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Bill Anderson whispers his way through bluegrass

By Dan MacIntosh, December 2007

Bill Anderson he may not be loud and flashy, but he has quietly written some of the greatest songs in country music, including "Po' Folks" and "Tip of My Fingers." Connie Smith, Hank Locklin, Porter Wagoner and Jim Reeves all recorded his songs. This gentle gentleman from Columbia, S.C. is also a fine singer, and his most recent CD release draws upon the bluegrass influences of his youth.

"Whisperin' Bluegrass" is evenly divided between secular and sacred songs. The first half is filled with sinful tunes about drinking, cheating and dying, whereas the second part could easily fit into a Sunday morning church service.

"That was the idea of Steve Ivey, who owns the record label and who co-produced the record," explains Anderson, who also just won a Country Music Association Award for helping write "Give It Away," a hit for George Strait. He also was nominated for a Grammy for the song.

"We both go back to the days when acoustical music – they called it hillbilly music before they came up with the name bluegrass – when there was so little distinction between secular and gospel songs. Everybody – Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Don Reno Red Smiley, all the great bluegrass groups – always included gospel music as a part of what they did."

"Whether they were doing a concert or a television show or even some of their recordings – there'd be secular songs, and then there'd be a bluegrass gospel song or at least a song with a positive message or something to it included in there."

"So, it just always kind of seemed to me and to Steve - who grew up in the same part of the country that I did, although a few years later - that it wasn't that much of a stretch to do that; so many of the people that like bluegrass music also like the gospel music, so it seemed like a natural fit. I don't know how well it transitions from ‘The Lord Knows I'm Drinking' to ‘He's got the Whole World in His Hands,' but we tried," Anderson chuckles.

When you look over the album artwork for "Whisperin' Bluegrass," all you see are photos of Anderson next to his guests Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Vince Gill.

And in each every picture, Anderson is the perfect picture of a country gentleman. With his welcoming smile and friendly eyes, it's much easier to associate this kindly looking man with the album-closing church hymns, than with the "Cold Hard Facts of Life" (to borrow one of the song titles) explored at the disc's start.

"Going all the way back to the beginning of my songwriting career, when I was 19 years old, I wrote a song called ‘City Lights,' which talked about the bright array of city lights and a glass of sherry wine and ‘(Lights that offer other girls) for empty hearts like mine,'" Anderson says. He song went number one for both Ray Price and Mickey Gilley.

"I didn't have any idea what I was writing about. I just had a great imagination. I'd never been in a honky tonk in my life. The first honky tonk I ever went into, I was booked there. My dad told me when I wrote ‘City Lights,' he said, ‘I should have known that if you could sit up there in a little town of Commerce, Ga., on the top of a three-story building and conjure up the bright array of city lights and honky tonks and all that stuff, you had the imagination to become a songwriter'. So, I guess you don't have to have lived every song you've written. In fact, if I'd lived every song I'd written, I'd be 400 years old."

There was that vivid imagination, of course, and also a healthy diet of country music listening.

"I never listened to anything else growing up and also when I got to Nashville," he recalls. "It's really kind of ironic because my musical tastes are really rather broad. I like a lot of different kinds of music and all, but I never sat down and listened too much of anything else other than country music. I might accidentally hear something and say, ‘Hey, that's pretty good, I like that.' But I never would necessarily go out of my way to listen to anything else. So, the country thing is just so ingrained in me that I guess it's just a big part of who I am."

One of the new disc's central songs is "I've Got a Thing about a Five String," where Anderson praises the banjo's unique aural beauty. He loves the sound of it, even though he's never mastered playing the instrument himself.

"The guy who plays banjo in my band let me carry his up the steps one time at the Opry," Anderson recalls. "That's as close as I've come, and it's probably about as close as I should come. I'm afraid a banjo in my hands would be some kind of weapon that you wouldn't want to see or hear. I grew up listening to a banjo player named Snuffy Jenkins, and I was so impressed with that kind music. I got to thinking back about that time, and that's when I came up with the idea to write ‘I Got a Thing about a Five String' because I've always enjoyed five string banjo music. But as far as playing myself, no thanks."

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