Fifty-nine years ago, soft-voiced singer and ace songwriter Bill Anderson whispered his way into Grand Ole Opry membership, where he’s been a mainstay ever since. “Whisperin'” Bill’s vocal style remains subdued in the present but his legendary gift for songwriting, which first garnered attention in 1958 with Ray Price’s rendition of “City Lights,” continues to resonate throughout country music. In 2018, Anderson earned membership in the multi-genre Songwriters Hall of Fame, having already been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and Country Music Hall of Fame.
Anderson’s upcoming project revisits 10 of his most enduring songs, hits for himself and others, including vintage classics “Bright Lights & Country Music,” “Po’ Folks,” and “City Lights,” as well as “Whiskey Lullaby,” “I’ll Wait for You” (a 2006 Top 10 for Joe Nichols), and “Give It Away.” The latter is now available with pre-orders of The Hits Re-Imagined, which will be released on July 24th. The new version of the just-released “Give It Away” puts a fresh, acoustic bluegrass-inspired spin on the tune, accentuated by Anderson’s warm vocal.
Also included on the LP are the instrumental backing tracks for each tune, in part because the recording of those tracks for an audiobook Anderson was narrating of his autobiography inspired the recording of this album. Rolling Stone Country recently spoke to Anderson, who is safely ensconced at home during the COVID-19 pandemic but keeping busy both inside and outside. He’s also using modern technology to conduct co-writing sessions with one of his fellow Grand Ole Opry members.
How did you decide which songs to do for this collection?
Well, there are certain ones that you pretty much have to do if you’re going to do something like this. There are songs like “Still,” “Po’ Folks,” “City Lights,” things that have been so closely associated with me. I wanted to go to both ends of the spectrum, going all the way back to my earliest days and then coming up to some of the current things with “Whiskey Lullaby,” “Give It Away,” “Which Bridge to Cross.” I guess I just kind of picked off of both ends of the bush.
Considering the range of the songs on the album, spanning from the early Sixties to the recent ones, are there any that, if you had written them now, you might have done them differently?
I would probably have written “Tips of My Fingers” different. I don’t know if I would use the line “yielding beneath my command.” I don’t know that I would have said that today. That song is from 1960, but with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, you would do a lot of things different.
Do you generally have the same approach to writing songs or did any of these songs come from a completely different way of approaching the songwriting process?
When you think that I started out the first 25 or 30 years of my career writing virtually everything by myself, the co-writing process becomes something that’s very different. I wasn’t used to that until I got with Vince Gill and we wrote “Which Bridge to Cross.” I had done so little co-writing. I wrote one thing with Roger Miller and a couple of other things where I would write the lyrics and maybe somebody else would write a melody or something. When you go with the co-writing approach, you naturally have to do it different from the way that you did it by yourself. For example, when Jon Randall and I wrote “Whiskey Lullaby,” I went in and said to Jon, “I’ve been thinking about writing a song called “Midnight Cigarette.” It’s kind of like a relationship that just slowly burned out like a cigarette in an ashtray in the middle of the night by itself. Next thing I know, he’s coming up with, “He put the bottle to his head and pulled the trigger.” I said, “Well, that makes my ‘midnight cigarette’ pretty lame.” [Laughs].
“You got to take care of yourself. I’ve become real good friends with my garden hose and my treadmill.”
One of the songs you’ve revisited on this collection is “I’ll Wait for You,” that you wrote with the late, great Harley Allen. What do you remember about him and about writing that song?
I like to go where the co-writers are comfortable. I can sense from some of them that they think they have an environment to be more comfortable in. Harley wanted to write there so I went to his house. He had the germ of the idea. It was around Christmas time that we got together to write and I remember he had a Christmas tree up in his in his den. We wrote that first verse, “I’ll wait for you like I did last year, at Christmas time with your family here.” Harley was so good. I loved working with him. But, boy, I’ll tell you one thing: If he had made up his mind you were not about to change it. He had a line in there in the early part of the song where it said, “The snow out in Montana was pretty high, the lady at the counter said there ain’t no flights.” I said, “Harley, we shouldn’t say ‘ain’t.’ There ‘are’ no flights. I knew real quick that I wasn’t about to change his mind. So, it stayed right in there. [Laughs]
Do you stay in touch with people on Zoom?
I wrote a song with Brad Paisley on Zoom. He called me one day and said he had an idea. I obviously never tried to write that way, but it was really pretty unique. We both stayed fairly focused with it, we’re sitting there, we don’t have a lot of distractions. We actually wrote a pretty good song. That’s the only song I’ve written that way. But I’ve done some interviews, some radio, TV kinds of things. I did a two-hour disc jockey show for Sirius XM a couple of weeks ago from home. I’ve tried to stay in touch with… you don’t want to lose touch with everybody. But at the same time, you know, they say if you’re over 65, you better stay home. I passed that milestone a way back.
So many people act so irresponsibly. You can’t do it. You got to take care of yourself. I’ve become real good friends with my garden hose and my treadmill. I’ve got a little flower garden out back and I go water my flowers every day and I get on the treadmill and get some exercise.
Since the pandemic began, the reaction from the Grand Ole Opry has been so inspiring. As a longtime Opry member it must be really gratifying for you, even if you can’t all be there together with an audience.
It’s been very inspiring. I feel like the Opry’s in awfully good hands right now with [vice president and executive producer] Dan Rogers and [director of talent scheduling and logistics] Gina Keltner. They’ve done a brilliant job. I did the very first one of the shows with no audience on March 14th, and they were still kind of feeling their way along with it. My band was actually out there with me, and Connie Smith and Jeannie Seely were hosting segments, too. Although I told Seely, “You know, it’s not unusual for me to play to empty seats. I’ve been doing it for 50 years.” [Laughs] But, the Opry figured out a wonderful way to keep that remarkable string alive, 4,931 shows, I think it is. Another thing that’s been so good about it, well, it’s bad and it’s good — nobody’s on the road. So, a lot of the artists that are not available to do the Opry very often — Garth, Brad Paisley, Vince, Keith Urban — they’re in town and wanting to pick so they can go out and do the Opry and get that out of their system and still keep the Opry going.