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Pssst...Pass it on, Bill Anderson is back

By Joel Bernstein, September 1998

Bill Anderson should be a legend. As a recording artist, he has had 37 Top Ten country singles and ranked Number 24 of all-time through 1993 (according to Record Research Inc.).

Anderson is also one of country's greatest songwriters, having written dozens of hits for other artists as well as most of his own. Either career alone would make him an all-time great.

Having both at the same time was both incredible and unique. Yet his tremendous accomplishments are sadly obscure to much of today's audience.

"Fine Wine" (Reprise) represents Anderson's return to recording after a long absence. Without concessions to modern tastes, it's just classic "Whispering Bill." With everything around us getting bigger, faster and louder, the quiet and straightforward simplicity of Anderson's album is a welcome respite.

"Jim Ed Norman (Reprise's Nashville head) came up with the idea and approached Steve Wariner, who was there at the time recording with Anita Cochran," Anderson says. "Jim Ed was aware of what I was doing on The Opry and that I had been songwriting. He said to Steve 'Y'all are good friends, aren't you?' Steve wanted to get into producing. He asked me, and I wrestled with it for four or five seconds."

"I knew Steve when he first came to Nashville working with Dottie West. We became better friends after he cut "Tip Of My Fingers." Wariner's version of Anderson's most successful compositionreached Number 3 in 1992.

"That woke me up. 'Maybe you've still got something to contribute.' That got me into writing songs again."

Anderson is realistic about his record's chances in today's marketplace. "I understood this wasn't going to be marketed like a normal album. We're not going to knock down the doors at country radio. (The label) is aware of the fan base I have. They're going to advertise on television and use direct mail and the Internet. As long as radio is geared to the younger artists, they're going to have to find other ways. We (older stars) didn't all just die. The fans are still there. You can go out to our concerts and see."

Asked about the biggest differences in country songwriting today, Anderson says, "Melody has become more important in a country song than it used to be. I am basically a lyric writer, I work from an idea. Now we have to do more than a three-chord melody to get by."

"In the creative process, the thing that has changed the most is co-writing. When I came to town, there was very little co-writing. Publishers would not split with each other, ASCAP and BMI would not split. You could only write with people at the same publishing company."

Now co-writing is a way of life. Only one of the 10 new songs on "Fine Wine" is an Anderson solo composition.

But unlike many of his peers, Anderson doesn't mind.

"For me, songwriting was a lonely thing. You'd pull down the shades and pour your guts out. The creative process is a lot more fun now. There may be some compromises that go on when you co-write, but if you're with the right person you can fine tune it.When I first started co-writing, I tried to work with as many people as I could. You find there are some you gel with better than others."

The one old song on the album is a historic event, a version of "Tip Of My Fingers" performed by the five artists who've each had a Top 20 Country hit with it. Anderson himself (1960), Roy Clark (1963), Eddy Arnold (1966), Jean Shepard (1975) and Wariner. (The only other country song to be successfully revived so many times is Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams.")

Acknowledging that songs with such universal themes are usually the most enduring, Anderson says, "The greatest compliment a songwriter can be paid is when someone says 'You must have written that song just for me.' The greatest thing a songwriter can have is empathy. He needs to put himself in the place of another person and try to articulate what other people are feeling."

Empathy and imagination have always been Anderson strong points. He wrote his first hit while staring at the bright array of "City Lights" in a tiny Georgia town. Ray Price turned the song into a smash, and Anderson moved to Nashville for good.

Early hit records "Po' Folks" and "Mama Sang A Song" were autobiographical tales of growing up in rural poverty. But unlike Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, Anderson made it up. He didn't grow up poor, or on a farm. Anderson was also just about the only country star of his generation to be college-educated.

"Fine Wine" includes a song called "My Van," about a struggling young band. Obviously, it's not a song Anderson himself lived through. "No, it was a '48 Studebaker we drove around in."

"Just my warped sense of humor" says Anderson of that song, bringing up a seldom appreciated side of his work. Belying his image, Anderson has written some deranged songs, as well as numerous honky-tonk gems.

Anderson's "Cold Hard Facts Of Life," a hit for Porter Wagoner, is one of the best known of the many country songs in which cheating is literally a fatal flaw. On the album of that name, Wagoner recorded an even darker Anderson song called "The First Mrs. Jones." "I've always been an Alfred Hitchcock fan. I've always liked the surprise ending. My wife kind of looked at me a little different after hearing it."

Wagoner's recitation skills don't match his singing. Anderson's own recording of "Mrs. Jones" (a single B-side) may be the scariest record ever made. Vincent Price couldn't have provided a more chilling narration.

Another Anderson classic, "The Lord Knows I'm Drinking," satirizes religious zealots. It wasn't easy to get it recorded. "I gave it first to Charlie Walker. His label wouldn't let him put it out."

Other people passed on it. "Even when Cal Smith cut it, they didn't intend to put out a single. It was an album cut, and the DJs picked up on it," Anderson says. Finally, the song gave Smith his first Number One record.

Anderson doesn't know how many hits he's written. "Counting them has never been important to me." His hits include "Once A Day" and others for his discovery Connie Smith. Charlie Louvin and Porter Wagoner each had several, and many others had at least one. The hits Anderson wrote for others are often very different type songs from most of his own records.

"We (he and producer Owen Bradley) fell into that whispering groove accidentally. A lot of things, I didn't think they fit me, both in terms of my voice and my image. Owen would say 'I just don't think the artist that did 'Mama Sang A Song'" can do a real hard honky-tonk drinking song and sound believable.'"

Anderson remains faithful to his image, and his voice, on "Fine Wine." "I didn't try to do things that a 20 year old would do. We tried to find some mature type songs that Bill Anderson fans can identify with."