When Grand Ole Opry stalwart Bill Anderson takes the Opry stage this weekend, he remains as relevant to country music as he did when he first stepped on the Ryman stage in 1958. Earning accolades as both a singer and songwriter, he has the distinct honor of having hits on the country charts during every decade since the 1950s.
Early in his career, Anderson penned such signature No. 1 hits as ”Still“ and ”I Get the Fever,“ but he celebrated two No. 1’s as recently as last year: Mark Wills’ ”Wish You Were Here“ and Steve Wariner’s Grammy-nominated ”Two Teardrops.“ Vince Gill, Alabama, Lorrie Morgan, and Collin Raye are among the contemporary artists who have recorded Anderson’s work, resulting in a total of around 40 Billboard Top 10 singles. Through the years, his songs have helped revive the careers of Lefty Frizzell, Charlie Louvin, and Jean Shepard, while acts including Eddy Arnold, Mickey Gilley, Kitty Wells, Roger Miller, Conway Twitty, and Connie Smith have all found success with his tunes. In 1995, four of his songs”City Lights,“ ”Once a Day,“ ”Still,“ and ”Mama Sang a Song“were named by Billboard among the Top 20 Country Songs of the past 35 years. No other writer had as many songs on the list.
”Right now, songwriting is the greatest source of satisfaction that I’ve had in my whole career, being able to write with the young writers and contributing to the music of the new century,“ he says. Despite the vast musical changes that have occurred over the decades, Anderson says he has changed his writing technique very little to adapt to the times: ”I can’t be anything but what I am. I can’t bring to it any more than what I’m capable of bringing.“
Ironically, as the years have passed, country music has gotten more conservative lyrically. ”Now there’s the political correctness of it all,“ Anderson says. ”There are so many more things we can’t write and sing about now than there were years ago. I always thought of music as entertainment and diversion; now you almost have to think of it in degrees of social commentary: try to say the right things the right way.
”We have to be more restrained with what we write, and that is one of the things that has hurt country music in recent years. You pick up the paper, and people are still getting divorced and they still go out and drink to excess and have extramarital relationships, but you’d never know it by listening to country music today.“ Anderson describes the problem in a song called ”Everywhere But on the Radio,“ which, as the title suggests, observes that these things happen everywhere but on the radio.
Anderson, 62, was born in Columbia, S.C., and earned a journalism degree at University of Georgia. After graduating, he worked as a deejay and then as a sportswriter for the DeKalb New Era before embarking on an entertainment career that has spanned four decades. He made his first pilgrimage to the Opry with his family at age 14. Familiar with WSM’s slogan ”The Air Castle of the South,“ Anderson expected the Ryman Auditorium literally to be housed in a large castle.
”I remember the curtain that went across the stage actually had a hole in it toward the bottom, but once the curtain opened and the music started, I didn’t care,“ he says. ”We had seats downstairs back under the balcony, jammed in like sardines. My mother had bought a new dress to go to the Opry, and somebody spilled a soft drink upstairs and it leaked down on her new dress.“
In 1957, Anderson wrote ”City Lights,“ which became a No. 1 hit for Ray Price the next year. ”There wasn’t anything deader than traditional country music when I wrote ‘City Lights,’ “ he says. ”Songs like that weren’t being played; it was Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. [Rock ’n’ roll] nearly killed country music, but ‘City Lights’ was one of the songs that...helped turn [tastes] back toward country.
”I’ve seen country go through these cycles. I know there’s a lot of people out there right now whose musical tastes aren’t being catered to. I believe there’s a terrific demand.“
Anderson now admitsfor the first time publiclythat he seriously considered leaving the Opry in the 1960s, when he was a syndicated TV-show host and a chart-topping singer. His manager encouraged him to leave so that he could be booked elsewhere on Friday and Saturday nights. ”I wrestled with it because a lot of people had leftFaron Young, Ferlin Husky, Carl Smith, Webb Pierce,“ Anderson says. ”Everybody in the business end was saying, ‘Get away. You don’t need that.’
”My father, who knows nothing about show business, probably gave me as good a piece of advice as I’ve ever gotten. He said, ‘Son, just look around you.’ The Opry was owned by National Life. He said, ‘Maybe the Opry isn’t right at the very top of what it is today, but these people haven’t gotten to the level that they’ve gotten to by being stupid. They’ll turn things around and ultimately you’ll be glad you stayed.’ I took his word, and I’ve been thankful so many times.“
Anderson successfully ventured into TV, becoming the first country star to host a network game show (1970’s The Better Sex on ABC) and hosting TNN’s Fandango in the 1980s. Also the author of two books and a column in Country Song Round-Up magazine, Anderson has never strayed from his dedication to the Opry. In addition to performing there most weekends, he also hosts Backstage at the Opry, a Saturday-evening show on the TNN cable network. He also performs about 65 dates on the road annually and has just released a new album, called A Lot of Things, on TWI Records.
”Everything changes,“ Anderson says. ”The Opry isn’t the same as it was when Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff were there, but that’s part of the evolution process. The Opry has always been a family kind of thing. The Opry was always where we came off the road and got together with our friends: ‘Who wrote you a bad check last week? Where have you been?’
”I don’t think the entertainers today have the closeness, the fraternity of hillbillies, as it were. Today, every one of them is on their own bus with their own security. Even when they play shows together, I’m not sure they get together. I’m sorry they missed that, because that was one of the parts of it that I love so much.“
Anderson’s generation was raised on the Opry, which he says represented the beginning and end of country music. Today, however, he recognizes that ”the Opry is going through a real transition period. It’s trying to celebrate the fact that it’s been around 75 years and trying to figure out how it could be around another 75 years.
”I think the Opry is going to survive, and it’s going to survive very strongly. There are enough people out there who want it to survive. People like Brad Paisley have the pulse on today’s music but are deeply rooted in where country music came from. There are some more Brad Paisleys in the wings who will emerge.
”The Opry is still the cornerstone, the Yankee stadium of country music,“ he says. ”There’s one Kentucky Derby, one Indianapolis 500, and one Grand Ole Opry. It’s so unique and American and such a part of our culture.“
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