Bill Anderson: The Measure of Songwriting Excellence

Bill Anderson: The Measure of Songwriting Excellence
By Deborah Evans Price
© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
It’s been more than five decades since a 23-year-old Bill Anderson became the youngest writer to earn BMI’s Country Songwriter of the Year honor – a record until 20-year-old Taylor Swift’s win in 2010. Since then, he’s received numerous accolades, including two CMA Song of the Year trophies in a three-year span. In November, he was honored by Bear Family Records’ release of a four-CD anthology, Bill Anderson: The First 10 Years, 1956-1966. And he’s seen a lot of changes on Music Row.
“One of the biggest changes is the proliferation of co-writing,” he said. “When I came to Nashville, there were not that many of us writing songs for a living. Most of us wrote by ourselves. Back in those days, we were so restricted to who we could write with because they wouldn’t split copyrights. Lord knows ASCAP wouldn’t split things with BMI and vice versa, so you had to write with people in your own camp. Those walls have come down. Now we can write with anybody and everybody will split copyrights. It has opened up a whole world of freedom for songwriting.”
Anderson’s ability to adapt has allowed him to flourish in today’s collaborative climate. His credits include Kenny Chesney’s “A Lot of Things Different,” which he wrote with Dean Dillon; the Mark Wills hit “Wish You Were Here” (Anderson, Skip Ewing and Debbie Moore); and The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Jonah, Job and Moses” (Anderson and Tia Sillers), which won a Gospel Music Association Dove Award. Anderson won CMA Song of the year honors in 2005 for the Brad Paisley/Alison Krauss hit “Whiskey Lullaby” (Anderson and Jon Randall) and again in 2007 for George Strait’s “Give It Away” (Anderson, Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson).
“He still writes a lot of great songs and he also still works very hard,” said Anderson’s longtime fan and frequent collaborator Brad Paisley. “A lot of people have an era when they write great. For a decade or two they’re on fire and can do no wrong, then for whatever reason perspective changes and they don’t write like they used to — or maybe they do write like they used to but meanwhile styles and tastes change. Those things don’t apply to Bill. He has the ability to write whatever needs to be recorded in that era. If you think about the hits that he’s had over the last few years, they are important and current sounding and, at the same time, they sound like Bill Anderson songs. He’s changed just enough to pull off that sort of thing. It’s really inspiring.”
Though his distinctive vocal style earned him the nickname “Whispering Bill” and his stage skills keep him on the road year after year, at his core Bill Anderson is first and foremost a songwriter. In fact, his most recent album is simply and aptly titled Songwriter, on TWI Records.
Born in Columbia, S.C., Anderson grew up around Atlanta. As a child, he was fascinated with music and began writing songs when he was 9. “I subscribed to Country Song Roundup magazine,” he remembered. “I got all those song lyrics every month, and the first thing I would look at was who the writers were. I formed little pictures of people of the names I kept seeing over and over, and I would look at who the publishers were.”
Hank Williams was an early influence. “The reason I became such a big fan was that Hank Williams wrote most of his songs and that really appealed to me,” Anderson said. “I figured that this guy writes and he sings it, so this must be him. This must be who he is. I sensed an honesty in that music, and that was very influential to me.
“I’ve always loved to write,” continued Anderson, who began his career as a sportswriter. “I did some work for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and for some weekly papers around Atlanta, but when I got to the University of Georgia and met a couple of guitar pickers over there, that focus shifted to music and I started seriously to write songs.”
Anderson wrote the classic “City Lights” when he was just 19 years old and then moved to Nashville after Ray Price turned the song into a hit. Signed to Decca Records, Anderson created more successful titles, including “Po’ Folks,” “Mama Sang a Song,” “Tips of My Fingers,” “Eight by Ten” (written with Walter Haynes) and his signature song, “Still.” Eventually, after a hiatus from songwriting, Anderson started working with a new group of collaborators and creating hit songs for a new generation. He credits Steve Wariner for providing the motivation that spurred a new chapter in his career when Wariner recorded “Tips of My Fingers” in 1992 and took the song to No. 1. “That knocked down the wall and opened up my mind,” he said. “I was still shy because I thought ‘This is a whole new generation of writers and publishers and record people. I don’t know these people and they don’t know me.’”
A mutual friend encouraged him to call Vince Gill, but Anderson was hesitant. “I said, ‘Vince doesn’t even know who I am,’” he recalled. “I was wrong. I called him and got his Code-A-Phone (answering machine) and he answered (on his outgoing message) impersonating me; he says, ‘This is Whispering Gill.’ That gave me a little more confidence. We got together and wrote two songs. He ended up recording both of them. One was a No. 1 record: ‘Which Bridge to Cross (Which Bridge to Burn).’”
As he began collaborating more frequently, Anderson had to adjust his way of thinking. “One of the first things I had to do was totally put my ego aside as a writer because I had written most everything by myself,” he said. “I had done very, very little co-writing. When I started thinking seriously about getting back into music again, I realized that music had changed. Chord structures and melodies were more complicated, so I knew that I needed help. I knew that I couldn’t write songs for today’s market totally by myself. I needed input from people who were out there doing it, so I just checked my ego at the door. Vince was the first person I wrote with. I had felt like I was there to learn from him. The answers were the same, but somebody changed the questions.”
Since then, Anderson has paired with many of Music Row’s top writers and built an enviable catalog of hits. “I love writing with the young writers who have their perspective on it but who are open to listening to my perspective as well,” he explained. “That is the best of both worlds. Lyrics have always been my strength, even though I have written a ton of melodies. But most of the young writers today are more sophisticated in writing melodies than I am. Melodies today are a little more pop-influenced and R&B-influenced, so I embrace what other writers bring in that regard.”
Anderson had taken note of other aspects of songwriting that have also changed. “Today the first thing they want is an uptempo song with a positive message. Country Music kind of had the image of being a negative music, and in a lot of ways it was. It is much more positive music today, and as a result I think it appeals to a larger audience.”
Ironically, one of Anderson’s biggest hits flies in the face of that observation. The Dixie Chicks had a hold on “Whiskey Lullaby” when Brad Paisley put a secondary hold on it. “We did not write that song as a duet,” Anderson said. “But Brad had the vision and foresight to picture it as a duet and then had the good sense to ask Alison Krauss to sing it with him.”
Jamey Johnson is another one of Anderson’s favorite younger singer/songwriters. “He is a genius,” he declared. “I love writing with Jamey. He is so creative and one of the fastest writers I have ever worked with. I love him as a person. He has a deep sense of tradition and respects what has come before him, but he wants to take it to a new place and a new audience. That is exactly what our business needs.”
When it comes to securing cuts, Anderson prefers letting his publisher do the pitching. He spent several years with Moss Rose Publishing and is currently signed to Sony/ATV Tree, but during his early days in Nashville, he was with Buddy Killen’s Tree Publishing. “Buddy was more than a publisher,” Anderson said. “He was a mentor. There may have been more of that in the early days, probably because the whole scene was so much smaller. It wasn’t like Buddy had 50 or 60 writers over there, like some companies do today. There were probably less than half a dozen of us. Buddy could afford the time to do a lot of pitching. He was very close to the artists, particularly Jim Reeves. I had four Jim Reeves cuts, and I can credit every one of those to Buddy being out there pitching.”
One constant in Anderson’s lengthy career has been his relationship with BMI, which he joined in 1958 and never left. “He shows up every day and competes with the best of the best,” said Jody Williams, VP, Writer/Publisher Relations, Nashville, BMI. “He knows the nuances floating in the air of the songwriting community. He’s current.”
He’s also timeless. “Bill writes songs that become legends,” Williams continued. “He’s a legendary recording artist and songwriter, still creating more than 50 years after the beginning of his career, and his contributions remain relevant. He’s a mentor and friend to countless singers and songwriters, and his energy level rivals that of a 25-year-old. That’s an icon.”
Iconic, timeless and apparently ageless as well, Anderson embarks in February with Nashville songwriter Bob DiPiero and artist/songwriter Clint Black to the United Kingdom and Ireland, on the first international performances of the CMA Songwriters Series, an in-the-round concert featuring many of Music City’s top writers.
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