Raised in the small town of Auburndale (pronounced “Orburndale” by locals), Braddock paints a vivid portrait of a Florida not just easily forgotten but now long gone. Auburndale, he says, “was strictly a citrus town. Most of the people there grew it, bought it, sold it, picked it, packed it, or canned it.” Central Florida was largely rural and agricultural, Walt Disney Productions had yet to transform 27,000 acres into a child’s dream and an environmentalist’s nightmare, and the tropical landscape was vastly wilder and more gothically Southern than neon pink and Miami Vice. Braddock’s parents’ home was situated between two lakes surrounded by royal palms and banyan trees, and breezes carried the scent of orange blossoms through open windows. “At night,” he says, “the alligators crawled through our yard, going from one lake to the other.” Snakes were everywhere: “There were green ones in the orange trees, brown ones in the oak trees, black ones in the sand, and striped ones in the grass. They coiled up in the shade on a hot sunny day, and they crawled all around at night. One managed to get inside the house and into my playpen when I was a toddler.”
Braddock’s father, P.E. Braddock, was the son of a Civil War veteran and much respected in business and agriculture. Sounding like “a deep-voiced W.C. Fields with a Southern accent,” he was proud of the Florida produce he grew. Upon seeing California oranges in the supermarket, he dismissed them as “about the size of cherries.” Lavonia Braddock was significantly younger than her husband—nearly 25 years—but resourceful enough to reform her husband’s heavy drinking: “She started pouring syrup of ipecac, which induces vomiting, into his whiskey bottles.” His father never knew why, finally concluding, “I just cannn’t keep that stuff on my stomach anymooore.”
The strength of Down in Orburndale is Braddock’s honesty. At 20, he suffered from anxiety and depression so severe he believed he was dying. Yet Braddock doesn’t neglect the humor. Because he has Tourette’s Syndrome, he blinks, stutters and makes a “quick, doglike panting sound” right before speaking. At 15—an awkward age already—the symptoms were obvious. Explaining why he didn’t hang with the “cool guys,” he says, “Imagine meeting this scrawny kid, eyes blinking like the lights on a Christmas tree, panting like a dog. If you were in a new environment seeking out friends, is this someone you would want to include in your circle?”
Braddock’s best known songs are narrative, which may explain why his first time out as a memoirist is so successful. Though in places the book could be tighter, and the significance of some recollections clearer, Braddock’s purpose is never in doubt: he writes in service to scene and place, each detail an attempt to evoke another era, another man, another Florida now vanished. The best of these descriptions are gems. Consider the neighbor who “had read ‘gird thy loins’ in the Bible, so wore a girdle every day,” or the day Braddock says lightning “hit the pavement between my mother and me as we crossed a street in Auburndale,” or his cure for the “major anxiety and depression and forlornness” of coming down from amphetamines: “I soon learned that drinking buttermilk helped a little.”
With Down in Orburndale: A Songwriter’s Youth in Old Florida, Braddock tells of searching for his place in the world and floundering, yet never quitting music. He describes life on the road and on the move, run ins with con artists and big talkers, gigs playing to a crowd of half a dozen and earning 50 cents in the process, starving on a diet of candy bars and milk, and rare chances to play with a young Gram Parsons. Braddock views “these misadventures and tragedies and comedies as good story fodder,” but admits approaching “the telling of them with much trepidation because I know I’ll be walking back through haunted houses and stirring up old forgotten ghosts.” But, he says, “Tell it I must. Everyone who survives their youth has their story, and this is mine.”
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