Throughout his six-plus decades in country music, Bill Anderson has been lauded for his considerable talents as both an artist and a songwriter, with more than 30 top 10 Billboard Country Songs hits to his credit as an artist, including seven chart-toppers. As a songwriter, he’s seen his songs recorded by artists including George Strait, Brad Paisley, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Dean Martin.
But even as a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame, the 85-year-old Anderson is still notching career firsts. Leading into Sunday’s (Feb. 5) Grammy Awards, Anderson is celebrating his first Grammy nomination as an artist, as “Someday It’ll All Make Sense (Bluegrass Version)” earned a nomination in the best American roots performance category.
The nomination is Anderson’s fifth overall Grammy nomination, with his four previous nominations stemming from his skill as a songwriter. He was the sole writer on Connie Smith’s 1964 hit “Once a Day” and Porter Wagoner’s “Cold Hard Facts of Life,” which were each nominated for a Grammy in the best country & western song category. His work as a co-writer on Steve Wariner’s “Two Teardrops” and George Strait’s “Give It Away” earned nominations in the same category, after it was renamed best country song.
“I knew I had Grammy nominations for writing. I have never won one. It’d probably be my last shot at it,” he says with an unassuming chuckle, seated at a table in his business office just outside of Nashville.
Anderson recalls playing the song for Sony Music Publishing Nashville CEO Rusty Gaston: “I didn’t even tell him I was going to play it, and he didn’t know Dolly was involved. He’s sitting there listening to it and of course, I sing the first verse of the song myself. When Dolly’s voice came on, he was like, ‘A Grammy!’ So he believed in it from the beginning.”
“Someday It’ll All Make Sense,” which Anderson wrote with Bobby Tomberlin and Ryan Larkins, is featured on Anderson’s most recent album, As Far as I Can See: The Best Of, which released in June on MCA Records/Ume.
As Far as I Can See is also the title of his current exhibit on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, detailing Anderson’s journey from being the 19-year-old disc jockey in Georgia who wrote “City Lights,” which would become a No. 1 hit for Ray Price in 1958. In 1960, Anderson earned his own first top 10 Country Songs hit with “Tips of My Fingers,” followed in 1962 by his first No. 1, the seven-week chart-topper “Mama Sang a Song.” He earned another seven-week chart-leader in “Still,” as well as later chart-toppers “I Get the Fever,” “For Loving You” (with Jan Howard) and “Sometimes” (with Mary Lou Turner).
By the 1980s, he parlayed his affable, humorous personality into work as a television game show host on The Better Sex and the country music-themed quiz show Fandango (he had previously hosted his own The Bill Anderson Show). However, in the 1990s, he began collaborating with Vince Gill, notably on the song “Which Bridge to Cross (Which Bridge to Burn).” That ushered in a renaissance for his songwriting career, leading to him writing with and for a new generation of artists and crafting fine-tuned hits including Kenny Chesney’s “A Lot of Things Different,” Strait’s “Give It Away,” and the Brad Paisley/Alison Krauss duet “Whiskey Lullaby” (which won the CMA’s song of the year honor in 2005).
Anderson talked with Billboard about his current Grammy nomination, working with his longtime friend and fellow singer-songwriter Dolly Parton, his thoughts on touring and songwriting and his memories from his decades in music.
How did Dolly come to be part of this song?
Her hairstylist is a girl named Cheryl Riddle, and we’ve been friends for many years. She’s had a lot to do with my career in some interesting ways. When I kind of quit songwriting for a while and backed away from it, she’s the one who encouraged me to do some co-writing. She was also doing Vince Gill’s hair at the time, and was trying to get me and Vince together to co-write. She finally succeeded, and that started my whole second songwriting career — and evolved into a wonderful friendship between me and Vince.
Bobby Tomberlin is also good friends with Cheryl, and he played some of it for her, with just me singing it. Cheryl said, “Oh my god, Dolly should be singing on that with him.” And asked for a copy. Dolly loved it, and next thing I know, they sent me a copy of her singing it with me. I told Dolly the day we filmed the video, I said, “This sounds like something you would’ve written,” and she said, “I wish I had! I love it,” which I took as a great compliment.
This is not the first musical collaboration you have had with Dolly. As Far as I Can See also features an early demo from around 1964 with Dolly, “If It Is All the Same to You,” a song you later recorded with Jan Howard.
It was lost for a long period of time. I’m almost positive that we did that session out at [Owen] Bradley’s barn. Dolly was new in town. Walter Haynes was working for the publishing company I was writing for at the time, and I said, “I need a girl singer to help me on this duet.” He said, “I know this girl from East Tennessee and she’s pretty good.” So she was hired and we sang the duet together. I think we recorded six or seven songs that night, and I went up there not long after to get a copy of the session, and someone had taken the duet and cut it out. There were seven songs on the demo but only six on the copy. Until recent years, I thought it had disappeared, until the Bear Family put out a box set of my music and uncovered it.
The two of you also filmed the video together for “Someday It’ll All Make Sense.” What do you recall about the day of filming?
She set aside from 10:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m., so we had three hours to do the video. When we finished filming all the scenes she would be involved, we got finished a little before one. There were all kinds of people coming to watch and Dolly stopped and said, “Okay, if anybody would like to get pictures or an autograph, we’ve got 15 minutes.” She stood there and took pictures with everybody in that room.
And then she turned to me and said, “Ok, I gotta go change clothes. I’m doing a video for the Queen of England” [for Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022, marking 70 years of service]. So she finished filming a video with Bill Anderson, changed clothes into something very prim and proper, a black dress with a set of pearls and did a video for the Queen of England, then changed again and did a video for NASCAR. She’s amazing.
In addition to being artists, writers and all-around entertainers, both you and Dolly were were part of impactful duos — Dolly and Porter were on the Porter Wagoner Show, and Jan Howard was part of your show and a frequent duet partner. Do you have any memories that stand out from that time?
There were occasions where promoters would book my show and Porter’s show together. There were some pretty big fairs up in the Northeast where Jan and my group, we’d do the first half of the show, and then there would be an intermission, and then Porter and Dolly would do their part of the show. One time, we did this cool thing where we decided to do a swap. Jan and I guested on the Porter Wagoner Show, and Dolly and Porter guested on the Bill Anderson Show, and we all sang songs together. I would love to have a copy of those shows.
You have several books here on your table, including a book about your Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit As Far as I Can See. What music or music business books have been some of your favorites?
I read all the time and have books stacked up. I’ve never thrown away a music book and an awful lot of ‘em are autographed. Probably the music book that got me the most, emotionally, was the Louvin Brothers book, Satan Is Real [written by Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer]. If I was a movie producer, I’d make a movie out of that book so quick. I knew Charlie [Louvin] quite well, and Ira as well as you could know Ira. They recorded quite a few of my songs. That book was just so brutally honest and it really moved me. But I’ve read Shania Twain’s book [From This Moment On], and Anne Murray [All of Me] and everything from Willie — Willie’s book of the month. I feel like I know Willie awfully well.
What Is ahead for you in terms of touring and recording?
I want to make some more records. [UMG Nashville president] Cindy Mabe has been a real champion for this whole project, and UMG re-released a lot of my older catalog digitally for the first time. So I’m just seeing what is ahead.
I’m not going out on the road right now. I haven’t been out on the road since [the] COVID [pandemic] started. Surprisingly, I haven’t missed it like I thought I probably would. I was on the road for over 50 years and I figured I couldn’t live without it. But I’ve kind of enjoyed just kicking back a little bit, writing a little bit more, taking time off and being with my kids and grandkids.
I’m not saying I’m never going back on the road — as soon as I say “Never,” something will change. I want to make more records and keep performing occasionally at the Opry. I’m not saying I’ll never work the road again, but it’s not on the top of my priority list.
You have had so much success, both as a solo writer and a co-writer. Who are some of your favorite rising songwriters?
I like Ryan Larkins, the third writer on “Someday.” And I like this kid, Drake Milligan. I’ve got two writing dates with him and one is going to be me and him and Vince. Ryan and Drake are two that I have connected with. They are young kids with old souls.
What are your thoughts on the nomination as we head into the Grammys?
I’ve been so blessed. I mean, I pinch myself sometimes that this has really all happened. If we do win a Grammy on Sunday, that’ll be the cherry on top of the sundae. And if we don’t, it’s still been a fun ride.