When Bill Anderson put together a three-song set to celebrate 60 years as a member of the Grand Ole Opry (commemorated on July 17 at the Opry House), two country classics instantly sprung to mind: "Po Folks," Whisperin' Bill's hit in the summer of '61, and "City Lights," which put Anderson on the songwriting map after Ray Price kept it at No. 1 for 13 weeks in 1958. With his third selection, Anderson punctuated one of the most special setlists of his career with a deeply personal song he seldom sings in public, "Thankful."
"It just kind of sums up what I was feeling and what I knew I would be feeling at that moment," he told Wide Open Country about choosing the closing track on his 2018 album Anderson. "I'm thankful for all of the good things that have happened in my life, and I'm thankful especially for the 60 years at the Opry. I thought that was just about the best thing that I could do to express what I was feeling at the time."
Most in the crowd that night had never heard "Thankful" live and in person. Anderson had only performed it two or three times beforehand: during a limited-capacity Opry show last year over Thanksgiving weekend and at a songwriters round or two. It's just as likely that few knew a fairly recent album deep cut of Anderson's by heart. Still, a majority of fans in attendance surely connected with the history lessons in what's basically the musical Cliff's Notes of books authored by the singer, most recently Whisperin' Bill Anderson: An Unprecedented Life in Country Music.
"It was a very personal song," Anderson explained. "In the beginning, I wasn't sure that I even really wanted to record it. Maybe it was too personal. After I lived with it a while and realized kind of what it said... and it summed up my feelings about everything. Maybe I should have just written that song and saved myself the time and trouble of the books! I could've saved a lot of headaches there."
"Thankful" lists Anderson's reasons to be cheerful, from his interactions with fellow Country Music Hall of Famers to his personal faith journey. There's even a good-natured, self-depreciatory shout-out to every decision maker in Nashville that didn't throw his songs in the trash.
"That's kind of been my modus operandi all the years, I guess," Anderson said of the song's moment of levity. "I love to laugh and I love to see humor in situations. That opportunity just presented itself. I was looking to rhyme with Johnny Cash. It's also true."
Beyond Anderson's thoughtfully curated set, fans watched video clips on the Opry House's big screens of Steve Wariner (Anderson's co-writer on "Two Teardrops"), Kenny Chesney (he recorded the Anderson and Dean Dillon co-write "A Lot of Things Different"), Jamey Johnson (co-writer with Anderson and Buddy Cannon of George Strait's "Give It Away") and others singing the praises of Whisperin' Bill. Sara Evans, Mark Wills and Vince Gill were among the performers that night whose careers benefitted years back from Anderson's way with words and his kindness toward up-and-coming artists.
Gill returned to the stage during Anderson's segment of the show to surprise him with a pocket watch that commemorated the occasion.
"I love Vince," Anderson said. "He had an awful lot to do with me starting what I call my second career as a songwriter. When I started doing some co-writing, Vince was the first person that I actually co-wrote with. He's been a very big part of my life and my career down through the years. The only thing that bothered me that Saturday night is I thought they gave a pocket watch to a people when they retire. I hope they're not trying to tell me something!"
Sixty years ago, 23-year-old Anderson simply received a phone call at home for his Opry invite -- A call he almost didn't answer because it came during the broadcast of a competitive baseball game. Since then, invites have become spectacles. Anderson surprised friend and songwriting partner Brad Paisley with good news in front of a packed Opry House crowd in 2003, and recently, what Carly Pearce thought was a video interview about her stint as a performer at Dollywood was the best kind of ruse, perpetrated by Dolly Parton.
Anderson seconds the Opry brass' emotion about Pearce, the show's latest inductee, belonging on the cast.
"Jeannie Seely and I did a Facebook chat type thing with her. She was asking us questions, and we were trying to answer them as best as we could," Anderson said. "She seems to have a real sense of what the Opry is all about and a real sense of the history of country music and the roots and everything and she seems to appreciate that. I think putting her into the Opry was a good choice, and hopefully she'll be there for 60 years."
One of the Opry's elder statespeople applauds Pearce, Luke Combs and other younger members for bringing fresh perspectives to a genre that, despite some fans and artists' complaints, thrives when it embraces change.
"That's what they have to do because we brought our own music and our own voice to the Opry, and I'm sure in 1961 when I joined, the artists that had been there from back in the '30s and '40s probably wondered, you know, 'What's this guy Bill Anderson doing here? He's different. He's not just like we were'," Anderson explained. "We just have to kind of accept that. They thought that about us, and then I guess we think that about them. But Carly has been on the Opry 80-something times. I did a lot of guest appearances, but I did not do 80-something of them before I was inducted. So if she doesn't know what it's all about now, then she never will (laughs)."
Pearce's tally of pre-membership Opry appearances dwarfs that of Anderson's because he didn't wait nearly as long as she (or anyone else) had for that career-affirming invite.
"I have not done an exhaustive bit of research, but I think I was the youngest person they ever inducted," Anderson added. "I don't think anybody ever was inducted younger than 23. Lorrie Morgan was 24."
It's a wonder that Anderson stayed so driven to crank out great songs as a writer and performer when he had the country music world by the tail at age 23. Indeed, he could have easily rested on his laurels at any point over the past 60 years.
Thankfully, he's not slowing down any time soon.
"Well, I still enjoy it," Anderson said. "I couldn't turn the spigot off if I tried. Thank goodness ideas still pop in my head, and I still sit down and try to flesh them out. It keeps me off the street and beats stealing hubcaps for a living."