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Bill Anderson whispers his way through bluegrass

By Dan MacIntosh, December 2007

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An older Anderson song on the album, "The Cold Hard Facts of Life," was also a hit for the late Porter Wagoner.

"I went to see Porter in the hospital on Sunday before he passed away the next weekend (in October)," Anderson remembers. "And a lot of people had been there, but they left. And I had about an hour to just sit and talk with Porter, and it was a wonderful hour. I wouldn't take anything in the world for it. And I told him at that point - he was laying up there in the bed, he was fully lucid and knew everything that was going on – I said, ‘I just recorded a bluegrass album, and I cut a bluegrass version of ‘The Cold Hard Facts Of Life.' And he broke into this big grin, I mean, it was like he was gonna laugh. He said, ‘Oh man, I can't wait to hear that. I never really thought about it, but that would make a really good bluegrass song.' And I said, ‘Yeah, several people die in there (in the song), and you've got to have people dying in bluegrass songs.' And he just laughed, and we had a big laugh over that. And I will remember that forever."

If you know anything about Wagoner's music, you're well aware how plenty of people die or at the very least go crazy in his songs. It almost seems as though Anderson wrote "The Cold Hard Facts Of Life" especially for Wagoner. But, surprisingly, such is not the case.

"I never have written very much for any particular artist," Anderson clarifies. "I've always just tried to find a song and then let it find its home. A few times, when I've written with artists, maybe we'll try to write something specifically for them. But most the time, I just try to write a song, get the most out of it that I can and then see who it sounds like when I get finished. And take it to that person."

One of Anderson's best ever songs is "Whiskey Lullaby," a huge hit for Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss. It does not appear on his new recording, but the story behind it gives great insight into the evolution of a great song.

"Jon Randall (the song's co-writer) had been going through a rough time in his life," Anderson begins. "I had run into Jon about three weeks or so before our writing date – we already had the date on the books. I ran into him one day in the parking lot at a publishing company over on Music Row."

"And I just said, ‘Hey Jon, how are you doing?"' He said it hadn't been a real good day. He said, ‘Today alone, I have lost my publishing deal, my writing deal, I have lost my recording contract, and I just found out my wife has filed for divorce.' Then he looked at his watch and he said, ‘And it's only 2:30.' He laughed. And I laughed. Good gosh, it was almost funny. It would be funny if it weren't so sad."

"Jon and I got together about three weeks after that," Anderson continues. "And I came to find out that after he left the parking lot that day, he went to a friend's house and proceeded to pretty much get out of it for a couple of weeks. He just kind of drank himself into oblivion and slept on his friend's couch. When the whole thing was over, after a couple of weeks, he decided he needed to get his back act together, straighten up and face reality. He told his friend how sorry he was for everything that he had done. And (his friend) said, ‘That's all right Jon, I've put the bottle to my head and pulled the trigger a few times.' So Jon made note of that line, as a good songwriter will do; you don't let a line like that get away."

"When Jon and I got together to write, as happens a lot with co-writing sessions, you say to each other, ‘Well, have you got an idea?' So, Jon says to me that day, ‘So, have you got an idea?' And I said, ‘Yeah, I've been toying with a phrase that I like. It's kind of an imagery thing. I've been wanting to write a song called ‘Midnight Cigarette.' The idea would be a love went out or faded out or one person put it out like the burning end of a midnight cigarette. That just paints a really vivid picture to me.' And he said, ‘Boy, I love that!' We wrote down: ‘She put him out like the burning end of a midnight cigarette.' And then he turned to me and said, ‘I've got a line that's kind of been on my mind.' He picked up his guitar, and he said, ‘He put the bottle to his head and pulled the trigger.' And as soon as he said that, I said, ‘Well, let's just forget about the midnight cigarette idea; let's write your idea. So the way it turned out, we blended them together. The ‘midnight cigarette' is in the opening line of ‘Whiskey Lullaby.' Then we just kind of went from there."

You might assume these two knew right away they'd created magic. But bells and whistles don't always sound every time a wonderful song is penned.

"You know, you don't ever know whether you've got something great or not," Anderson admits. "You don't know if you've got something commercial or not. The only thing you know when you've finished writing a song, is whether you've gotten everything out of that idea that was in there to get out - if you've extracted everything that was to be extracted from it. And I really thought that we had done that. I almost had to twist Jon's arm to get him to come in and do a demo. I said, ‘Jon this song is really something special. We need to put it down and make a good demo on it.' He wasn't as excited about doing that as I was."

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