Bill Anderson will celebrate 60 years as a member of the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday, July 17. It’s a career milestone few have reached and an honor he doesn’t take lightly.
“I can’t believe it’s been that long, but they say it has,” Anderson, 83, tells me with a laugh.
At 60 years, Anderson is the second longest current Grand Ole Opry member behind Stonewall Jackson, who marks 65 years in November. The late Jean Shepard is the only other member who spent 60 years as an Opry member. Bill Monroe was a member for 57 years before his death in 1996 while Roy Acuff amassed 54 years before he passed in 1992.
An invitation to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry is the highest honor for a country artist. Anderson likens it to what Yankee Stadium is to a baseball player or Hollywood is to an aspiring actor.
“It really is the top rung of the ladder, and it just doesn’t get a whole lot better than being a part of that wonderful family that has existed almost 100 years now,” he says.
Anderson was first invited to perform on the world’s longest-running radio show in January 1959. Still living in Georgia at the time, the singer was working as a disc jockey at a local radio station and had released his first song as a recording artist.
“Nobody ever forgets the first time they played the Opry stage,” he says, adding that Porter Wagoner introduced him to the audience that night. “You can forget a lot of places you play but you don’t forget the Grand Ole Opry, especially the first time. I guess it went over alright because they invited me back in April of that year.”
Two years later Anderson became the 61st member of the Grand Ole Opry on July 15, 1961. Fast forward 60 years and his long-standing membership will be celebrated tomorrow during the 4,985th consecutive Saturday broadcast.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic the Opry has continued its Saturday night broadcast. The radio show aired live from Nashville to an empty theater most of last year due to Covid restrictions. Anderson was on the bill for the first show without an audience March 14, 2020. He was joined by Mandy Barnett, Connie Smith, Jeannie Seely and Sam Williams at the Grand Ole Opry House for the start of an unprecedented seven months without an audience.
Anderson gives credit to the Opry staff for continuing the tradition of consecutive Saturday night performances throughout the pandemic. He, like many listeners who tuned into 650-AM WSM in 2020, found comfort in the airing of the radio broadcast.
“The pandemic didn’t shut it down,” he says about the Saturday night radio show which will celebrate its 5,000th consecutive broadcast later this year. “I think it was comforting to people. I know it was to me.”
Anderson’s 60th anniversary as a Grand Ole Opry member will be honored with a full-capacity performance. The Country Music Hall of Famer’s early hits “Po’ Folks,” “Still,” “City Lights” and “Once a Day,” a song he wrote that was recorded by Connie Smith and was inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress earlier this year, may make the set list.
While Anderson reminisces of introducing acts like Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley and Vince Gill during the broadcast, he also recalls the best business advice he received about his career from his father. As Anderson explains, there was a time when several artists in the country genre were leaving the Grand Ole Opry because they could get paid more taking tour dates on the road. Even Anderson’s booking agent was pushing him to leave the Opry. He ran the idea by his dad, who worked in the insurance business.
“The Opry, at that time, was probably going for 45 years or so and my dad said, ‘Son, I don’t believe I would leave there if I was you. Those people haven’t made that show last 45 years by being stupid. Those people know what they’re doing, and I think you need to stay connected with them. I don’t think it would be a good move long term. You might make more money now, but I think in the long run you’d be better to stay connected to the Opry,’” Anderson recalls.
“And that’s the advice that I took and now look. Sixty years, what would we be talking about if I had left? I’m just so thankful that he saw it that way encouraged me to see it that way.”
Sixty years since being invited to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry, Anderson says each Opry performance holds significant weight. While his nerves aren’t the same as that first appearance in 1959, he remembers Minnie Pearl’s words of wisdom each time he performs on the famed radio broadcast.
“I don’t get nervous, I get butterflies. Minnie Pearl told me one time, ‘If we don’t get butterflies, then it doesn’t mean as much to us as it should,’” he says. “It always means a lot to me. … It’s a family thing, that family feeling. I always knew it existed but until I felt it and was a part of [the Opry] it never really hit home like it does now. I’ve been so blessed.”