Her “Scars and Scuffmarks” Make Beautiful Bluegrass
By Larry Nager
There are as many different reasons for playing bluegrass as there are bluegrass musicians. For Dale Ann Bradley, two-time IBMA Female Vocalist Of The Year, bluegrass is affirmation, celebration, a soft place to fall, part of her eastern Kentucky birthright and, finally, a gift. It’s been her companion through a hardscrabble life, brought her out of a bad marriage, helped with the struggles of raising a son on her own and, for the past decade, eased her fight with diabetes. She picked the right ally, apparently.
Bradley came to our lunch meeting in downtown Nashville after a sleepless night of flying back from a week of performing, teaching music, and battling mosquitoes in northwestern Canada. Despite being covered in welts and profoundly jet-lagged, her eyes sparkled and her face lit with that wide-open smile as soon as she started talking about her new album, “Don’t Turn Your Back,” her second for Compass Records.
Raised in Bell County in eastern Kentucky, Bradley’s strict religious upbringing kept her away from secular music of any kind until her teens. As with so many things, growing up without it taught her its real value. “Just getting started into music at all was quite a feat, because my religious background was Primitive Baptist. We had no musical instruments. I was about 14 before I got a guitar. But, it was hard to get a hold of recorded music, even up until I got into high school.”
Today, a seasoned professional for more than 25 years, Bradley still doesn’t take music for granted. Nashville is an industry town, but she never uses the word “product” when referring to her music. To her, it’s a statement of who she is. “‘Don’t Turn Your Back’ kind of sets the theme for the album,” Bradley explains. While the title sounds like something said in a lover’s spat, it’s a reminder of how to face life’s challenges—head on. “Like the song says, ‘Don’t turn your back.’ Just don’t give up. There’s a way to be made, even if sometimes the path is long and it’s not easy.”
Pineville to Renfro Valley
Bradley’s path started in the town of Pineville where she was born to Pearlie Ann and Elder Roger Price. When she finally got that guitar, there was no stopping her, and informal jam sessions soon turned into Back Porch Grass, a band that played throughout eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. By 1984, she was competing in the regional finals of the Marlboro Country Music Talent Roundup held in Lexington, which, for the small-town teen “might as well have been New York City.” Her band didn’t win, but Bradley met another bluegrass group in the contest, the all-female New Coon Creek Girls, who apparently liked Back Porch Grass’s singer. A few years later, Bradley got a call.
In 1989, New Coon Creek Girls Pam Gadd and Pam Perry were leaving to form another all-female band, Wild Rose, which would enjoy some chart success with its blend of bluegrass and commercial country. The New Coon Creek Girls contacted Bradley to fill Perry’s mandolin spot. She plays mandolin, but not as well as guitar, and didn’t get the job.
A lot happened in the five years since meeting the New Coon Creek Girls and getting that job offer. Bradley had married, given birth to a son, and gotten a divorce. “I married when I was twenty and my ex-husband was in the Navy, and he went overseas for eight months,” she recalls. Returning stateside, he was stationed in Jacksonville, Fla., and the dutiful wife moved with her newborn son from her childhood home. She quickly realized it wasn’t the life she wanted. “I was pretty homesick for Kentucky, and I wanted to pick, and I was in a place where that just wasn’t gonna happen,” she says. “I call it a hiatus now, or a sabbatical or whatever. But, there couldn’t be a marriage and a music career. It couldn’t happen. But, I probably needed that to see just exactly what I wanted, you know?”
She took her infant son, John Fitzgerald Bradley, Jr., and moved to Somerset, Ky., where her old friend and Back Porch Grass bandmate, Harold McGeorge, helped her get back into music and produced her first demo. She took that recording with her when she auditioned for the New Coon Creek Girls in Renfro Valley, Ky., where they had a regular spot on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Bradley also dropped a demo at the Renfro Valley office before going on to Nashville to meet with music publishers and generally test the waters. By the time she got back to Pineville, where her grandmother was caring for her son, Renfro Valley had already called with a job. For Bradley, it was a true musical homecoming, confirmation she’d made the right choice by moving back to Kentucky.
Though overshadowed by more famous, more commercial radio barn dances like the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride, Renfro Valley is one of the longest-running. Founder John Lair (who ran things until his death in 1985 at age 91) had helped start the WLS Barn Dance in Chicago before returning to his beloved Renfro Valley to start a show there. He even wrote, “Take Me Back To Renfro Valley,” the program’s theme song, and built a special entertainment complex to house the show. In 1937, during construction, Lair staged his barn dance 140 miles to the north, in Cincinnati on WLW. After Lair left, WLW continued as The Boone County Jamboree, important in the development of bluegrass and country music in the Midwest.
Unlike its flashier brothers, the Renfro Valley Barn Dance avoided any whiff of commercialism, presenting old-time string bands and ballad singers. One of its defining acts was an all-girl string band that Lair formed and named the Coon Creek Girls. They had flower names—sisters Rosie and Lily May Ledford, Violet Koehler, and Daisy Lange—and, in 1939, they were so well known, they played for Franklin Roosevelt at the White House. Lily May became a revered figure in the ’60s folk revival and the self-styled “Banjo Pickin’ Girl” frequently appeared at folk, bluegrass, and old-time music festivals.
Given its history of traditionalism, as well as its reputation for featuring female musicians in more than the typical “girl singer” roles, Renfro Valley was the perfect place for Bradley to seriously begin her career. After two seasons, the talented young woman had become a seasoned performer. “What I learned from Renfro Valley was invaluable. We might have 12 shows a week. Tour groups were going through, and there were shows about every day, but Monday. What I learned there I couldn’t have learned anywhere else. I learned exactly what to do and what not to do.”
Coon Creek and Beyond
The New Coon Creek Girls were also part of the broadcast and when the guitar spot opened, Bradley was first choice. “When I joined in January of 1991, we had Pam Perry on mandolin, Vicki Simmons on bass (one of the strongest female musicians I ever worked with), and a wonderful singer, Ramona Church. And Deanie Richardson was there a big percentage of the time.”
This is when the bluegrass world really started taking note of Dale Ann Bradley. The group’s album “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” released in 1994 on Pinecastle, reveals all the elements that would win Bradley her IBMA awards. The title song by Kentucky old-time music icon Jean Ritchie, showcases Bradley’s strong, warmly-expressive lead voice. She sings every word like she means it, part of her eastern Kentucky upbringing. She believes that’s a big difference between her generation—for whom bluegrass comes from experience and a connection to tradition—and today’s freshman class. “The kids today in bluegrass, it’s a wonderful energy, but it’s a different energy. And I think people my age might be the last of that generation that really lived those songs hardcore. There’s so much technology now, so much more available just effortlessly. It wasn’t like that when we were growing up. It was still much like what it was with our parents.”
With Bradley fronting the group, the New Coon Creek Girls were moving up in the bluegrass ranks, garnering more airplay, festival bookings, and a steady stream of recordings. It was a busy time for Bradley, and the band’s sound was evolving. “The material started changing as me and Ramona came to the band and Pam Perry came back from Nashville. We started writing a whole lot, and the melodies were different, and that was good with that combination.”
Bradley had come of age in the ’70s, perhaps the last era when great melodies reigned in pop, rock, R&B, and country music. She brought some of those melodic influences to the band, both in terms of covers, as well as with her own writing.
Meanwhile, bandmembers were moving on, getting married, and having children. Deanie Richardson (who is now Bradley’s manager) had become one of Nashville’s first-call session players. Maintaining the “all-girl” concept was getting harder, says Bradley. “I don’t think it would be that way now, but, at that time, it would have been impossible to replace those women. It would not have been that strong. And I didn’t want to have an all-girl band just for the sake of having an all girl-band. So we just hired some guys and tried to keep the Coon Creek name—Dale Ann Bradley and Coon Creek.” Coon Creek featured such notable “guys” as fiddler Michael Cleveland. Cleveland did two stints with Bradley, who finally dropped the Coon Creek name when she recorded her first Compass CD, “Catch Tomorrow” (2006).
Both Compass albums were produced by label CEO Alison Brown, who also contributed masterful banjo. It continues the Bradley tradition of banjo-picking producers. (Sonny Osborne worked with her at Pinecastle).
Her love of banjo is the reason she’s so excited about the newest addition to the Dale Ann Bradley Band, Terry Baucom, whose banjo has driven some of the best bluegrass bands of the past thirty years, starting with Boone Creek. “Terry Baucom is phenomenal,” says Bradley. “He is an energy force on stage. When we’ll present his part of the show, you got to come up to par with him. He demands that you bring out the best in yourself. Not by being critical, but he’s gonna do it and you gotta do it. And when he kicks the song off, you’ve gotta be with him. No way to not be with him. I’m very thankful to have him in the band. He’s brought everything up several levels. He’ll make you be better.”
On bass, her son Gerald has been filling in while he finishes school at Berea College. “He’s gonna be playing with me a few shows coming up. He played the Opry a few years back. The bass player couldn’t make it, and I thought he was ready. He dressed up real sharp. He wasn’t sweating at all, until we were standing there right at the edge of the stage, and he was green. He said, ‘Mom, I’m gonna be sick.’ I said, ‘Now’s not the time.’ And he went out there and busted it! He did so good.”
Bradley relocated to Nashville in 2007. It was a tough move. “In the back of your mind, you always wonder, ‘What if? What if I went down to Nashville?’ At the time I moved here, writing was really the thing on my mind. And, I had met a lot of people. I thought I could get into that circle, but I knew I had to be here to do it. My son was a sophomore in college, pretty self-sufficient. And my dad was doing well, and I just felt so compelled. I never felt more compelled to do anything. So, I loaded up the big Ryder® truck and came down here. It took a little adjusting, but I toughed it out.” She says she stayed because of her father’s reaction to a particularly homesick phone call. “He was like, ‘Unh-uh, you’ve ran all your life. You just stay right there.’ If he had said, ‘Aww, come on home,’ I’d have been right back there in Kentucky. But, there was nothing for me to do back there, to advance or even make a living with what I was doing.”
She sings about the struggle of making it in Nashville on her new CD’s closing track, “Music City Queen,” co-written with longtime collaborator, and one of Bradley’s favorite songwriters, Louisa Branscomb. That song’s theme of broken dreams at the corner of Broadway and tomorrow, notwithstanding, Nashville has been a very good move for Bradley. Along with back-to-back IBMA wins, she’s even cracking mainstream Nashville’s bluegrass ceiling. Her video for “Don’t Turn Your Back” recently debuted on CMT at number two, beating country superstars Carrie Underwood and Reba McEntire. “It’s a cool thing at this time in my life and this time in my career,” she says of the video’s success. “I think it’s saying a lot about our society, how it’s relating to music. I think people are wanting to see and hear something that’s real, not just polished up. I really do love the video. I think it’s about as real and human as it can get. It’s just me, it’s just the band, it’s where I’m from. There’s nothing doctored up. I put a little hairspray and a little lipstick on, and that’s it. Other than that, it’s what you see is what you get.”
The new CD also dips back to some of her favorite ’70s and ’80s pop and rock music, with bluegrass arrangements of Christine McVie’s Fleetwood Mac hit, “Over My Head,” and, keeping with Bradley’s resolute character, Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
Apart from all the other challenges facing a woman leading a bluegrass band in 2009, Bradley has had to deal with diabetes, diagnosed about six years ago. “I’d probably had it for about ten years, since I was 35. I’m doing better. I’m regulated on medicine. I’ve lost weight. I try to eat like I’m supposed to. But, the energy level’s been where it’s really got me. Sinus infections, if you’re a diabetic, it takes ’em longer to heal. Being diabetic, you have to realize that if you have it, you’ve got to deal with it. It’s not something that’s just going to disappear. You have to deal with it.” Even as she complains about fatigue, there she sits, just off that Canadian trip with no sleep, talking with more enthusiasm and energy than most teens.
It’s taken Dale Ann Bradley a long time to get to this place, from that first guitar in Pineville to her painful exile from bluegrass as a Navy wife to juggling music and single motherhood and, finally, to building her award-winning solo career. All that living, the good times and bad, comes through in her music. And she feels that’s what people relate to when they hear her sing. “It is living and hard experiences. There’s a lot of scars and a lot of scuffmarks there, as there is with a lot of people. ‘Hey, that’s one of us.’ When I see something like that, something that’s real and not doctored up, I can relate to that. It makes me feel good, it really does.” Which brings her full circle to her song, “Don’t Turn Your Back.”
“We don’t need to forget hard times. They’re hard going through, but we sure do grow from them, if you’ll allow yourself to learn from ’em, and not deny it. Those hard times helped build this music.”
Larry Nager is a Nashville-based journalist, musician, and filmmaker. His 1993 documentary Bill Monroe: Father Of Bluegrass Music is now available on DVD.