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Bill Anderson: The First 10 Years: 1956–1966

While many highly regarded country artists have immortalized songs from Bill Anderson’s perpetually prolific pen, his own best-known recordings have leaned toward pop-friendly fare, a fact that often dims the perception of his contributions to country music’s past and present. The First 10 Years: 1956–1966, a four-disc box set covering the star’s first decade, is a handsomely designed collection that revisits seven complete Decca albums plus many previously unavailable tracks. These discs, along with a 64-page book, tell the story of his rise to fame and the period in which he hit many of his highest peaks as both singer and songwriter.

The more than six hours of music here sheds light on multiple sides of the entertainer, prompting reconsideration of Anderson’s low-key crooner reputation as well as illuminating the contradictions contained within his restless, creative soul. All one need do is compare the frothy, cosmopolitan 1961 version of “City Lights” against the gratifyingly pared-down twang of the 1957 original to understand how Anderson’s commercial-mindedness and compliance could short-circuit his initial instincts.

While his affection for honky-tonk-styled fare can be heard scattered throughout the collection, it’s the mid-’50s, pre-Decca sides that most effectively display the harder-edged influences not generally associated with the country elder today. These early singles also reveal Anderson’s search for a distinctive sound and vocal style—which wouldn’t emerge until producer Owen Bradley, noting the young singer’s vocal strengths and limitations, assigned him the soft-spoken, sentimental niche that would gain him the permanent moniker “Whisperin’ Bill.” This would both cement his professional legend and, less fortuitously, set the artist apart from the revered realm of rawer-sounding and more rebelliously inclined stars such as Buck Owens and Hank Williams.

Bill’s take on Hank’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” offers evidence that his subdued vocal style wasn’t best suited for conveying unchecked grief, though the bulk of this rich, bittersweet collection is nonetheless dominated by tales of loneliness and tragedy—classically country subjects that, in Bill Anderson’s warm, intimate telling, somehow conversely offer a soothing balm. By combining the comfort of his unique voice, his endlessly varied songwriting output and a comprehensive look at his early career and rise to fame, Bear Family has created a package that avid collectors of the Whisperer will want to shout about—perhaps even from the rooftops, above those city lights.

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