I was lucky enough to sit down with Whisperin' Bill Anderson at BEA and ask him some questions about his upcoming autobiography, Whisperin' Bill Anderson: An Unprecedented Life in Country Music, that's put out by his alma mater, the University of Georgia. I also asked him about his music career and his life in general. This was by far one of the most interesting interviews I've ever done.
Now, onto the questions.
Amber: You've been in the music industry for a long time. How has it changed in the past 50+ years that you've been working in it?
Bill: In music itself or in the industry?
Amber: Music itself.
Bill: Country music has changed a lot, and that's what got me into this. I think maybe if I had to narrow it down to one thing in country music that has changed, I mean obviously the melodies change, the beats change, that sort of thing, everything kind of evolves, but I think maybe the single biggest change in country music songs since I've been writing is that I think it has gone from being primarily a negative type music, lyrically, to a much more positive type music. I mean we wrote, and I still do it, we write sad, "you broke my heart, little darlin'" type songs, but I think generally, that the stereotype being about drinking and sadness and that kind of stuff and dead mothers and the dog ran off and that kind of stuff... I think the biggest change is that country music has gone from those types of songs that I call "negative songs" or "downer songs" to primarily being a more positive type music, celebrating more of the good things in life, in personal life, and in society as a whole.
Amber: That's a good change.
Bill: I think so. I think that there are a lot more people who want to identify with the positive messages than sit around and cry tears in their beer. I still love a good sad song, don't get me wrong, but I think that for the masses... I think the reason country music has exploded to the masses is because it became a more positive music. Now, I'm sitting here saying that, and I'm the guy who wrote a song called "Whiskey Lullaby," which is one of the saddest songs in the history of the mankind, so I'm already contradicting myself *laughs*.
Amber: Do you think that the music industry can keep up with the digital age?
Bill: That's an excellent question. I think that the digital age caught the music industry asleep at the switch, for the most part. I think that when Napster came along, it was like the industry was scratching its head like, "How do we handle this? What do we do?" And I think we are still scratching our heads a little bit. We still haven't worked out some of the copyright issues. There's this thing where people who write songs and want to create music for a living have to be compensated for it. They have to put gas in their cars and go to the grocery store like everybody else, and the way things are happening... somebody told me the other day that over half of the songwriters in Nashville 10 years ago are not there anymore because they can't make a living because of all the free music and the expectation of, "gee, it's floating around up there in the air, so why should I have to pay for it?" The whole thing caught us by surprise, and we'll catch up. We've sure done a lot of work for it. We've certainly sent a lot of people up to Washington to lobby with the people in Congress who are going to have to change some of the laws that were written way, way before there was ever a digital age. Some of them were written back before there was a recording industry... Some of the copyright laws go back to the 1900's when it was sheet music and people would take it home and play it on their pianos. It has evolved so much beyond that, and the legislation has not kept up.
Amber: It's like people don't realize that's a job, too.
Bill: No, it's just that magic thing that comes through those little ear buds *laughs*. I think the general public thinks that artists make money on tours and things like that, and sure, some of the top artists make big money, but it's all the little guys along the way, too, that need to be compensated with what they do.
Amber: Yea, I used to help promote a lot of smaller punk bands, and they certainly didn't make big money on tours. They could barely make enough with merch to go from town to town. All right, so you've written so many hit songs for yourself and others. When you're writing a song, do you have an idea who you want to sing it? Are you like, "oh this one is for me," or "this one is for Dolly Parton," or something? Or do you just write and see what happens?
Bill: I just write and see if they can find their own home and hope they will. Back when I was really recording mainstream, and worried about records being in the charts and things like that, I would still just kind of let a song fall... I'd write a song, and if I wanted to hang onto it, I'd still see if it fit someone else first. If it did, then that's fine, and if it didn't, then I'd record it. Then some of the songs I wrote just weren't for me. They just weren't songs that I felt comfortable with, either lyrically or musically, so I just wrote and let it fall where it would. I think that's best. I mean if I'm writing with Brad Paisley, then yea, we're going to write a Brad Paisley song. But if I'm just sitting down and writing with another co-writer, then when we get through with it, we say, "yea, that might be good for Keith Urban," or, "that might be good for Miranda Lambert," but you do that after the fact. I think it's better to do it after the song is written than to try to tailor it that way. And sometimes they come back to you, and they'll say, "if you could change this line or that line, it would fit me better," and you stay open to that sort of thing.
Amber: Do you prefer writing, performing, or recording?
Bill: Yes. *laughs* I go to a restaurant, and they say, "do you want biscuits or cornbread, and I say, 'yes.'" They're all different. When you perform, you get that instant feedback from the audience, that instant high if it goes good. I tell people, nobody applauds when you write a song. You have to wait until it earns its stripes, but at the same time, a song has a longer shelf life than a performance does. Then in the recording studio, it's fun, but it's work, too. It's not that it's the most un-fun thing that I do, but it's kind of the thing that I take more seriously. Somebody will say, "You only have to get it right once," and that's true, but you better get it right that one time. Once you get it on that tape, you don't have to do it again, but you gotta get it right that one time. To me there's more pressure to recording than there is to performing or songwriting.
Amber: Hmm. That's interesting. I know recording can sometimes be tedious because you have to do the same sentence over and over and over, but you can also do that with writing sometimes, even.
Bill: Well, you do. I write with some of these young writers, and they show up with their laptops and all their pedals and stuff on their guitars, and I sit over in the corner with an old flattop guitar and a lined pad and a pencil. Usually the eraser wears out before the pencil does because you go back and make those changes. I'm not totally technologically limited. I go home and put them on the computer, but I write them out by hand, just like I did when I first started.
Amber: I almost think that's more therapeutic. It depends on how long what you're writing is. If you're writing a book, then obviously you'd want to use a computer, but for songs and poems, I think it's more therapeutic to write it out.
Bill: I think you're right, and when you're through, you have that paper that shows where you started in one direction and you erased it. I've got the two songs that I've written that were songs of the year, "Whiskey Lullaby" and "Give It Away," I've got the original handwritten lyrics, with erasures and mark-throughs and everything, hanging on the wall, and the kids who write on a computer, they can print it out, but it's not the same."
Amber: What advice do you have for aspiring songwriters and performers, especially with it being so difficult to make a living nowadays?
Bill: Well, I don't get into that part of it that much, when people come up to me and want advice. You'd be surprised how many people come up to me and say, "Hey, I can sing just like Kenny Chesney," or, "I can sing just like Johnny Cash." I always say, "Good, now go home and learn to sing like yourself." Be an original. There's already a Johnny Cash; there's already a Merle Haggard; there's already a Garth Brooks. Don't be a copycat. Figure out who you are and be yourself. And that's easier said than done. That was hard for me when I was first working on trying to sing some. I tried to imitate the person who was singing because I'd never heard the song any other way. But when I started writing my own songs that nobody else had sung, then I had to sing them like me because I didn't have anybody to copy, so I really encourage people to write their own material and to try and be different... Find your own path. That's the number one thing I say to people. And, too, I'll ask these kids who are making maybe their first or second appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, and they're nervous, and I'll look them right in the eye and say, "Are you enjoying it? Are you having fun? Is it as much fun s you thought it would be?" And they always answer, "Oh God, no, it's such hard work." I always tell them to calm down and enjoy it. I say, "This is a gift you've got. It may be a gift for six months, it may be a gift for sixty years, you don't know." Take time to enjoy it because there were times in my career when I didn't, and I wish I did. I was so concerned with records going to number one that I didn't take time and enjoy it, and I should have. I encourage them to do that. This is meant to be a fun business. Underneath it all, if you're not enjoying it and you're not having fun, then go back to school or go change tires on a car or build a house... Enjoy it.
Amber: You're an inspiration to a lot of people. Who inspires you?
Bill: Oh wow. Present or past? Probably a little of both. I grew up in the era when Hank Williams, Sr. was all the rage in country music. He wrote his own songs and sang them, and I never laid eyes on the man, never saw him in concert, never met him, but he was a great inspiration to me growing up. I would see his records in the record store, and I'd see the song and see the writer's name underneath the song, and I thought he really must be real since he's singing what he's writing. That inspired me a lot. There are a lot of these young kids today, and I watch the things that they do that we never thought to do when we came along. There are some brilliant people out there. Garth Brooks has been brilliant in his career and how he's handled his music. Also, these kids who have figured out who they are. Brad Paisley has figured out who he is. Garth knows who he is. Kenny Chesney knows who he is. So many of them today seem like they sit around and wait for somebody to tell them who to be. No, you tell the world who you are; not the other way around. I draw inspiration from these kids who... I mean when I came along there wasn't enough money in this to own a good tour bus, or even a good car to drive to shows, and now they own their own private jets. I'm not jealous of that; I stand in awe of what they've been able to do in order to do that.
Amber: Yea... I'm a little jealous of the private jets. I don't like airplanes. *laughs* How has the Grand Ole Opry changed over the past 50 years.
Bill: When I first came to the Grand Ole Opry, they didn't even allow drums on the stage, and when they started to allow drums, they only allowed a snare drum. Then they allowed a snare drum and one cymbal. Then one day someone said, "why don't we put drums on the stage? They're on all the records." So things like that. Also, the philosophy of the Opry has changed. The Opry used to be something that you achieved, to get to be on it. And now, you have one record out and you can perform there. It's sort of an exposure vehicle as opposed to being something that you strive for. I think there's some good and some bad in that. There was a certain glamour about it, like you're always reaching for that top rung on that ladder, and until you deserve it, you don't get there. But then again, these kids, they deserve a shot to come out there and perform to the Opry audience. It's a great night at the Opry when there are 3 or 4 of the legends, 3 or 4 of the current stars, and 3 or 4 of the brand new talent. It's a great mix for the audience.
Amber: What are your favorite sports teams?
Bill: Living in Nashville, I'm a Tennessee Titans fan. Being a graduate of the University of Georgia, I'm a big Georgia fan. Growing up in Atlanta, I'm a big Braves fan, though it's not doing me any good this year. *laughs*
Amber: *laughing* For once being a Cubs fan is paying off for me
Bill: Yea. The Cubs were my very first team when I was a kid, they were the very first team I got interested in. I'm glad to see them doing well.
Amber: Have you ever been to a Cubs game?
Bill: I have. I've sung take me out to the ball game in the 7th inning and thrown the first pitch a few times. It was a lot of fun.
Amber: Who are some of your favorite authors?
Bill: I don't have very sophisticated tastes. I just know what I enjoy. I read every book that John Grisham puts out because they're entertaining. I read primarily for entertainment. I read some things to try and learn and broaden my horizons a little bit, but I just like to crawl into the bunk on the bus, going down the road, and pull out a mystery. I read John Grisham, a lot of James Patterson books, I've read a couple of Nicholas Sparks books. I try to read a lot of books about the music industry and the entertainment industry as a whole because I learn from those.
Amber: This new book addresses a lot of the times that you felt like giving up. Where do you pull the strength to keep going from?
Bill: Well, I took a pretty good sized detour. I got into the music industry in the late '50s and worked on it pretty hard for a good 20+ years. Then I got off on some side roads and got away from the music and started doing game shows and soap operas on television, and trying to be in the restaurant business... all sorts of things. It lasted about 10 years, and I've really had a better career the second time than I did the first time. It helps me to surround myself with young people. I have a manager my son's age. He keeps me connected to how things are done today, and I need to know that. I'm sure he learns from me the way we did it back then, but I learn from him. I work with the young songwriters and and work with the young thinkers in the business. I refuse to let myself get bogged down in the, "well this ain't the way we used to do it," and "if so and so was here, he'd do it this way." I don't even listen to that. I just tune it out. I try not to get bogged down into any negative thinking and to think contemporarily. I mean I'm not out there trying to compete for the same audience Keith Urban is, but all of my fans didn't die the day Keith moved here from Australia. I've still got my audience out there, but I have to relate to them in a different way today. Their lives are different. They don't still have running boards on their cars and I don't either. So I have to learn how to relate to the same people... they have the cell phones and smartphones and their lives are different now, so I have to relate to them differently.
Amber: How do you choose who you write with?
Bill: Sometimes they choose me. There's no set formula for that. If Brad Paisley calls me up and says, "I've got an idea for a song," then I'm going to go over to his house and we're going to work on the song. I was standing backstage at the Opry the other night and John Berry said, "I've always wanted to write with you," and I said, "well, I'd like to write with you." So he gave me his phone number, and I called him the next day and we put something on the calendar. I like to co-write with people who come at it from a little different place than I do. Lyric writing is my strong suit, it's what I do the best. So I like to write with people who, maybe melodies are their strength or instrumentation or something. I like to write with people who, they bring what they bring and I bring what I bring. I find we do better than if I go in and write with somebody that basically writes the same way that I do. I might as well look in the mirror and save half the royalties. *laughs*
Amber: What are some of the most important lessons that you've learned?
Bill: I think some of the things I've talked about, like originality. Don't give up just because somebody points to a date on the calendar and says you're too old to do this. You're not too old to do it if you keep yourself fresh and in tune and you're really interested in what you're doing. I've tried not to let grass grow under my feet. The best advice I've ever got was from an artist at the Opry, George Hamilton IV. I was wrestling with a decision one time, a business decision, and he gave me a great piece of advice. He said, "When I deal with a decision, I look at both sides of the situation. I take a long time making up my mind, but when I make up my mind, I act on it and I don't look back." That has saved me more regret. My father, wonderful man that he was, spent his life looking over his shoulder, wondering if he did the right thing. He'd do something and then he'd agonize over whether or not he should have done something else. And I've been blessed to finally get to the point in my life where I don't do that anymore. I make up my mind, I do something, and if I did the wrong thing, then I'll try to do the right thing next time. Don't second guess yourself because 99% of the time, if you feel it strong enough in your gut, it's going to be the right decision.
Amber: That's great advice, no matter what industry you're in. I saw you have a scholarship fund. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Bill: That's in Commerce, GA. That's the town where I started my radio career. I was working there when I wrote my first song. I've always wanted to give back to the community, so I went back there every year for 10 years, and I took a bunch of whoever the top artists were of the day, bless their hearts, I got them to come down to Commerce and donate their time. Our objective from the beginning was to build a little auditorium in Commerce. It's a small town, not one of these wealthy towns by any means. It's just a hardworking, blue-collar town, and the kids didn't have anywhere down there to perform, to do concerts, to do plays, to do anything with the performing arts. And I wanted to help that little town build a performing arts center. So I went back down there and Vince Gill and Brad Paisley and Ray Price and Diamond Rio, and everybody in the world went down there and helped us raise money. We got the performing arts center built, and we had a little money left over, and we decided to start a Bill Anderson Scholarship Fund to go to a graduating senior at Commerce High School who wants to further their studies in some area of the performing arts. So we give this scholarship every year to one student down there. I'm very proud to have my name associated with it because you've gotta pay it forward. That's kind of one way that we're doing it.
Amber: I think that's a great thing to do, to support the arts. Country music seems to have stayed true to its values when other genres haven't, how do you think they've managed that?
Bill: Are you talking about the music itself?
Amber: Yea, the music itself.
Bill: Well I think the audience, the people who are attracted to our music and our message - it goes back to what I was talking about with our songs being more positive... I think the audience is there for us to - I mean I'm not saying we can't be real, and we can't talk about other things. Listen to "Independence Day" by Martina McBride, for example, and you listen to some of these songs, and you know that there are issues to face. But I think that our audience keeps us grounded. If you do something too far out there, they're going to let you know they don't like it, and today with Facebook, they let you know real quick. You don't have to wait for the postman to deliver a letter. I think that most of the people who are attracted to our type of music, as writers and performers, I think this is part of who they are to start with. If it wasn't, then I think they'd be doing grunge rock or rap or something totally different. We've stretched the boundaries, but we basically come back home at the end of the day, and I hope we always will.
Amber: Do you have any thoughts that you'd like to share that we haven't discussed or would you like to talk more about your book that's coming out?
Bill: No. I hope the people that read my book will glean some things from it. I haven't had the perfect life or the perfect career, by any means, but I hope there are some things in there that people can take away from it in a positive way. "Well he didn't give up when everything was stacked against him. He kept going." "He found new ways to do old things." "He didn't just fall back into the pattern." I tell a story in my book about talking to some of my contemporaries at the Opry who write songs, and they say, "Boy, I wish that I could still write songs." And I say, "You can. Go write with some of these young kids and see what they have to say." They invariably say, "Well I ain't gonna let them tell me what to do." I give up. That's totally the wrong attitude. You go out there and you learn from them and let them learn from you, and maybe at the end of the day you can create something good together. And I hope that's what people get from the book. You don't give up. You don't sit there and cry for the 1930's because they're not coming back, so you just try to make 2016, 17, 18, you just try to make them better years than they might have been otherwise.