More than any single person, Owen Bradley set the stage for what became known as Music Row. He was Nashville’s first major hometown record producer and its first local, behind-the-scenes contact with a national record label. He opened the city’s first independent recording studio in 1952, then became the first to make records on 16th Avenue three years later. His work with Patsy Cline generated some of Nashville’s most enduring popular recordings, and the list of legendary country artists he produced (Cline, Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Brenda Lee, Webb Pierce, Conway Twitty, Red Foley, Bill Anderson) stands without peer.
Along with Chet Atkins, he also established the Nashville way of making music. Bradley, who died Jan. 7 at age 82, was a gentle, soft-spoken leader who amassed one of the most important and most impressive creative legacies in American musical history. And he did so without cheating an artist or taking advantage of his position of power. He was an honest man in a business that made rich men of many dishonest hustlers. He was a man of integritya rarity in any business, but especially in a field of dreams like the entertainment industry.
Of course, along with Atkins, Bradley is credited with creating the Nashville Sound. The pianist and onetime big band arranger brought a sophisticated yet sympathetic style to his productions, smoothing the edges of the rawer forms of mountain music and honky-tonk that had constituted country music from the 1920s through World War II. Unlike many record producers, though, Bradley took a subtle approach to his musical innovations. Rather than impose a style on an artist, he worked hard at creating a distinctive sound for each of his performers, trying to find the right music to accentuate their individual talents and the song at hand.
For Webb Pierce and Ernest Tubb, he kept the music stripped-down and visceral, bringing out the barroom flavor of their blue-collar songs. For Patsy Cline and Brenda Lee, he created sophisticated orchestral arrangements and pop-influenced up-tempo tunes. Loretta Lynn sang over banjos and fiddles that emphasized the down-home country twang of her lyrics and vocals. Conway Twitty crooned over moody musical settings that leaned hard on steel guitar while also borrowing from rockabilly and soul. And with Bill Anderson, Bradley emphasized a combination of dramatic monologues and softly sung passages that took advantage of the performer’s whispery vocal tone.
Over the years, the Nashville Sound has drawn the ire of critics, performers, and old-time music fans, who say the production techniques popularized in Music City during the 1960s sapped the soul out of traditional country music. While such criticism carries some weight, Bradley’s productions continue to maintain a classic, timeless feel. Not only are many of his recordings among the best of their day; they remain among the most powerful examples of commercial country music in existence.
Always quick to pass along credit to others, Bradley often cited the exceptional breadth and ability of his studio musicians, who gave the records their distinctively stylish flavor. “I’ve been asked what the Nashville Sound is a thousand times, and I’ve given a thousand different answers, and I think I’ve been right every time,” he told Newsweek in 1966. “It’s a song that’s our kind of song and a bunch of musicians who can put it over.”
In the ensuing three decades, he would answer the same question a few thousand more times, as when he said a few years later: “It isn’t so much a sound as it is a way of doing things. It’s a bunch of good musicians getting together and doing what comes naturally. Of course, you’ve got to have a referee.”
But Bradley’s role was more prominent than he ever admitted; in the end, his creative judgment helped to define the artists he produced. When recording Brenda Lee, for instance, he brought in Boots Randolph, whose muscular tenor sax proved vital to such Lee classics as “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” With Cline, he argued with her to record “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy,” two of her most enduring records. When Cline fought having The Jordanaires join her in the studio, Bradley prevailed. Later, Cline refused to record with anyone else but the famed vocal quartet.
With Lynn, Bradley disagreed with her early mentors, the Wilburn Brothers, who had tried to smooth out her hard-country twang. “Owen wanted me to stay more natural,” Lynn wrote in her book, Coal Miner’s Daughter. “It was nice to have somebody say, ‘Just pronounce the words the way you want, Loretta.’ That’s what Owen told me. He never made me feel like I was a dumb hillbilly because I said ‘ain’t’ or ‘holler.’ Owen said people would always understand me, so long as I was myself.”
Bradley also pushed Lynn to write her own material. “Nobody else could have written those songs or put those words together the way she did,” he told me in a 1988 interview, when he described Lynn as a female Hank Williams. “You could tell her songs from any others.”
On Lynn’s earliest recordings, he also helped her get over her self-consciousness by putting up a portable wall between the singer and the musicians. “He could see I was just a scared little country girl, and he made me relax,” Lynn says. Before she had her first hit, the singer broke down crying in Bradley’s office because she didn’t have enough money for rent or food. He gave her $1,000 out of his own pocket.
That Bradley worked so well with the rustic sounds of Lynn and Tubb as he did with the classier sounds of Cline and Lee was a direct result of his own background. A backwoods native of Westmoreland, Tenn., Bradley cut his musical teeth on much more complex fare than his role as a country record producer might suggest. A ninth-grade dropout, he quit school to devote himself full-time to working as a pianist. His earliest jobs came in well-appointed gambling houses in Cheatham County in the 1930s, where he performed with big bands and worked alongside many of the era’s best-known jazz players.
Once the gambling dens closed in the late ’30s, Bradley moved to Nashville, taking a job as an on-air pianist on WLAC in 1937 before moving to WSM in 1940. He played organ behind live soap operas and led big bands as they performed the pop and jazz hits of the day. Songwriter and producer Fred Rose, another musical sophisticate with a great feel for simple country music, had befriended the young Bradley early in his career. While Bradley was stationed in San Francisco as an Army soldier from 1943 to 1945, Rose would send him songs so that he could create lead sheets for studio musicians.
Once Bradley returned, Rose gave him more work, and Bradley ended up playing on many of Hank Williams’ recordings, including Williams’ melodramatic Luke the Drifter monologues. (Bradley continued to play piano on sessions long after he became a producer; his recordings include Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.”) Through the mid- to late ’40s, he was musical director at WSM, during live radio’s heyday. The band he led backed such popular singers as Dinah Shore, Kitty Carlisle, Kay Arnold, Snooky Lanson, Jack Baker, Dolores Watson (later Mrs. John Siegenthaler), and Anita Kerr. His ability to organize musicians quickly and to create on-the-spot musical arrangements led Paul Cohen of Decca Records to make Bradley his Nashville-based musical director in 1947. In 1958, when Cohen left Decca, Bradley became chief executive of the label’s Nashville office.
Bradley kept producing records after MCA forced him into retirement in 1977. Lynn and Twitty continued to use him for a few years, despite protests from MCA executives. Eventually, however, Bradley encouraged the last of his longtime collaborators to heed the company’s wishes. As he told Twitty, “Don’t worry about me. I’ll understand.”
Bradley stayed active, even after he suffered a heart attack in 1987. His most famous work of recent years came in 1988, when he produced k.d. lang’s Shadowlands album. More recently, he had begun recording songs with singer Mandy Barnett.
For all his innovations and accomplishments, Bradley’s greatest legacy might be his ability to recognize what made a performer special. When I asked him what distinguished the artists he worked with, he replied, “They had voices that weren’t technically perfect, but they captured a song. That was more important than perfection.” It was a theory that served him, and country music, well.
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