It has been almost 50 years since a young University of Georgia student working at a small Commerce radio station penned a song about the town. The song launched the career of a country music superstar – Whisperin’ Bill Anderson. In congruence with his Southern roots, Anderson has never forgotten the small northeast Georgia city where he got his start, and each year since 1997 he has returned to Commerce to celebrate at the City Lights Festival.
Anderson’s journey to stardom is a classic tale of a true talent who actually achieved the goals he deserves, a success story that shows no signs of slowing down. While not a Georgia native, his heritage is close enough to be considered one. “My parents were both from Georgia, but I was born in Columbia, S.C.,” he recalls. “When I was eight years old, we moved back to Georgia and eventually settled in Decatur. I attended the old Avondale High School, and like most good Georgia boys, I went to UGA.” He obtained a degree in Journalism from his alma mater.
While a student at UGA, Anderson worked part time at the radio station in Commerce. In between his on-air stints, he wrote “City Lights,” and after graduation, moved to Nashville to take his chances in the music business. Thanks to his songwriting skill and unique voice, it wasn’t long before Anderson made his mark in Music City. He signed with Decca Records, and the hits just rolled out – “Still,” “Po’ Folks,” “The Tips Of My Fingers,” “Once A Day,” and “Mama Sang A Song,” to name but a few. Naturally, with his songs making waves on the radio, an invitation to perform at the Opry soon followed.
“Back in the old days, you had to have a hit song or two, or something pretty big going on to get to the Opry,” he says. Clearly, Anderson made quite an impression on the Opry staff, and it wasn’t long before he was invited to join. “I consider being invited to join the Opry in 1961 as one of my career high points, I am very proud of that.” In fact, Anderson will be celebrating his 45th Anniversary as an Opry member this summer, with special events planned in Nashville to mark the achievement.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Anderson’s career continued to grow, with numerous Songwriter and Male Vocalist awards throughout the years. He even branched into television, appearing on soap operas and hosting several very popular shows during the early days of the (now defunct) Nashville Network.
“There are so many high points,” he acknowledges with ample humility. “I was fortunate to be inducted into the Georgia Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and in 2001, I entered the Country Music Hall of Fame.” Even with all these honors and accolades, Anderson hasn’t slowed down. He is still making great music and winning awards today.
Most recently, Anderson was honored with the Country Music Association “Song of the Year” Award for “Whiskey Lullaby,” which was co-written with Jon Randall. Anderson was both surprised and thrilled about the win. “The song sat around for years before anyone finally recorded it. It is just your typical ‘double suicide drinking song’,” he laughs. That’s not your standard hot new country theme these days, to be sure. “It was a tremendous feeling to get that one, since it was nominated in 2004 and lost, then won in 2005.” Anderson sees his recent success as a natural, yet circular, progression. In reference to songwriting, he remarks, “I guess I have come back to the one that brought me to the dance.”
In addition to churning out hit songs, Anderson also continues to keep up his radio skills, with a regular XM Radio show on Channel 10 called “Bill Anderson Visits With The Legends,” where the legend himself interviews and reminisces with other country music superstars. So even though Anderson’s singing voice might be absent from today’s country radio stations, he continues to have a rich and fulfilling career doing just what he wants to be doing. We should all be so lucky.
The City Lights festival is an annual fundraising event in Commerce, Ga., that exists to honor Bill Anderson, as well as to raise money for the local Performing Arts Center. This year’s events are scheduled for June 22-23, and in addition to Anderson, will feature performances by George Hamilton IV, Mark Wills and comedian James Gregory. On July 29 Anderson returns to Georgia to perform at Lanierland Music Park’s “Concerts In The Country” in Cumming, with songstress Connie Smith.