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Whisperin' Bill finds a lot of things different

By Jon Weisberger, November 2001

"I'll tell you an interesting comment that I think everybody on Music Row ought to hear," says Bill Anderson. "I've got a friend who had – it's been a couple of years ago – a 13-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter. They were riding in the car one day, and they got to talking about what kind of music they liked, and they asked the little girl in the back seat and asked her what kind was her favorite. 'Well,' she said, 'I like country music, but why do they always use the same band?' Now, if an eight year old can tell that the records sound alike…"

The veteran entertainer leaves the thought unfinished with a peal of laughter, but it's a good part of the reason that his latest CD, "A Lot Of Things Different," makes use of his road-tested Po' Folks band rather than Nashville's "A team" players.

Originally self-re-leased last year, the album got a new lease on life when Anderson, 64, inked a deal for re-release by California's Varese Sarabande label.

Still, the newly-inducted Country Music Hall Of Fame member shouldn't be mistaken for an old-timer griping about the state of country music from a state of semi-retirement.

Though many of his colleagues in the Opry cast (he celebrated his 40th anniversary as a member this past July) feel alienated from the country music industry of today, Anderson has carved out a unique dual role for himself.

Anderson has had hits with his songs recorded by Lefty Frizzell ("Saginaw, Michigan"), Charlie Louvin ("I Don't Love You Anymore") and more recently had a pair of number ones in 1999, "Wish You Were Here" by Mark Wills and the Grammy nominated "Two Teardrops" by Steve Wariner. His songs also were recorded by Lorrie Morgan, Collin Raye, Tracy Byrd, Ricochet, Bryan White and Alabama.

While maintaining his "legend" status with frequent Opry appearances, "Whispering Bill" has found a second career writing songs with and for some of contemporary country's most successful stars.

"With one foot in the Opry and one on Music Row, you can get the splits," Anderson laughs. "Since Pete Fisher came to the Opry – and, of course, he came from Music Row – I think there seems to be more of a willingness of the people on Music Row to maybe embrace the Opry a little bit, and I'm glad to see that, and I think in turn, it works both ways. I run into a lot of people on Music Row, though, who don't even know who the artists are on the Opry, and there are a lot of the older artists on the Opry who don't have any idea who the people are on Music Row. It's probably a little better than it was, but in some ways, at some times, there still seems to be a pretty big chasm there."

Anderson's renewal of his role as a hit song writer – his first success came in 1958, when Ray Price took his "City Lights" to the top of the charts, earning the young South Carolina native a recording contract of his own – came about, he says, when an old favorite he'd written almost 40 years ago topped the charts once again in 1992.

"The impetus to the whole thing," he recalls, "was when Steve Wariner cut 'Tips Of My Fingers.' I had hardly written anything or really worked at the writing end of it, for about 10 years – from the early '80's to the early '90's – and all of a sudden I was hearing a song of mine on the radio again, I was seeing it in Billboard, I was seeing and hearing it on the jukebox.

"I thought 'well durn, I've missed that. That's pretty cool.' And then it dawned on me one day, 'hey, you wrote this song 30-something years ago, and the current generation of fans is accepting it. If you could do that, why couldn't you write some new ones, and why couldn't some of your other old songs come back around again?'"

"It kind of turned a light on in my head, but it took me a little while to get up the nerve to really kind of approach it. So many of the people had changed on Music Row, and I didn't know a lot of the new artists, I didn't know a lot of the new writers. So, I just kind of had to kind of take a good, deep breath and say, 'well, look, if this is what you want to do, you've gotta go down there and do it.'"

"So, I met Vince Gill through a mutual friend, and Vince was kind enough to write with me. We wrote a thing together that he cut and had a hit on (1995's "Which Bridge To Cross (Which Bridge To Burn)," and that gave me a little legitimacy at that point – 'hey, if Vince Gill will write with him, then maybe I'll write with him.'"

"I had this thing in my head – they see me as a dinosaur, an antique, and they're not going to want to write with me. But I was wrong, and they did, and I was able to get in there and meet a lot of the new people and write with them, and we had some success."

From his vantage point, Anderson sees some major changes from the way country songs used to be written.

"When I first came to Nashville, the publishers would not split the copyrights on the songs. If you didn't write with a writer who wrote for the same company you wrote for, you were out of luck. The publishers said well, we're not going to split a copyright. But eventually, the way I've heard it – and I don't know if it was Waylon or Willie or who it was – but one of them said 'look, we're going to write the songs, and you figure out what to do with it.' And with their success, the publishers got to thinking that it's better to have half of a platinum record than all of one that goes aluminum," he laughs. "And so maybe out of necessity they did figure it out, and once that happened, then you began to see a lot more co-writing going on."

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