When the Nashville Songwriters Hall Fame dedicated its physical space at the Music City Center in May five years ago, several inductees played a song or two to commemorate the occasion. Don Schlitz delivered his literary signature “The Gambler,” Thom Schuyler sang the unficial songwriters anthem “16th Avenue,” and Bill Anderson whipped out an obscure 1962 ditty.
“Peel me a nanner/Toss me a peanut/I'll come swingin' from a coconut tree/Peel me a nanner/Toss me a peanut/You sure made a monkey out me.”
Anderson laughs now at that choice.
“I take what I do seriously, but I don't take myself very seriously at all,” he says over a Caesar salad with salmon at an O'Charley's in Nashville. “Maybe that's what I was trying to show. I don't know why I did it.”
His Nashville Songwriters membership — a no-brainer when he received it in 1975 — put him in a Hall with such fellow pioneering country songwriters as Hank Williams, Harlan Howard, Jimmie Rodgers and Willie Nelson.
On June 14, Anderson will take the next step, joining the Songwriters Hall Fame in New York as part a class that includes Alan Jackson, Steve Dorff (“Through the Years,” “Heartland”) and John Mellencamp. It puts Anderson in a Hall with global reach, among 400 members from such rock-era figures as John Lennon and Paul McCartney to R&B stalwarts Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye to jazz legends Duke Ellington and Thomas “Fats” Waller to traditional-pop creators George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.
Anderson certainly appreciates the company he's now keeping.
“Music is music,” he says. “I love traditional country music as much as anybody, but there's songs I like that are not even remotely traditional country music. I'm a big jazz buff. People get in my car, and I've got a jazz station on. I just like the improvisation; it's] not too different from bluegrass.”
Anderson's new Hall Fame recognition is apt, coming after he successfully built two impressive careers as a songwriter. He earned his first No. 1 single as a composer 60 years ago when Ray Price covered “City Lights,” and that inaugural go-round, from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s, established him as a prolific author hits for both himself and his fellow artists. He crossed to pop's top 10 with his own recitation, “Still,” and fashioned Connie Smith's clever trademark, “Once a Day”; Lefty Frizzell's gold-mining high jinx “Saginaw, Michigan”; and two songs that have been hits three different times: the solo-penned “The Tip My Fingers” and the Roger Miller collaboration “When Two Worlds Collide.”
After practically avoiding the writing room for a decade, an appointment with Vince Gill in the early '90s reignited Anderson's next wave, yielding the vivid Brad Paisley/Alison Krauss duet “Whiskey Lullaby”; a poignant Kenny Chesney hit, “A Lot Things Different”; an imaginative Steve Wariner tale, “Two Teardrops”; and a Country Music Association song the year winner, George Strait's “Give It Away.”
In all, Anderson has racked up more than 70 top 15 Billboard singles as a songwriter, one the most impressive totals in history. He was, perhaps, trained for it. Anderson pursued sports journalism before he moved to Nashville from Georgia, editing his high school newspaper and contributing pieces to The Atlanta Constitution. And he found parallels between the newsroom and the writing room.
“In journalism school, they teach you when you write a story to tell the who, what, where, when, why and how,” he says. “That applies to the song, too — you might leave the 'why' for the listener to interpret, or the 'how' — but you've got those same principles.”
Anderson also had the good fortune, on a trip to Nashville at age 14, to be introduced by his father to Murray Nash, a longtime music executive working at the time at Acuff-Rose Music Publishing. Nash gave him basic lessons in forming a narrative and self-editing.
“You've got to write that song like you're telling a story,” says Anderson, recounting the advice. “One line has got to build f the line in front it. It should read like a book or a magazine article, and if there's one thing in there that confuses you or doesn't make sense or is not a complete thought, you need to go back and revisit that.”
While a publishing infrastructure existed, the art writing country songs was a fairly isolated pursuit in the first part Anderson's career. Writers were not allowed to cross company lines — BMI members were forbidden from working with ASCAP members, and staff writers at competing publishing companies could not collaborate either.
“I couldn't write with Mel Tillis because he wrote for Cedarwood,” says Anderson. “It's really hard for people to conceive that, to accept that concept today, but that's how it was.”
So Anderson wrote on his own and managed to keep landing hits with other artists — including Faron Young, Jean Shepard and Porter Wagoner — even though he was ten touring with his own band and began hosting a TV show, too. He apparently learned some those songwriting lessons well, because his material got placed just as ten as full-time songwriters who were cranking out a higher volume titles.
“I've gone back and looked at some my old sessions — reel-to-reel, quarter-inch tapes and stuff — and I would have a demo session where I did seven songs and I got six them recorded, or I did eight songs and I got seven them recorded,” he marvels. “It was an amazingly large percentage.”
Anderson is not one those originals who bags on the current generation. In the second half his career, he was nervous when he first co-wrote with Gill. But they penned a hit, “Which Bridge to Cross (Which Bridge to Burn),” and he discovered a lot value in co-writing, particularly learning new habits and widening his perspective.
“I thought, 'I must be nuts,' ” he says. “Sometimes I'll write the second verse first, and I thought nobody does that. Come to find out everybody does that, everybody writes the chorus before they write the first verse. You learn you're not all that strange when you get around these other writers — some them are even stranger than you are — but it opened up a whole new vision for me the landscape that I had never really delved into.”
Anderson has become a stickler at this stage in his career for polishing his songs, and he plans to release a new album — simply titled Anderson — this summer, mining his own current and past catalog for the material. In the meantime, June will see him joining Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach and Stevie Wonder, and that 60-year gold mine titles continues to make an impact. Anderson received a note recently from a teacher in Iowa whose 5-year-old students adopted “Peel Me a Nanner” — the piece he sang at the 2013 Nashville Songwriters Hall dedication — as a song to celebrate the fruit they're served at school in the mornings. That development is almost as rewarding as the induction.
“Here's this stupid song that's lain around for 50-plus years, and kindergarten kids are singing it before they eat breakfast,” says Anderson. “It's hilarious, and on another level, it talks about the power a song. You just never know who you're going to touch with 'what' and 'when' and 'how.'”