When did your TV show begin?
February of 1965, and it lasted until May of 1974. So I had the syndicated show for nine years.
So, really, you and Porter (Wagoner) and Flatt & Scruggs, really helped spread the banner to a new audience, didn't you?
And the Wilburn Brothers.
Yeah; don't leave them out, because their show was very big, and, you know, it launched Loretta (Lynn)'s career. So, yeah, those were primarily the first syndicated shows. There were others that came along later, but those were the ones that kind of, plowed the ground, I guess.
And that led to other TV work; game shows, and even a soap opera.
(Laughs) My whole life's been a soap opera.
(Laughs) There was The Better Sex, that you co-hosted with Sarah Purcell, that was the game show.
That was the one I did out in California; that was on ABC.
I did that in '77 and '78, or '78 and '79, somewhere back in there. In the distant past.
And the soap opera was One Life To Live?
One Life To Live; right. That was on ABC, too.
What made you want to do a soap opera?
It wasn't that I wanted to do it. It was that the opportunity presented itself, and I wasn't going to turn it down. And the same thing with the game show, really. I started going out to California back in the 70s, and guesting on a lot of game shows. Match Game and Password and Hollywood Squares and things like that. And, the opportunity just kinda presented itself. I got to know people, they got to know me, and somebody said one day, "Gee, you want to try out to host one of these things?" And I thought, "Well, why not?" I've never done that; might as well learn something about it.
I had a chance to learn from the master of game shows, Mark Goodson, and if nothing else, I'd treat it as a learning experience, you know. And it worked.
And the soap came as a result of that?
And, then, when ABC took the game show off - they didn't take it off because it wasn't doing well because it actually was doing well - they just wanted to get more heavily involved in the soaps, and they wanted to expand their soap time, they had to have the time back. And, so, the lady who was the head of ABC daytime (programming) at that time, Jackie Smith, she came to me and was almost crying. She was telling me how bad she felt 'cause the game show got canceled and it wasn't my fault, it wasn't the show's fault. She said, "I'll just use you on some of the soap operas," and I said, "Yeah; sure you will. Thank you very much."
But she did.
And then, doggone if she didn't do it! And so, it was just kind of an opportunity that presented itself and it actually worked out very well, because at the time the "Urban Cowboy" thing was so big in the late 70s and early 80s, and they kinda tied the country thing in with the soap opera and did very well with it.
And then you went "disco."
(Laughter) Ah, I tried a little bit of everything.
Whose idea was that?
Mine. Mine, and Buddy Killen's. Actually, I went to Buddy with it, because the disco beat was so ... all over the radio and everything in those days. I said to Buddy, "You know, I kinda like the disco beat. Why can't you put a country melody, a plain country song, to that beat?" He said, "I don't know. I don't know why we can't. Want to try it?" He was producing my records then, and I said, "Yeah, let's try it!" So, I fooled around, and tried to write some songs, and came up with "I Can't Wait Any Longer," which was the one he liked the best, so we tried it, and it worked! It was a Number One record.
And that one crossed over to Pop, too.
It was kind of a strange thing, from an overall career standpoint. It was either the thing people liked better than anything I had ever done, or they absolutely hated it. It was one of those real "love-hate" things. There wasn't a lot of middle ground on it.
Was that something that gave you a chance to poke a little fun at your own image?
Probably. It was probably a way of saying that ... I take what I do seriously, but I don't take myself all that seriously.
And that's kind of ... yeah, it probably was. And I did! And it worked.
Did you, sort of, see your number coming in the 80s when MCA started dumping people. They released Ernest Tubb and Kitty Wells ...
Well, I guess I knew; you know, I was there for 23 years. So, you know, how many people stay at one record company for 23 years. But, yeah, I knew, that things were starting to change. The day they didn't renew my contract, I was not in shock.
Right. So, the Fine Wine album was your first one in, how long?
I did Fine Wine in '98, and then (recorded) the new one in 2000, yeah. So, that was the first one in, probably, 12 or 14 years. I hadn't done any since the mid-80s. I mean, I had done some singles and things, but I don't think I had done an album.
Tell me about "I Wonder If God Likes Country Music." That was the duet you did with Roy Acuff, and one of the last things that he did before he passed away.
Probably one of the highlights of my life and my career, was to get to do that with Roy Acuff. It's one of those very, very special things, and I still pinch myself and say, "Why me, Lord?" But, yeah, that was very special.
Is that one of your favorites, out of all the things you've recorded?
A fellow down in Texas sent that to me, a woman down there had written it, and it was sent to me. And it was just sent to me as a straight song, and the more I listened to it, the more I liked the idea of puttin' somebody else's voice in there, and I never dreamed that Roy Acuff would do it. I was so thrilled that he did.
What would be the favorites among your songs, the ones you've written?
Oh, I guess you've always got a few. It's kinda hard to narrow it down. "Mama Sang A Song," probably, because it's pretty autobiographical, and it touches on some things that are very personal to me. And, for new things, the title song of my new album, "A Lot Of Things Different," which I think, hopefully, will go down as one of the more successful things I've written. Kenny Chesney has just recorded it, and he's got an incredible record on it. And, hopefully, that will be out in the next few months. Just strictly from a song standpoint, that's one of the favorite songs that I've ever done. There's a long way in between those two; 1961 and 2001 (laughs).
How has your approach to writing changed, over the years?
Well, I think it has broadened a lot. By co-writing, I've been able to get with people who come at it from, you know, a different place than I come at it from. People whose background is in pop music as well as opposed to country, and that has broadened my scope a little bit. And, the whole co-writing thing ... I didn't think co-writing was something that I would enjoy; I didn't think it was something that I could do. But, I found out that I can do it, and I found out that I enjoy it.
And, it has been successful with Vince (Gill), and Steve (Wariner), and some of the others ...
Been very successful; yeah. Thank goodness! I'm so glad I got into it. I was a little reluctant, but Vince and Steve had two of the ones that helped me to realize that it was something that I could do, and something that I wanted to do.
How does the Opry fit now?
Well, I kinda have my time divided into thirds now. I spend about a third of my time writing, I spend about a third of my time on the road and I spend about a third of my time to the Opry, and the Backstage television show. The TV show has been a real boost to me; it's kind of a double-edged sword, because I give up some Saturday nights on the road, where, you know, I'd make more money than I would stayin' at home and doin' the TV show.
But, the TV show has opened a lot of doors, and particularly now, since it's about the only thing - well, it is - the only thing country left on TNN. And about the only thing country that's left on television, period.
People look at our show to get their news and get their information, and then get their country music "fix" on Saturday nights. My original commitment was to be here 26 Saturday nights a year, to do it. And I try to be here a little more than that; I think I probably end up doing it 30 to 35 times a year.
Speaking of where the Opry fits, where does the Opry fit into the overall scheme of country music now?
Well, I think the Opry has kinda reemerged in recent years, as a place for young talent. I think the approach to the Opry has changed a little bit, in that you used to, pretty much, have had the success before you got on the Opry. There's some people on the Opry now that are young artists, kind of, budding young artists. Brad Paisley was certainly one, and now he's the newest member, and a girl named Elizabeth Cook and some others that they're using on the Opry quite a bit.
Again, I think the climate for the Opry is better than it's been in a while, because there is no Nashville Now, there is no Prime Time Country (NOTE: Both prime time variety series that ran on The Nashville Network. -- T.W.), there's no TNN as we knew it, years ago. So I think there's more focus on the Opry right now. And I think the Opry is walkin' a real healthy line between the traditional and the new, and everything in the middle, and the crowds are up, attendance is up, and there seems to be a new interest in the Opry right now.
So, how are we going to turn country radio around?
(Laughter) If I knew that, we'd all be rich (laughs). That's the "$64,000 question." I think you're gonna see ... I think satellite radio is going to make a difference. Satellite radio is going to come in, before this year is over, and there's gonna be traditional country music on both of the new satellite radio services. I think, when the country fans find out that they can hear traditional country music, and the songs that they like, on satellite radio, I think you're going to see a lot of them go out and invest in satellite radios in their cars and their homes. I think that's gonna be a major step. I really think that is going to be very successful.
As far as the other situation in radio, it's so different now. I've seen country music go into slumps before, but the big corporate thing in country radio now, where one outfit is owning 200 stations, and this kind of thing. I mean, that's just something we've never had to deal with before.
And, I think it's time to figure out some alternate ways of exposure. I think the internet offers tremendous possibilities, and I'm seeing some people starting their own ... Like, Ricky Skaggs has started his own record label and so forth.
Yes, and he's been successful with it.
So, we're seeing new ways to advertise and promote the music, without necessarily going through country radio. So, I think the music is going to survive; I hope some things change at the radio level, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
But, we still need another early 80s, in a sense, not the "urban cowpile" stuff, but having a Randy Travis and Ricky Skaggs and the like coming along. We need some more like that.
Well, I think if they came out today, they'd have a tough time getting played. There's got to be a way for them to get exposed and heard.
But, in music, nothing stands still, and there's a lot of talk about a new country music network, television network, coming on the air. There's satellite radio, and there's somebody out there stirrin' the pot all the time, and we don't know exactly what's gonna happen, but I think something will.
Website : www.billanderson.com