It is probably no surprise that I am a lover of podcasts, and I was recently introduced to Anna Sale’s podcast Death, Sex & Money. It is a new favorite. This week I listened to her interview with Bill Withers. Of course I was familiar with Wither’s popular works of Ain’t No Sunshine, Lean on Me, Use Me, Just the Two of Us – in my humble opinion, they are some of the best songs ever written. Yet, I embarrassingly knew very little about the man who wrote and recorded them.
Sale’s interview with Withers, “How to Be a Man with Bill Withers,” introduced me to the fact that he did not record his first album until he was in his 30s. He grew up in a small town in West Virginia, the youngest of 6 children, and was born with a stutter. He eventually joined the Navy in order to leave his hometown, and stayed in it until 1965. It was at that time that he helped himself overcome his stutter, and took jobs as a milkman and then as a Navy aircraft mechanic. In between shifts he taught himself how to play the guitar and saved up enough money in order to record a demo of the songs he wrote.
He made is first album, Just As I Am, when he was 32 years old – which in the music business is pretty ancient. He continued to work in the factory until he was let go from that job. It was a couple months later that he received a letter asking him to perform on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. As you can imagine, that changed everything. Withers went on to create a handful of albums, but stopped all together in the mid-80s after negative experiences working with the big label, Columbia. So, there were only about ten years that Withers was putting out records and recording – when you hear the beauty that is his music, this is somewhat hard to believe.
He has little to no interest in creating more songs or being on stage. His love was clearly in songwriting and not in being the center of attention. In an interview with Rolling Stone, “Bill Withers: The Soul Man Who Walked Away,” he explained, “I’m very pleased with my life how it is. This business came to me in my thirties. I was socialized as a regular guy. I never felt like I owned it or it owned me.” When someone finds success in something they love, there can be a real fear in letting that go and moving past it when it no longer is serving you. In his interview with Sale he tells her,
If I were gonna write anything longer than a song, I would write about fear. People get stuck in situations and they want to do something else but they’re afraid. And there’s no way not to be afraid. But to me, courage is not not being afraid; it’s, what do you do in spite of being afraid.
I wasn’t familiar with Wither’s song I Wish You Well, until I heard it on the podcast and it is quickly becoming a new favorite – particularly the line, “Wanna wish you freedom to do the things you love.” Withers waited until he was in his 30s to be able to do the thing he loved, but wasn’t afraid to walk away from it when it was no longer on his terms or providing him joy. Teaching me that it is worth the wait to ‘do the things you love’ and that life can change our idea of what that is, too. The important thing is to stay connected to that deeper part of why you love it and always stay centered around that – and not the end product. It’s not easy, but necessary. With that, I wish you well…