60 Years Later, Whispering Bill Anderson Recalls His Grand Ole Opry Invitation
A Grand Ole Opry invitation didn't come with nearly as much pageantry and attention in 1961 as it does today, but it brought the same level of emotion. Bill Anderson — who celebrates his 60th anniversary as a member on Saturday (July 17) in Nashville — remembers that his invite came via a phone call he almost didn't answer.
The actual induction was announced with a press release on plain white paper. "I remember on Monday, following the induction, there were three lines in the Nashville Banner that said 'Bill Anderson was made the 61st member of the Grand Ole Opry Saturday night,'" Anderson recalls, smiling. "That’s all there was to it."
Contrast that with the elaborate ruse Dolly Parton and company used to invite Carly Pearce recently, and you get a sense for how smart the Opry has been about adopting new technology over the last 20 years. When Anderson watched that — or when he's invited to participate, as he was during Brad Paisley's invitation in 2001 — he more than recalls his story and response.
The Country Music Hall of Famer remembers debuting at the Opry in January 1959 and being brought frequently for guest appearances by then-manager Ott Devine. Fate inspired his invitation to join, however.
"I had been on a package show with several other artists in Panama City, Fla., in the late part of June, early part of July that year," the 83-year-old says, and Ott Devine had been down in Panama City on a fishing trip."
Devine heard about the show and snuck into the audience. "Po Folks" was Anderson's song at the time, and it went over especially well that night. “It was one of those magical nights where they called me back two or three times. They kept wanting to hear that song," Anderson says.
At intermission, Devine — a man of few words — surprised Anderson backstage and said he'd be calling him soon. Anderson figured he'd scored a few more guest appearances, until July 11, 1961.
“I’m sitting at home watching the All-Star baseball game on television, and my phone rang," he says. "They played the All-Star game in the daytime back then, and I almost didn’t get up to answer it."
Four days later, on July 15, 1961, Anderson was formally inducted as an Opry member at age 23, making him among the youngest — if not the youngest — person to ever be inducted.
As radio airplay became more elusive for Anderson, a singer with 37 Top 10 hits and seven No. 1s, he embraced a role as historian and — after Stonewall Jackson — the Opry's senior member. Watching a new artist debut is still special for him, and he goes out of his way to talk to them ahead of their big moment.
"I ask them if they’re nervous, and they say ‘Yeah’ and I say, ‘Good, you’re supposed to be,'" he says, laughing. “I remind ‘em of what Minnie Pearl used to say, what Roy Acuff used to say to her … ‘Well, just go out there and love ‘em and they’ll love you back.'"
Josh Turner's Grand Ole Opry debut at the Ryman Auditorium is one that stands out in Anderson's memory. The crowd called him back to "do a little more."
"Well, in our jargon, 'do a little bit more' is come back and do another verse or the last chorus again. Josh came back and did the whole song again," Anderson says, laughing again.
I doubt he ever had an encore like that before and he could have done three or four more."
Only Anderson, Stonewall Jackson and the late Jean Shepard have hit the 60-year milestone at the Opry. Jackson isn't active any longer, but Anderson certainly is, with co-writing appointments through August and a new, six-song EP on the calendar for later this year.