“Hey, Bub. It’s Bill Withers.”
Those were the words that greeted me the first time I spoke with the songwriter behind “Lean on Me,” “Just the Two of Us,” “Lovely Day” and “Grandma’s Hands,” who passed away on Monday, March 30, at the age of 81. We had arranged for a phone call to plan a public interview I was going to conduct with him as part of a weekend celebrating his receipt of an honorary doctorate from West Virginia University in May 2017.
I was nervous. Actually, nervous wasn’t the right word for it. Awestruck is more like it. I’d grown up with his music around me. Like many kids, I’d learned “Lean on Me” in sixth grade music class and had turned to his music plenty during dark times and joyous times alike. I’ve met many famous musicians in my line of work, but Bill Withers… He was something else.
That greeting was one that I had heard all my life. Bub, Bubba, Bubby– these are all affectionate terms heard when addressing our brothers, sons and nephews here in Appalachia, and I’d been called Bub by many of the men I respected most as I was growing up.
And Bill Withers was a man of this place, just a couple of hours down the road from where I grew up in southern West Virginia. Like many Appalachians of his generation, he sought better opportunities outside of the region, settling in Los Angeles after a stint in the U.S. Navy. But his fame and fortune— one carefully managed by his remarkably talented wife, Marcia— didn’t erase his sincere concern for common people. To me, he was “Mr. Withers.” But to him, I was Bub.
The way he talked about his grandma in “Grandma’s Hands” (1971) was familiar, too. After all, despite our many divisions in this region, I always say, we can all agree that we love our mamaws. And who was this grandma, after all? Someone who looked out for her neighbors, prayed loudly and played the tambourine even louder, and always made sure that her grandson was protected from harm. She was Bill’s grandma, but she was ours, too.
Bub is an intimate term. A false Bub rings as such and can easily lead to conflict. And Bill Withers was not one to provoke. As he acknowledged in “If I Didn’t Mean You Well” (1976), it can be difficult to know “if people really mean the things they say.” But Bill wasn’t one to lie, remarking that, “If I didn’t mean you well, / I’d go and find another place to play.”
Bill Withers prayed for us like one would pray for a dear loved on. In “I Wish You Well” (1975), he spoke “flowers, sunshine, and smiles,” “children that grow to make you proud” and “blessings and kindness from above” into our lives. He challenged us to be vulnerable with each other in “Lean on Me” (1972), calling on us to “swallow [our] pride” and ask for help “for no one can fill those of your needs / that you won’t let show.” In 1978, he reminded us to “Look to Each Other for Love,” a simple and pure love that he believed that would save us all.
That intimacy also reared its head in some of Withers’s darker compositions, those songs that captured the struggles of the people he encountered everywhere he went. The B-side of his debut album, “Just As I Am” (1971), included four songs about broken relationships— “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” “I’m Her Daddy,” “In My Heart” and “Better Off Dead”— that form a larger narrative of loss that ends with a suicidal gunshot. In “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” (1973), he presented the voice of a young man who, having been shot while serving in the Vietnam War, opened up about his excitement for war, his unpreparedness for combat and his fear as he faced death. And, of course, in “Ain’t No Sunshine” (1971), we learn of the devastating loneliness that comes “any time [his beloved] goes away.”
That greeting is also something an older man might say to a young man before he offers some paternal advice. And Bill Withers was a font of wisdom. A stutterer into his thirties, he had spent his formative years observing the human condition, and he had powerful insights into the revolutionary world-building power that we each contain. In an interview with Anna Sale of WNYC’s Death, Sex, and Money podcast, for instance, he counseled listeners to see the true nature of fear, reminding us that “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 you do in spite of being afraid.” Withers was also a passionate mentor to those who had walked his path, particularly in his advocacy for young stutterers through SAY: The Stuttering Association for the Young witnessed in a tearful scene in the 1999 documentary “Still Bill.”
As the many encomia that have been published in the wake of Withers’s passing attest, his music and personality resonated widely, crossing race, class, gender, sexuality and political ideology. In these trying times in which we find ourselves wondering what the very nature of truth is, his death offers an opportunity to pause and reflect on the core human values that he espoused. In these days of social distancing, he calls upon us to lean on each other and look out for each other when life gets hard. (No wonder, then, that “Lean on Me” has been taken up in a number of communities since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
And here in West Virginia, where Bill Withers was raised, let us recall the power of his simple greeting to convey love, compassion, vulnerability and intimacy as we continue to work toward a more just and equitable world for ourselves and our neighbors.
Travis D. Stimeling is associate professor of musicology at West Virginia University, where he also directs the WVU Bluegrass and Old-Time Band. He is the author or editor of several books on country music.