In 1957, a nineteen-year-old college student, Bill Anderson, sat atop a three-story hotel overlooking a few stoplights in the small town of Commerce, Georgia, and wrote “City Lights” on his guitar — singing to the starry night and envisioning a bustling metropolis:
“A bright array of city lights as far as I can see / The great white way shines through the night for lonely guys like me”
The song, which soared to the top of the country charts for singer Ray Price a year later, kicked off Anderson’s unprecedented career in country music spanning more than six decades, and it defined the depth and imagination of his songwriting that still resonates with audiences and artists today.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum will explore Anderson’s life and musical legacy in the exhibition Bill Anderson: As Far as I Can See, which opens Friday, Dec. 3, and runs through March 19, 2023. The exhibit will trace the Country Music Hall of Fame member’s story from childhood to his days in Georgia, where he excelled as a baseball pitcher and sportswriter while in high school and a disc jockey in college, through his contributions as one of the most decorated recording artists, songwriters and entertainers in history.
Known as “Whisperin’ Bill” for his soft-spoken and conversational singing style, Anderson has placed 80 records on the Billboard charts as a recording artist, with his singles reaching country’s Top Twenty more than 40 times. His original songs have been recorded by a wide array of artists, including James Brown, Elvis Costello, Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Louvin Brothers, Dean Martin, Willie Nelson, Charley Pride, Connie Smith, George Strait and many more. As a songwriter, he’s placed songs on the country charts in seven consecutive decades.
Anderson, who also achieved popularity as an actor and game show host, remains a mainstay performer on the Grand Ole Opry today, recently celebrating his 60th anniversary as a member on the historic radio show. More than 60 years after composing “City Lights” on that starry night in Georgia, Anderson is still flourishing as a contemporary songwriter in Nashville, collaborating in recent years with artists Kenny Chesney, Jamey Johnson, Brad Paisley and many others.
“Bill Anderson not only fortified and evolved country music, but his remarkable body of work establishes him as one of the most prolific and preeminent American artists and songsmiths across all genres,” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “But it’s his natural curiosity, humanity and ability to forge true, emotional connections with audiences – both as a performer and songwriter – that constantly replenishes his relevance and endears him to so many today.”
Items featured in Bill Anderson: As Far as I Can See include historic photographs, treasured keepsakes, instruments, manuscripts and more. Touchscreen interactives will also give visitors the opportunity to delve into Anderson’s songs and songwriting process through archival materials, performance clips and exclusive interview footage in which Anderson reveals the stories behind his songs.
“I grew up dreaming of the day they’d put my ball glove into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, never dreaming that one day it would end up in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville,” said Bill Anderson. “But now that old glove, along with some guitars, a few rhinestone suits and some scribbled song lyrics are on display in the Bill Anderson: As Far as I Can See exhibit in Music City. When the museum does an exhibit, they really do it up right, and I’m honored to know that I am now a small part of their incredible legacy. I’m not sure I could have ever seen this far.”
Artifact highlights in the exhibit include:
- Anderson’s Rawlings leather glove used when he was a pitcher for Avondale High School’s baseball team, circa 1955.
- The Royal electric typewriter used in the 1960s by Anderson to type song lyrics and answer fan mail.
- Anderson’s 1958 Martin D-28 that he called his “second voice.” He used the guitar extensively on stage, in the studio, and to write songs, including “Still,” “The Tips of My Fingers,” “Po’ Folks” and “Once a Day.”
- Stage costumes worn by Anderson, including rhinestone-studded suits from the 1960s designed by S.A. Formann, a Buffalo, New York-based tailor, and Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors.
- Custom-made boots by L.M. Easterling Custom Boot Company, embellished with the initials “WBA”—for Whisperin’ Bill Anderson.
- A Manuel shirt, embellished with rhinestones and metallic embroidery, designed for Anderson in the 1990s.
- Anderson’s handwritten lyrics, with corrections, to “Give It Away.” Written with Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson in 2005, it yielded a #1 hit for George Strait.
In support of the exhibition’s opening, the museum will host an interview and performance with Anderson, as well as a Songwriter Session with his collaborators, on Saturday, Dec. 4, in the museum’s Ford Theater:
Songwriter Session: Bill Anderson’s Co-Writers: Erin Enderlin, Buddy Cannon and Bobby Tomberlin– 11 a.m.
Anderson’s songwriting collaborators will share songs they co-wrote with him and the stories behind them in this special songwriter round.
Interview and Performance: Bill Anderson – 2 p.m.
Anderson will sit down for a one-on-one interview with the museum’s Peter Cooper. The interview will be illustrated with archival photos, film and recordings related to the exhibit. Anderson will also perform briefly.