Owen Bradley: 1915 to 1998
Owen Bradley, Carl Perkins, Cliffie Stone — the recent deaths of these country music giants raise the obvious but vexing question: Who’s gonna fill their shoes? More than just major figures, each of these men stamped their character and vision onto music that is now part of our national consciousness. Bradley gave us the lush, string-laden Nashville Sound; Perkins the vernacular of rockabilly guitar; Stone the West Coast honky-tonk that became the Bakersfield Sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
Spice kids Shania and Garth will go down in history for the units they moved, Music Row producer-execs Tony Brown and Jimmy Bowen for their devotion to the bottom line; but Bradley, Perkins, and Stone loom as standard-bearers. In light of the recent passings of Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, and Bill Monroe, not to mention the declining health of Owens, Haggard, Kitty Wells, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Chet Atkins, and others, it indeed looks as though a classic era in country music is drawing to a close.
Along with Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley gave birth to the orchestral splendor known as “The Nashville Sound.” During his 30-year tenure at Decca Records and, later, at MCA, Bradley, who died Jan. 7 at the age of 82, produced the records of numerous country and bluegrass legends. He worked with Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Webb Pierce, Johnnie & Jack, Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys, Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, and “Whispering” Bill Anderson — most of them at Nashville’s first independent recording studio, which Bradley established in 1952. Bradley, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, also played piano on recordings by Hank Williams Sr. and Elvis Presley.
Over the years, critics have maligned Bradley for polishing the rougher edges off the mountain and honky-tonk styles of country music’s first commercial heyday. That’s certainly true of the records he made with Foley and Anderson; yet far from monolithic, Bradley tailored his productions to the unique voices of his artists.
With Tubb and Pierce, he kept things lean and gutbucket, making records with one foot planted firmly in the honky-tonks. With Cline, Lee, Twitty, and, in 1988, k.d. lang, Bradley opted for sophisticated, urbane arrangements that mirrored these singers’ soulful styles. And with Lynn, Bradley not only highlighted the banjo and fiddle, he insisted that the Butcher Hollow native not try to hide her down-home drawl; he also encouraged her to write her own material.
More than that, Bradley had a big heart. Before she charted her first single, Lynn came to him in tears, unable to afford groceries or rent; without hesitation, Bradley gave her a thousand dollars out of his own pocket. Those who knew him best confirm that a generous spirit was his most memorable quality.