to hear it and it takes on a third life as they make it their own. You don’t necessarily get that in other styles of music.
Do you think that’s because down through the years country music has been so much of a lyrical art-form as opposed to just a groove or something like that? Because I think that has a lot to do with it.
Yeah, because when I was reading your book, I got inspired because I kept thinking of all these songs I’d heard that it turns out you had written but I hadn’t necessarily put your name to them. So I decided to go down to karaoke night and sing a bunch of Bill Anderson songs! So of course I did “Cold Hard Facts of Life,” because you’ve got to do that at karaoke.
And after I’d done a few, this older gentleman came up to me and asked “Bill Anderson … there’s a song of his I want you to sing. Do you know this one song, it’s like ‘if you can life with it, I can live without it.’ Do you know that one?” And luckily since I’d read your book and pulled up a bunch of stuff on Spotify and had been listening to it, I was able to say “actually, I do!”
And he says “that’s the first time I’ve been able to request that at karaoke and somebody actually knew it!”
[Laughs] Oh, that’s a cool story! You never know, because people will come up to me and they’ll just mention the most obscure song or some event or something that I forgot about twenty years ago! But it’s amazing that some of ’em will hang on that!
Have you ever had a really great song come out of a bad co-writing session?
You mean has someone ever made a really great record out of a song I didn’t think was really that good? Because I saw that happen with Jon Randall when we wrote “Whiskey Lullabye.” Because he had no faith at all in “Whiskey Lullaby.” I did. I thought we’d written something highly unusual and that could be pretty good. Jon had absolutely no faith in it. He didn’t even want to do a demo on it until I just almost beat him over the head and made him do it. And though I can’t pull one off the top of my head, there have been songs that I didn’t feel all that good about and other people did, thank goodness.
Was there ever someone you’d hoped would record one of your songs and that never actually happened?
Well, I wish Elvis had of course! [Laughs] I was only around Elvis one time and the time I was around him he was performing in Las Vegas and somebody had told him I was in the audience. So he introduced me from the stage and sang a little bit of “Still” and I’m thinking “why don’t you go to a studio and make a record of that?” [Laughs] And then I had a chance to visit with him after that particular show and he told me that he’d always loved my song “City Lights” and he said “someday I’m gonna record that.” But he never did, unfortunately.
Is there anyone you’d still like to write with now that you’ve been doing a lot more co-writing?
Oh gosh, there’s so many great co-writers out there, people who you get on the same wavelength with. I love writing with Jon Randall. We’ve written many songs together, we’ve written some that are even darker than “Whiskey Lullaby” if you can believe that! [Laughs] And I love writing with Jamey Johnson because he’s so creative. Any time I get a chance to write with somebody who’s a real pro writer I love getting in the room with ’em.
I got a real kick out of reading about Vince Gill’s “Whisperin’ Gill” outgoing mail message. I figure that’s got to show that deep down we’re all fans. How do you still soak it up as a fan after all these years?
I’m still a fan if that’s what you’re asking. I was a country music fan when I was four or five years old, and have been all my life and that just never changed. There’s nothing I like more than to hear a well-written song and a well-produced country record.
Is there anything you wish someone would ask you but they never do?
No, I can’t really think of it. I think when you sit down to write a book like I’ve done with this one, if they haven’t asked me the question I hope I’ve answered it without them asking it.