Bill Anderson could call it a day right now and still claim one of the most prolific careers in country music annals. The numbers and the honors are simply astounding. He is the only songwriter in history to have penned charted songs in seven consecutive decades, beginning with his No.1 for Ray Price in 1958, “City Lights.” As a recording artist, Anderson has scored such chart-toppers as “Mama Sang a Song” and “Still,” while enjoying a continuous chart career that lasted from 1958 until 1991 and featured 37 Top Ten singles. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1961 and still plays the famed radio show on a regular basis. In 2001, Anderson became a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. This past year, he received an additional accolade, induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which honors composers from all genres of music.
Fact is, though, Anderson, who turns 81 later this year, has no intention of hanging up his writing tools or his performing schedule. He is about to release a brand-new album, simply titled “Anderson,” set to hit stores and online retailers September 14th. Anderson wrote or co-wrote all 11 tunes on the record. He hasn’t lost his passion for the writing process, and savors picking up pointers from his younger cohorts.
“I love to write with someone who comes from a different place than I do,” explains Anderson, seated in the office of his Nashville publicist. “If you write with somebody just like you, well, you might as well sit in front of the mirror. It’s fun to reach out and write with people who were influenced in a different way. So, I never quit learning.” For the new “Anderson” album (“It took a lot of imagination to come up with that title,” he quips), he hooked up with some long-time buddies as well as new collaborators. And he enjoyed them equally. “I had never written with John Paul White, for instance,” Anderson says, referring to the popular Americana artist and former member of The Civil Wars. “He called me and said he was going to be in Nashville. We wrote three songs and he recorded two and I did the other one, ‘Dead to You,’ which is pretty dark, especially for me. It was a great experience writing with him.”
The collaboration creating the biggest buzz is the philosophical tune “Everybody Wants to Be Twenty-One,” written with Jamey Johnson, who also provides a duet vocal. The song centers around two gentlemen, one older and one younger, who commiserate on the title subject, lending a wistful air to the lyrics.
“People have been asking me about that one,” Anderson smiles. “Jamey called me one day and said he had an idea for a song and he wanted me to come and write with him. I thought it was such a great, unique idea. The older guy wants to be younger and the younger man wants to grow up. I think in our lives we go through that.” Oddly enough, though, the song was not originally intended for dual voices, though it would seem to call for that exact treatment. “I thought this ought to be a young guy and an old guy doing it together,” Anderson recalls. “He was willing to do it. Jamey is such a great singer and I think this came off really well.”
Co-writing is the general Music Row way, but Anderson can hearken back to a time when most writers went the solo route. You holed yourself up in a room somewhere and didn’t emerge until you brandished a completed song. “Publishers didn’t want to split the royalties back then,” Anderson explains. Recently, he jumped back into the solo songwriting saddle, for a reason that speaks volumes about the pride he takes in songwriting. “I got to wondering one day, am I using co-writing as a crutch,” Anderson says. “In other words, I can’t come up with something so you come up with it. There is a certain discipline that I like in trying to write something by myself. I have three [solo writes] on this album. And you know what?” he adds with a pleased smile. “I discovered that I enjoy it again.”
But whether he’s writing solo or with others, the process remains the same. He’ll always begin with a notebook and pencil, penning ideas and lyrics in longhand. That never fails to draw some well-timed cracks from his younger colleagues, who put lyrics, melodies and even the musical interludes into a computer. “Brad Paisley calls me ‘Moses’ every time,” Anderson says, getting a chuckle from the moniker. “I was writing with Bobby Tomberlin and Lance Miller for this album and Bobby and Lance were sitting there with their phones and their iPads, and I’m over there scribbling on a piece of notebook paper. I know that might seem archaic to some people but there is just something that feels genuine about doing it that way. You can erase, you can make notes, and you are seeing the words form on the page.” Perish the idea, however, that Anderson totally abhors technology. “I put things into the computer later, after I have what I want,” he maintains. “I am not computer illiterate or anything like that. It’s just that I start with a pencil and paper.”
Obviously, Anderson is able to click with the new generation of writers, mainly by keeping an open mind. He still knows a good song idea when he sees one, regardless of where it originated. One particular track on the new album, the lighthearted “Waffle House Christmas,” serves as an example.
Anderson wrote that with up-and-coming artist Erin Enderlin and Alex Kline, from a concept that Enderlin formed. “Erin brought me that idea,” Anderson remembers. “When I heard the opening lines, ‘Mama burned the turkey and daddy set the tree on fire,’ that really got my attention. It was a fun thing to work on.” The details in the verses seem plausible enough to have actually happened, though Anderson notes that the scenario came strictly from the writers’ imaginations. “Erin just made all that up,” he laughs. “She had the whole first verse. I knew we couldn’t go wrong with that set-up.”
Like most of us, Anderson loves chowing down at Waffle House. But there’s a deeper connection with the popular chain beyond the scattered and smothered hash browns. Anderson breaks into a grin as he settles back to relate the story. “Waffle House started in 1955 in Avondale Estates, Georgia,” he begins. “I graduated from high school in 1955 in Avondale Estates. So, I go all the way back to the beginning with them. I remember the first Waffle House building was an old barbecue joint. And we’re all thinking, ‘What the heck is a Waffle House?’A lot of people that I knew from the town started working there.”
Anderson and his management team have met with the Waffle House execs for a possible promotion with the song, perhaps even an inclusion on the chain’s juke boxes. “We reached out to the Waffle House people and they have heard the song,” Anderson says. “They know that I have a pretty deep relationship with them, so we’ll see what happens.”
Meanwhile, Anderson will keep on writing and playing various tour dates, including shows at the Grand Ole Opry. “Retirement” is not in the current vocabulary. As he adroitly points out, “What else could I do that would be more fun than this? If you’re doing something you love, it’s not work, anyway.”
“Anderson” is set to be released September 14th. For more on Bill, please visit his website.