Bill Anderson was on the line from Decatur, Ga., where, the weekend before his show Saturday night at Arlington Music Hall, he was getting ready to attend his 60th high school reunion.
“Yeah, I graduated when I was 4 years old,” the singer-songwriter/actor/TV personality says with a laugh. “You talk about memories — there’s a lot of ’em around here. The first time I ever got up with a guitar around my neck and sang in public was in the high school talent show, when I was in the 10th grade. … They encouraged me to stay at it, but I don’t think they thought I’d stay at it as long as I have.”
Only a few years after graduating from high school, Anderson scored his first big songwriting success when Ray Price recorded his City Lights in 1958. Since then, Anderson has written scores of songs in his nearly 60-year career — just look at the “songs” portion of his website for a dizzying list — including his own hits, such as Still and Tip of My Fingers.
Bill Anderson introduced Fort Worth’s Casey James at James’ Grand Ole Opry debut — getting James’ first name wrong the first two times as James laughed.
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But it’s another reunion that has put Anderson — known as “Whispering Bill” Anderson because of his mellow singing voice — in the news lately. In the summer, Mike Grauer, a Phoenix pawnshop owner, sent Anderson an email saying that one of his shop’s customers had pawned a guitar that had the words “This guitar belongs to Bill Anderson” inscribed in the sound hole.
Grauer did some Internet research and found a YouTube video of Anderson playing an identical guitar on The Johnny Cash Show in the late ’60s. Grauer sent a picture of the guitar to Anderson’s representatives, and the singer and his team confirmed that it was indeed a long-lost guitar that had been given to Anderson personally 50 years ago by guitar maker Billy Grammer (whose namesake son, coincidentally, is a therapist in Dallas).
Anderson will no doubt tell this story, in much better fashion, during his Saturday-night show. But he’s not afraid of us spoiling it for the audience.
“I think most of them have heard about it or read about it,” he says. “It’s been publicized so much on the Internet, I don’t know if I can sneak up on anybody with it or not.”
All Grauer wanted in exchange for the guitar was a trip to the Grand Ole Opry, which he’d never attended. Anderson sent Grauer and his wife two tickets and brought them onstage, where they presented Anderson with the guitar. In the YouTube video documenting this, the couple looks young, less than half the age of the 77-year-old Anderson, and although Grauer is a music aficionado, Anderson was a little surprised at his youth.
“You’ve only got to listen to mainstream country radio today to realize how much has changed,” Anderson says. “They’re not even playing people like George Strait on mainstream radio after the fabulous career that he’s had. Even people like Garth Brooks. It’s not just people like me who’ve been around since dirt.”
I think the greatest compliment that a songwriter can be paid is for somebody to say, ‘You must’ve written that song just for me.’
But Anderson says he gets a lot of mail from people who are 30 to 35 years old and say that they didn’t listen to his music growing up — but their parents did, and now that they’re older, they connect with Anderson’s music as a way of connecting with or remembering their parents. And there are many more ways of connecting these days.
“People are finding us now because there are so many more ways to find us than there were just a few years ago,” Anderson says. “Like you’re sitting there reading a Facebook post that I wrote last night. That’s kind of amazing, the way that whole thing has opened up for us.”
Others have found Anderson through his TV career — as a host, as a game-show participant (including such shows as Password Plus and Match Game), even as a soap-opera star (he spent three years playing a fictional “Bill Anderson” on ABC’s One Life To Live).
Anderson also works with younger songwriters, such as Jamey Johnson — who wrote The Guitar Song, about a lonesome guitar in a pawnshop, with Anderson — and Mo Pitney, an up-and-comer whose song Country, written with Anderson, hit the country charts this summer, making Anderson the first songwriter to have at least one country hit in each decade since the ’50s.
“I’ve been very blessed,” Anderson says. “It sure lasted a lot longer than I thought it would. Yet at the same time, when I got into this business, I got into it with the idea of making it my life’s work.” He adds with a laugh: “I just never realized I’d live this long.”