Whitey Ford of the Yankees and Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves were facing off at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in the 1961 Major League Baseball All-Star game.
And Bill Anderson, the affable, 23-year-old disc jockey-turned-singer whose star was rising on the strength of new single “Po’ Folks,” was annoyed. He loved baseball, and anyone who knew him knew that. So why was his telephone ringing when the big game was on?
“I almost didn’t get up to answer it,” Anderson says. “I mean, who in the world would call me during the All-Star game?”
The who in the world was Ott Devine, manager of the Grand Ole Opry. He was calling to ask if Anderson wanted to become an Opry member. A half-century later, Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson is glad he picked up the phone.
“It took me two or three seconds to tell him ‘yes,’ ” Anderson says, sitting in an office at the Grand Ole Opry House, where he serves as a regular performer and an ambassador, and where he spins a treasure trove of stories about Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Roger Miller and so many other long-gone greats who were his friends and colleagues. “I was absolutely blown away. I don’t remember what happened in the rest of the ballgame.”
Shame, because it was a heck of a contest. Roberto Clemente’s single to right in the 10th inning scored Willie Mays with the game-winning run: 5-4, National League.
Spahn’s Braves have long since moved to Atlanta, Whitey Ford retired 44 years ago, Clemente died tragically in 1972 and Mays hung up his cleats in 1973. But ever since mid-July of 1961, Anderson has been an Opry fixture.
He is not the longest-tenured member — Jean Shepherd, the Opry’s “Grand Lady,” has been there continuously since 1958 — but Anderson is the only early ’60s Opry member who continues to impact contemporary country music not just as an influence but also as a key contributor. In the new century, he’s co-written two CMA songs of the year: “Whiskey Lullaby” for Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss and “Give It Away” for George Strait.
“In Rick Nelson’s ‘Garden Party,’ he has that part that goes, ‘If memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck,’ ” he says. “I actually love singing the old songs, but I’m real glad I have new things to do that connect with the audience.”
Known as “Whispering Bill” for his breathy singing voice, Anderson has connected with innumerable audiences. Contemporary country fans of Strait, Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Joe Nichols, Sugarland and plenty of others have heard their favorite artists’ recordings of Anderson’s songs.
His works have also been recorded by, let’s see ... Elvis Costello, James Brown, The Meat Purveyors, Nancy Sinatra, Jerry Lee Lewis, Aretha Franklin, Lawrence Welk and — check it out — Rick Nelson, along with classic country heroes Ray Price, Waylon Jennings, Kitty Wells, Porter Wagoner, Jim Reeves, Connie Smith and so many more.
Then there’s his solo career, which has found him notching 53 Billboard Top 40 country singles, plus five more on duets with Jan Howard.
On Friday, Anderson will meet with his fan club members and play a private show at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and on Saturday he’ll officially celebrate his 50th anniversary of Grand Ole Opry membership, appearing on the Opry and singing “Po’ Folks,” which he sang for the first time as an Opry member on July 14, 1961, three days after a phone call distracted him from his baseball bliss.
“There were two sentences about me joining the Opry in the paper,” he says. “They didn’t make any big deal out of it then.”
These days, it seems like a big deal, and Anderson’s memories wind through times spent with so many legends of country music. Acuff was his favorite, the one he most wanted to impress. And he remembers “I Wonder If God Likes Country Music” with Acuff on the Opry stage.
“I saw him stand behind that curtain out there towards the end, so feeble they’d almost have to carry him on the stage,” he says. “We did it the last night he was on the Opry. He was up there with those gnarled hands, singing, ‘Would He make my fingers like they used to be?’ Hair so white, elegant, dressed in that suit. You’d think, ‘There’s no way,’ but that light came on and he’d come alive, twirling that fiddle bow in the air.”
“Is that what you want to do?” I ask, and Anderson falters for a moment.
“I haven’t thought of it that way,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s what I want to do.”
Then, in less time than it took for him to give a “Yes” to Ott Devine, in less time than it took for Willie Mays to sprint home on Clemente’s 1961 single, Anderson makes a decision.
“Probably, that’s what I want to do,” he says.