Bill Anderson ABJ ’59
Country Music Hall of Famer and one of the most revered songwriters in Nashville history
More than six decades into a career that has not just spanned trends but set them, Bill Anderson can still work a room. And not just any room. The Grand Ole Opry, one of the most famous rooms in the world.
Anderson’s masterful stage presence is not that surprising. The Opry truly is his second home.
Each night the Opry books multiple acts—new and old, superstars and up-and-comers—and each gets about 15 minutes on stage. Anderson plays for close to 20. He banters with the crowd, and plays hits that are comical, sincere, or rollicking, sometimes all at the same time. He makes fans feel like they have known him all their lives.
And they love him for it.
The night of his Aug. 22 performance, he received a standing ovation. It was the only one of the night.
“I guess if it was gonna get old, it would have gotten old by now,” Anderson says, relaxing in his dressing room after the show. He has been a member of the Opry for 62 years, longer than anyone else. He still performs there several times a month.
“This is what you work for and you strive for,” he continues. “To walk onto that stage and see the people, it’s still special.”
Anderson was born in Columbia, South Carolina, but he grew up in Decatur. His first love was baseball, and he was good, even earning a tryout with the Chicago Cubs. But after graduating high school, Anderson’s path brought him to Athens.
He wrote his first hit song while he was studying journalism as a student at UGA. He had a job as a DJ at a station in Commerce, and one night he ventured to the roof of the town’s tallest building, just three floors off the ground.
Anderson wrote what he saw, and in 1957 he cut a version of the song City Lights. But it was in 1958 when Ray Price took his own recording of it to No. 1 that Anderson’s career truly began.
Although Anderson’s recording career includes seven No. 1 country hits, eight No. 2 hits, and a total of 35 top 10s, he didn’t enter the business to be a singer.
“Songwriting is what brought me to Nashville,” Anderson says. “I’m not a great singer, and I know that people all over the place can out-sing me. But I was able to develop a style and to do something a little bit different. I worked at it very hard, and I worked to learn to entertain a crowd. If I couldn’t bowl them over by singing to them, I was gonna make them laugh. I was gonna make them cry. I’m gonna do something to get through to them if I could.”
Anderson is still known as “Whisperin’ Bill” because of his hushed singing style. But that softness belies the energy Anderson brings to all his work.
The foundation as a communicator that Anderson built at UGA has served him well throughout his life. It’s why he is so skilled at connecting with an audience. It’s also why, in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, he branched out into other forms of entertainment. He did some acting, and he hosted two game shows. One of them, the trivia game Fandango, was a weeknight staple on The Nashville Network.
He still recorded and he still wrote, but the hits were not as high or as numerous. However, in 1992, country star Steve Wariner hit the top 5 with a remake of a 30-year-old Anderson song, The Tips of My Fingers, and interest in Anderson’s work returned.
Soon, he connected with country superstar Vince Gill. One of the songs that emerged from their writing sessions was Which Bridge to Cross (Which Bridge to Burn). Gill took it into the top 5 in 1995.
“I just never thought I could book an appointment with somebody and sit down and write a song,” says Anderson, who had written almost all of his previous hits solo. “But then I noticed that all these records were coming out, and they were co-written. So I thought maybe I could look into it.”
Working with other people kicked off a creative burst that has hit previously unreached summits.
In 2005, Anderson won CMA Song of the Year for the Brad Paisley and Allison Krauss duet Whiskey Lullaby. It was the first time in his career he’d won the CMA’s most prestigious songwriting honor. Then he won it again in 2007 for Give It Away, a No. 1 hit for George Strait. In November 2023, he and Sara Evans presented the CMA Song of the Year Award to Tracy Chapman for Fast Car. Anderson accepted the the honor for the absent singer/songwriter.
“People were finding me that hadn’t known me before,” Anderson says. For instance, one of them, outlaw country star Jamey Johnson, was a co-writer on Give It Away and helped introduce Anderson to new generations of fans.
He continues to write every week, and while Anderson no longer tours, his stagecraft remains fresh with his Opry gigs. Anderson is also one of Nashville’s most decorated citizens.
He’s a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame (which includes all genres), both the Georgia and South Carolina Music Halls of Fame, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. In September, the Country Music Hall of Fame exhibition “Bill Anderson: As Far As I Can See” wrapped up after nearly two years on display. Many of its items were on loan from UGA’s Special Collections Library, where Anderson has donated a great deal of material.
“My UGA diploma is up there!” he announces. It is, eye level and easy to see.
Anderson’s career has taken him around the world, but he never forgets where he came from.
Photos by Peter Frey BFA ’94