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Nashville Sound: Bill Anderson

January 20, 1999

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ When Bill Anderson was asked to make his first album in eight years, he thought it was a joke.

``I’m like, `Yeah, sure _ where’s the punch line?‴ Anderson said.

During a career that started 42 years ago and produced seven No. 1 hits, the 61-year-old Anderson learned how fast one can fall out of fashion. He’ll never forget the day in the mid-1980s when he excitedly pitched a new song to a publisher.

``I said, `I think I’ve got a smash hit for a girl!′ Without even listening to it, he looked up at me and said, `Who do you want me to play it for, Kitty Wells?‴ Anderson recalled. (Wells, born in 1919, had her heyday in the 1950s and 1960s.)

``And everybody in the room laughed.″ Anderson said. ``I carried that hurt with me for a while.″

While he continued performing, Anderson accepted the harsh assessment: He was out-of-touch with the younger generation of country music fans.

``Looking back on it now I kind of tucked my tail between my legs and went and sat in the corner and pouted for about 10 years,″ he said during a recent backstage interview at the Grand Ole Opry House.

So he had reason to be cautious last year when his friend, country singer Steve Wariner, approached him on behalf of Jim Ed Norman, who runs Warner Bros. Records in Nashville. Now he’s clearly tickled to have a new album, ``Fine Wine,″ to promote.

The former Georgia sportswriter and disc jockey broke into the music business in 1957 when he recorded his song ``City Lights″ for a small Texas record company. Nashville star Ray Price heard the song, recorded it, and took it to No. 1.

Anderson soon scored a recording deal with Decca. He got the nickname ``Whisperin’ Bill″ for his relaxed, conversational vocal style, which was born of necessity _ his airy tenor is short on range and power.

But he was a strong songwriter and natural entertainer, writing smashes like ``Still″ and ``Mama Sang a Song″ for himself, as well as hits for Connie Smith, Lefty Frizzell, Roger Miller and others.

By the time his string of hits ran out in 1982 with ``Make Mine Night Time,″ he’d had 37 Top 10 records.

``My last contract was up, and they (MCA, which had acquired Decca) didn’t renew it,″ Anderson said. ``I could feel country music changing. Country music in the early- and mid-1980s, if you remember, had a decidedly pop feel to it.″

He continued to perform his old hits on the Grand Ole Opry radio show and on tour. He hosted the game show ``Fandango″ on The Nashville Network from 1983 to ’89 and now hosts ``Backstage at the Opry″ each Saturday night on TNN.

Then Wariner took Anderson’s 1960 hit ``The Tips of My Fingers″ to No. 3 in 1992.

``The first time I heard that record on the radio my stomach did flip-flops,″ Anderson said. ``I hadn’t felt this in a long time, and I would look in Billboard and I’d see it going up the charts ... and all of a sudden it was 1963 again.

``When I was doing the game show and all that stuff, I was enjoying all of that, but I didn’t realize that that part of me was missing until I found it again.″

He sought songwriting collaborators and hooked up with Wariner and Skip Ewing.

``Getting with Vince (Gill), I think, was probably the thing that put me over the hump,″ Anderson said. ``He was the first one that we really had some success, with `Which Bridge to Cross (Which Bridge to Burn),‴ a No. 4 hit for Gill in 1995.

Gill helped him modernize his lyrics.

``There’s just certain things today that you don’t write about that they wrote about back in the ’60s. You don’t write a song today that puts a woman down _ women write songs and put men down,″ Anderson said with a chuckle.

Wariner produced ``Fine Wine,″ and country stars Hal Ketchum and Lee Ann Womack co-wrote songs with Anderson. The album is vintage Whisperin’ Bill, especially on genteel love songs like ``Good Love and a Bottle of Wine″ and ``Now That’s Love.″

There’s a redo of ``The Tips of My Fingers″ featuring the four other singers who’ve scored a hit with it: Wariner, Roy Clark, Eddy Arnold and Jeanie Shepard.

Warner Bros. is marketing the album on television, over the Internet, and in magazine and direct mail advertising. There’s not much hope of getting his new material played on the radio, Anderson concedes.

``If they’re not going to play George Jones and Merle Haggard, they’re not going to play Bill Anderson,″ he said.

``But I’m very active, I still work the road. Warner Brothers told me they just believed there were a lot of Bill Anderson fans out there who would buy an album if they knew it was out.″


Elsewhere in country music ...

MORE BILL: For more about Bill Anderson, tune in to The Nashville Network at 8 p.m. EST on Feb. 2 for ``The Life and Times of Bill Anderson,″ a documentary on his life and career.

PLAYING COWBOY: Travis Tritt stars with Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson in ``Outlaw Justice,″ a CBS movie of the week airing Jan. 24.

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