In a career that extends for more than 60 years, Bill Anderson has written and co-written dozens of hits that have since become country standards, including “Once a Day,” “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking,” “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” “Saginaw, Michigan,” “City Lights,” “Tips of My Fingers,” “Whiskey Lullaby,” and “Give It Away.” His soft, breathy vocal style earned him the moniker “Whisperin’ Bill.”
As a recording artist, he charted 80 singles over a period of 33 years, among them the No. 1 singles “Still,” “Mama Sang a Song,” “I Get the Fever,” “My Life (Throw It Away If I Want To)” and “Sometimes,” all of which he wrote.
Born James William Anderson III on November 1, 1937, he earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia while working as a disc jockey and sports writer. In 1957, he recorded his composition “City Lights” on a small Texas-based label. While his record didn’t make the charts, it did catch the attention of country star Ray Price, who recorded it and took it the following year to No. 1, where it reigned for a phenomenal 13 weeks.
By this time, Anderson had signed to Decca Records. His first chart single was the self-penned “That’s What It’s Like to be Lonesome.” It netted him a respectable No. 12. From 1958 until 1964, every one of the 12 singles Anderson charted were his own compositions, most of them going Top 10 or better. By the time of his final chart appearance in 1991, he’d charted in five consecutive decades.
On July 15, 1961, he joined the Grand Ole Opry. That same year, Roger Miller had a No. 6 single with “When Two Worlds Collide,” which he co-wrote with Anderson. Meanwhile, Anderson charted with Top 10 singles like “Walk Out Backwards” and “Po’ Folks,” with the latter becoming the name of his band.
In 1964, Lefty Frizzell scored a major comeback with the storytelling song “Saginaw, Michigan,” written by Anderson and Don Wayne. It became a four-week No. 1 smash and Frizzell’s highest-charting single in more than a decade. Anderson also recorded No. 1 duets with Mary Lou Turner (“Sometimes”) and fellow Opry star Jan Howard (“For Loving You”).
Ever the experimenter, Anderson struck pay dirt in 1963 with his part-sung-part-spoken “Still.” Besides giving him another No. 1 country hit, it crossed over to the pop charts, where it went to No. 8. He even took a turn at disco in 1978 with “I Can’t Wait Any Longer.” Co-written with his producer Buddy Killen, the song made it all the way to No. 4.
Future star Connie Smith was discovered by Anderson at an amateur talent show he was judging in Ohio. Impressed by her powerful, emotionally layered voice, he encouraged her to come to Nashville and provided the young upstart her breakthrough and signature hit, “Once a Day,” in 1964. It held the No. 1 spot for eight weeks, setting a record for a new female artist. Three years later, she cut Anderson’s “Cincinnati, Ohio,” which went Top 5.
His magic touch as a songwriter led an array of other recording artists to clamor for Anderson’s material. Porter Wagoner scored with “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” Jean Shepard with “Slippin’ Away,” Conway Twitty with “I May Never Get to Heaven,” the Louvin Brothers with “Must You Throw Dirt in My Face,” and Cal Smith with “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking.”
Finding a welcome resurgence in the ‘90s, Anderson became an in-demand songwriter, composing hits for Vince Gill with “Which Bridge to Cross (Which Bridge to Burn),” Joe Nichols with “I’ll Wait for You,” Steve Wariner with “Two Teardrops” (and a remake of “Tips of My Fingers”), Kenny Chesney with “A Lot of Things Different,” and George Strait with “Give It Away.”
As a songwriter Anderson received Grammy nominations for “Once a Day,” “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” “Two Teardrops” (written with Wariner), and “Give It Away” (written with Jamey Johnson and Buddy Cannon). “Give It Away” also won a 2006 ACM Award and 2007 CMA Award for Song of the Year.
“Whiskey Lullaby,” written with Jon Randall and recorded by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss, secured a 2005 CMA Award for Song of the Year as well. Four years earlier, Paisley and Anderson shared a CMA Award with George Jones and Buck Owens in the vocal event category with “Too Country.”
In a 2005 interview for CMT.com, Anderson explained how he maintained his interest and success in songwriting even as new generations of composers came to the forefront. “I enjoy writing with the young writers,” he said. “There are some of them now that at 19 or 20 years of age [will] scare you to death. They just come into it with so much more background and so many more influences and so much more knowledge now that we did.”
Apart from songwriting and recording, Anderson was also a television personality. From 1965 to 1973, he hosted the syndicated The Bill Anderson Show. He also hosted ABC’s The Better Sex game show (1977-1978) and TNN: The Nashville Network’s Fandango (1983-1989) and The Opry Backstage.
Anderson was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1975, the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, the ACM Poet’s Award in 2007, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018. He remains one of the Grand Ole Opry’s most revered artists.