Down In Orburndale: A Songwriter’s Youth In Old Florida
A portrait of the artist as a young extremist, Bobby Braddock’s Down In Orburndale: A Songwriter’s Youth In Old Florida ends in late 1964 with Braddock heading off to Nashville, where he would gain fame as one of the great humanist songwriters in country music history. Braddock’s hit for George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (written with Curly Putman), stands as one of country’s defining recordings, and his reputation among listeners and fellow songwriters is enormous. He’s still active, enjoying in 2001 the distinction of two #1 hits, one as producer for Blake Shelton’s “Austin” and another as writer of Toby Keith’s “I Wanna Talk About You”.
Certainly, his amazingly productive career bears out one’s impression of a gifted, nervous sponge who wanted not so much to escape his upbringing as to make sense of it. Down In Orburndale gives us a portrait of a driven, peculiar young man with a hectic mind — a talented hypochondriac and, of course, a student of music as it was heard in small clubs and on the radio a half-century ago. As with many first-rate memoirs, what might pass for superfluous detail in the hands of a less gifted writer becomes necessary backdrop for a story that begins to seem foreordained, charmed.
Born on August 5, 1940, Braddock grew up in a part of Florida that is today hardly recognizable as “rural and small-town Central Florida before Disney World.” He catches the flavor of a “small country town” whose name, Auburndale, became “Orburndale” as spoken by “people who worked at the packing houses and citrus processing plants.”
It’s something of a dreamscape, or a place waking up from a dream. “Little balls of gold covered the surrounding countryside like weeds and wildflowers, as far as the eye could see,” he writes. His father, Paul E. Braddock, had made money in the area in the 1920s, buying land and planting citrus groves, and Bobby displays a novelist’s eye describing him: “P.E., as he was known thereabouts, looked back over his shoulder, wide eyed and making loud sucking sounds, as he always did when backing the car out of the attached garage.”
He’s equally deft in his characterization of his mother, the former Eunice Lavonia Valentine, employing the novelist’s trick of sketching her by gesture. “It was said that Lavonia smiled from ear to ear, and she smiled just as big with her deep green eyes,” Braddock introduces her. Later on, he continues: “My mother’s smile was very big but not toothy. It was a big line that smiled on up into her face as far as it would go, and where the mouth left off, the eyes took over and smiled as well.”
This mastery of seemingly offhand nuance would characterize Braddock’s classic songs, but it’s the casual yet very committed narrative intensity of Down In Orburndale that parallels and reveals the combination of luck, connections, travel, grit and sheer ignorance that would enable him to write his great statements in country music, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”. His account of playing small clubs in the “time bomb” of early-’60s Birmingham, Alabama, is entertaining. So is the tale of his apprenticeship as pianist for John Wilkie Taylor, a transplanted Tennessean who had emigrated to Aurburndale. (In Taylor’s band, Braddock performed Ray Charles numbers, Coasters songs, and the hits of the day.)
Along the way Braddock develops a taste for women — the book ends with him riding off with his wife, Sue, to run the “obstacle course” of Nashville’s music business — has too much fun with amphetamines, and briefly becomes a religious extremist, just to balance everything out. “Crazy In Orburndale” is the funniest and most moving section of the book, as Braddock works out who he is while stuck back home with his parents. His mother cooks him cowpeas and key lime pie as he plays Eddie Boyd songs in local clubs, and Braddock drinks buttermilk to come down after downing Dexedrine-soaked cotton he takes out of Rexall Inhalers.
Whether it was the speed or, more likely, a natural inclination, Braddock notices everything, taking in the local accent, adjusting to Atlanta and Miami and Orlando. He plays on some demo sessions for another up-and-coming southern boy with serious citrus connections, Gram Parsons, and hangs out with Benny Joy, a former rockabilly star from Tampa. “He was friendly but somewhat overbearing,” Braddock writes of Joy. “Though only his late twenties, he was such a nervous wreck that his entire head trembled.” Elsewhere, Braddock discusses writing songs about his experiences with girls named Billie and Gloria, and pens one called “I Knew Her When” about a girl who “drove down to the river and committed suicide.”
Braddock’s memoir stands alongside the work of Flannery O’Connor and Robert Penn Warren as an account of a south in its first throes of self-consciousness and urbanism. He comes across as a pure product of the region, yet he emphasizes his essential difference. Too, he seems to have understood that memoir-writing usually works best when the author appears self-satisfied without lapsing into self-indulgence. On the road, in trouble, trying to figure out how to refine shuffle-style piano in the service of songwriting success, and succeeding beyond his wildest dreams, Bobby Braddock makes himself into a poet of the disappearing South.