Back in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, Bill Anderson was one of Nashville’s most prolific hitmakers, with classics like Ray Price’s “City Lights,” Roy Clark and Eddy Arnold’s “The Tips of My Fingers,” and his own pop crossover smash, “Still,” racing to the top of the country charts, and sometimes the pop list as well. But in the ’80s, his songwriting career came to a screeching halt. It seemed as if the times has passed him by, and so he became a game-show host and panelist.
Then, incredibly, in the ’90s, he returned to songwriting, collaborating with people half his age on hits for Vince Gill, Steve Wariner, and Kenny Chesney, and smashes like “Whiskey Lullaby” for Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss, and “Give It Away” for George Strait. More than 65 years after his first hit songs, he’s still accumulating cuts from top country artists. His first Variety mention was on Oct. 7, 1959.
Your first time in Variety was in 1959, when you were an up-and-coming singer/songwriter touring frigid regions of Montana and Saskatchewan, Canada, with country stars like George Jones, Freddy Hart, Webb Pierce, and Lonzo and Oscar. What do you recall about that time in your life?
I remember a lot about that tour. We were travelling in cars, and I was driving a brand-new Lincoln that belonged to Lonzo and Oscar. And on the way to Canada from a date in Montana, I hit a deer in the middle of the night. It was a great big deer — an eight-point buck — and I killed him, and it tore the car up, and I was just devastated.
How old were you at the time?
I was a kid then — in the fall of 1959, I was 21 years old. I didn’t feel like it was fair for Lonzo and Oscar to do all the driving and me to just sit back and ride along, so I volunteered to drive. And then I hit the deer. When we got to Regina, I told them, “Gosh, that was an accident. Please don’t hold it against me — I’m really not a bad driver.” So we came out of the hotel going to the show that afternoon, and they said, “OK, we’ll give you one more chance.” And I pulled out of the parking place, and a city bus ran into me. I had already torn up the front of the car, and then the bus tears up the rear of the car. Needless to say, I did not drive anymore on that tour.
The accidents sound pretty awful. Was there anything else that was memorable about the tour?
It was the first tour I’d ever been on where I’d actually got paid; I’d been on some other tours and never got paid. We worked about 10 days, I think, and I made the grand sum of $50 a day. At the time, I thought that was all the money there was in the world.
Considering that tickets to a major Canadian package show cost $2 at that time, that sounds like a lot of money. Did you feel like you were on your way to a career in music?
I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I was on the road. I had moved to Nashville. I had written “City Lights,” but at that point I didn’t know I had a career because I was 1-A for the United States Army draft. I figured the Army was coming to get me, and I was just killing time till I had to go be a buck private in the military somewhere.