When people talk about the great country stars born in the 1930s, the names that come up first tend to be people like Johnny Cash (1932), Loretta Lynn (1932), Patsy Cline (1932), Willie Nelson (1933), Kris Kristofferson (1936), Waylon Jennings (1937) and Merle Haggard (1937). It was a tremendously fruitful generation of artists, and their work has defined country music ever since. More than half of them are dead now, of course, and Lynn, Kristofferson and Nelson are well into their 80s.
Also still with us, however, is another star who is also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and whose contributions arguably outweigh those of at least a few of the artists on that list—and whose success is considerably more recent. He’s not very often included on “greatest living” lists, perhaps because (unlike the names listed above) he wasn’t and isn’t a larger-than-life personality, on or off the stage. Which probably isn’t surprising, given his nickname: Whispering Bill Anderson.
I’ve recently finished Anderson’s memoir, Whisperin’ Bill Anderson: An Unprecedented Life in Country Music (University of Georgia Press, 2016), and in a strange kind of way it’s a great argument for Anderson as an overlooked force in 20th-century country music—and I say “in a strange kind of way” because Anderson (who wrote his book with Peter Cooper) seems determined not to make any such argument.
Born James William Anderson III on November 1, 1937, in Columbia, South Carolina, and raised in Decatur, Georgia, Anderson attributes his nickname to comedian Don Bowman, who gave him the tag in 1968. It should be emphasized that Anderson doesn’t in fact sing in a whisper, he simply doesn’t boom the way Cash or Haggard did, because he doesn’t have that big a voice. According to Anderson, Bowman was referring to the fact that, at the time, Anderson had a couple of hit songs in which he mixed singing and speaking. The nickname was picked up by Nashville radio legend Ralph Emery, and it stuck because … well, because Anderson’s actual name was so generic that it helped to have a tag to remember him by.
In his early career, he admits, people had trouble remembering his name—even when they were introducing him onstage.
“Somehow,” he writes, “I don’t think that would have happened had my name been Engelbert Humperdinck, or Cleofis Thigpen, or Ferdly Crumpacker.” And he’s probably right.
The thing is, Anderson seems born to blend into crowds. He’s an unlikely star because he has a pleasant but not exceptional voice; is handsome, but not extravagantly so; is a capable but not showy guitarist; and has a demeanor that’s pleasant rather than charismatic. Nobody seems to have a bad word to say about him—but he doesn’t make it onto people’s “10 best” lists either.
Anderson’s autobiography furthers all of those impressions. His book is like his stage persona, understated, comfortable, interesting and maybe a little unexciting—until he starts talking about songwriting, which is what got him to where he is today, and has been for the past 60 years.
Part of the reason that Anderson isn’t better known is that, as with Kristofferson, some of his greatest songs are best known through recordings by other artists. Anderson’s breakthrough hit was “City Lights” (1958), but it wasn’t until Ray Price’s recording later that year that it began to climb the charts. It became a No. 1 hit for Price, the same way that Anderson’s “I Missed Me” (1960) became a No. 3 hit for Jim Reeves, his “I Don’t Love You Any More” (1964) became a No. 4 hit for Charlie Louvin and his
Part of the reason that Anderson isn’t better known is that, as with Kristofferson, some of his greatest songs are best known through recordings by other artists. Anderson’s breakthrough hit was “City Lights” (1958), but it wasn’t until Ray Price’s recording later that year that it began to climb the charts. It became a No. 1 hit for Price, the same way that Anderson’s “I Missed Me” (1960) became a No. 3 hit for Jim Reeves, his “I Don’t Love You Any More” (1964) became a No. 4 hit for Charlie Louvin and his .
Part of the reason that Anderson isn’t better known is that, as with Kristofferson, some of his greatest songs are best known through recordings by other artists. Anderson’s breakthrough hit was “City Lights” (1958), but it wasn’t until Ray Price’s recording later that year that it began to climb the charts. It became a No. 1 hit for Price, the same way that Anderson’s “I Missed Me” (1960) became a No. 3 hit for Jim Reeves, his “I Don’t Love You Any More” (1964) became a No. 4 hit for Charlie Louvin and his “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking” became a No. 1 hit for Cal Smith in 1972.
So far Anderson’s story sounds like that of many brilliant singer/songwriters—Cindy Walker, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Bobby Braddock—who, finding that other, bigger voices gave their songs a better chance to break through, gradually made their way offstage and settled into long and prosperous careers outside the spotlight.
Against all the odds, however, Anderson not only continued performing, but managed to become a star in his own right. He had No. 1 country hits singing his own songs: “Mama Sang a Song” (1962), “Still” (1963), “I Get the Fever” (1966), “My Life (Throw It Away If I Want To)” (1969) and “World of Make Believe” (1973). He also had No. 1s with two different duet partners: Jan Howard on “For Loving You” (1967) and Mary Lou Turner on “Sometimes” (1975).
The answer to why he didn’t ease into full-time songwriting seems to be as simple as the fact that Anderson really liked working onstage, and still does, even in his 80s, when his career has largely boiled down to occasional spots on The Grand Ole Opry, of which he’s been a member since 1961. He’s dabbled in everything from business to television acting to game-show hosting, but in the final analysis it’s clear that writing songs and then singing them is what makes his motor run.
When popular taste passed him by in the 1980s, as ultimately it does every popular musician, Anderson continued touring, singing his songs to audiences of older fans, but it was songwriting that led him to a singular career renaissance, accounting for his subtitle’s claim of “a unprecedented life in country music.”
It wasn’t only his singing that went out of style in the 1980s and 1990s. As a songwriter, Anderson had grown up in the tradition of a singer sitting down with his guitar and picking out the bones of a new song. Virtually all of his hits in his prime were solo compositions, as had been the case with his heroes, people like Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb. By the 1970s, however, Nashville had evolved a whole songwriting machine, and it was driven by the idea of collaboration: Many of Nashville’s biggest hits of the next few decades (and ever since) would be the work of two, three or even four different songwriters, sitting down in “writing rooms” at publishers’ offices and turning disparate ideas into commercially viable songs.
Reading between the lines, it’s clear that for much of his career Anderson (like many country fans, this one included) looked down on this kind of songwriting as mercenary and inauthentic. In 1994, however, Anderson was persuaded to share a writing room with Vince Gill, 20 years his junior, the result of which was Gill’s No. 4 hit “Which Bridge to Cross (Which Bridge to Burn).”
Anderson hadn’t had a song chart that high since 1978, and it changed his perspective on collaboration. Since then he’s worked with various co-writers on Steve Wariner’s “Two Teardrops” (1999), Mark Wills’ “Wish You Were Here” (1999), Kenny Chesney’s “A Lot of Things Different” (2003), Brad Paisley’s “Whiskey Lullaby” (2004)—winner of a CMA award as Song of the Year, as also was “Give It Away” (2006), recorded by George Strait. More recently he’s collaborated on Sugarland’s “Joey” (2009) and Mo Pitney’s “Country” (2014).
Anderson recounts his story (between odd “coming attractions” by Cooper which tell the reader what will be happening in the next chapter) with a sort of bemused satisfaction, as if he himself finds it unlikely but gratifying that he ever made it to Nashville, that he ever became a big-time singer or that, pushing 80, he was still writing hit songs. His No. 1 record with “Give It Away” came 48 years after his first No. 1 with Price’s version of “City Lights.” His overall tone is one of surprised gratitude, which is reasonable from a singer who never had as much to offer as many of his rivals did, but made the absolute most of what he had.
Along the way Anderson offers portraits—generally good-natured—of the many fascinating people with whom he’s crossed paths (including a 14-year-old Taylor Swift, whose father invited him to come out to their house and write with her; Anderson passed—biiiiiig mistake), and the inside stories of how he came up with many of his songs, including my personal Anderson favorite, the uproarious “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking.”
It’s a book that’s pleasant, low-key and, if you listen carefully, filled with intriguing insights. Not unlike its author.