NASHVILLE — Dale Ann Bradley breezed into town to prompt media to plug her new album, a follow-up to her first-production effort, the Grammy-nominated “Pocket Full of Keys.” Thanks to publicist Vernell Hackett, we exchanged pleasantries and proceeded to play 20 Questions – all about Dale Ann – at Edley’s, a popular pizza parlor in East Nashville.
“When you make a record, you put your whole heart and soul on the line,” says Bradley, in her most charming Sweet Tea twang. “Everybody does, especially when you produce your own album. Fortunately, somebody liked that first one alright, and believe me, this ol’ girl was relieved and happy.”
Earlier Bradley collections were produced by such bluegrass enthusiasts as Sonny Osborne, Alison Brown, Tim Austin and Dan Tyminski, collaborations that helped ensure five International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) wins for her as that genre’s best female vocalist.
This year and last year, she and her all-girl band Sister Sadie were IBMA nominees, as was her 2016 premiere production CD, “Pocket Full of Keys,” in her first year as a solo artist for Pinecastle Records. Incidentally, Sister Sadie again nabbed a 2017 nominee as best emerging act (consisting of Tina Adair, Gena Britt, Beth Lawrence and Deanie Richardson), which we mistakenly thought was a one-year only category.
Not so coincidentally, the Dale Ann Bradley backup band’s heard on the new CD, which we concluded was a comfort factor for the artist-producer, who agrees, “Well that and because of the connection and love we have for one another in this configuration (Mike Sumner, banjo; Tim Dishman, bass; Scotty Powers, mandolin; Matt Leadbetter, guitar). So many musicians come into your band through the years, and I loved ’em all, but this particular group seems to really enjoy being part of the program and truly love what we’re doing creatively. And hey, they treat me like a queen!”
Aware the lady has umpteen albums to her credit, we wondered aloud why this specific CD was self-titled, something usually affixed to an artist’s first-time project? “I’ve added it all up and with all the bands I’ve been a part of, this was the 14th album, but this time I just wanted to say, ‘This is me – Dale Ann Bradley – and I hope you like it!’ I wrote a couple songs on it, I sing and play, and produced it,” so sink or swim, it’s D.A.B. all the way.
Seems self-penned “Southern Memories” or “Now and Then (Dreams Do Come True)” might have served the purpose equally well, particularly the latter title, which she co-wrote with Jon Weisberger. Nonetheless, Jon’s pleased by the news, “Dale Ann Bradley’s got a new album coming out, and she’s recorded a song that she and I wrote for my album, ‘I’ve Been Mostly Awake’ (2015, featuring her vocals). Excited to hear what she and her band have done with it!”
There’s also a much-touted duet on there – “I Just Think I’ll Go Away” – with superstar Vince Gill (now touring with an iconic, though reconstituted, vocal band The Eagles). So how did that old Carter Stanley song fit into the “D.A.B.” mix?
“Vince loves bluegrass and unashamedly says so and means it,” Bradley responds. “We first met at the Opry, and he likes to help anyone, he’s just that way. I opened a show for him in Chattanooga, and he said we ought to record together sometime. Well, ‘Pocket Full of Keys’ was underway and I invited him to sing on it, but the timing wasn’t right and it didn’t work out. Yet he said, ‘Remember me . . . call me.’ In fact, he ended up writing the liner notes for that album.”
Apparently Gill remembered, too, and added a guest vocal with Dale Ann for this album, and like her, loves to poke around in the attic for old treasures, coming up with their duet title, originally performed by the Stanley Brothers (and later Keith Whitley).
“We both love the Stanleys’ music. You may remember, Vince even performed, along with Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless, at Ralph’s funeral. Anyway, ‘I Just Think I’ll Go Away’ was a song we both loved, and was on my bucket list, so we were anxious to sink our teeth into it. I think it came out OK, don’t you?”
Indeed to these old ears, it’s one of the finest heart-felt vocal collaborations we’ve heard in too long a time. Both are at their best, sharing lead and harmonies, augmented by super pickin’ on such stanzas as the wistfully penned, “Somehow you wouldn’t let me love you/The plans we’ve made have gone astray/Instead of being blue and lonely . . . I just think I’ll go away.”
Bradley’s admiration for the Stanley Brothers comes across further on her disc, specifically via the tunes “Goin’ Back To Kentucky” and “Our Last Goodbye,” of which she proclaims: “That’s my favorite Stanley Brothers’ song.”
Dale Ann also invited others to assist in the studio for this CD, among them Sister Sadie’s Tina Adair, as well as Kim Fox, Steve and Debbie Gulley and Vic Graves. She also poked around the attic finding more golden oldies to dust off, including the Vince Matthews’ composition “This Is My Year For Mexico” (Crystal Gayle, 1975), Ben E. King’s a cappella “Stand By Me” (1961), Conway Twitty’s “If You Were Mine To Lose” and James Cleveland’s mid-1950s’ inspirational “One More River (To Cross),” giving each her unique bluegrass interpretation.
Dale Ann was born in Pineville, Ky., to Pearlie Ann and Roger Price, a primitive Baptist preacher who toiled, too, in the coal mines. Their home had no electricity until Dale Ann was a high school senior, and the church they attended never allowed instrumental music, so how did she develop such extraordinary pickin’ and singin’ skills?
“Growing up, I played whatever instrument I could get my hands on because instruments weren’t accessible to me,” explains Bradley. “Well, I had this great uncle who went to Detroit after World War II, to work for the Ford Motor Company, and was a big Porter and Dolly fan. He bought me an eight-track player that could run on batteries, and albums by them and Loretta Lynn (‘Hymns’). He would also get these music samplers, so people could listen to the car stereos, and gave me these, and that’s how I came to listen to a variety of artists like Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. My uncle, of course, also enjoyed the likes of Charley Pride and Flatt & Scruggs.
“What amazed me about The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac is they had Americana or acoustic sounds all through their songs, the writing, the stories, the harmonies, all similar attributes that are in bluegrass music,” muses Bradley.
As a result of her covers, Dale Ann has attracted attention outside the bluegrass genre with her interpretations of rockin’ hits such as Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Over My Head.”
“I love Lindsey Buckingham and the way he would set up harmonies for Fleetwood Mac, and his whole approach (in producing),” adds Bradley. “I learned different things from all of my producers. Sonny (Osborne) taught me so much about keeping emotion in an album, which takes precedence over technical correctness. From Tim Austin, I learned about timing and putting the drive into the music. Dan, he’s the teddy bear of bluegrass music, and one of the most rhythmic of people on strings. Yes, he’s the whole package.
“Alison Brown also had all the elements, and she produced the three I did for Compass Records. We thought a lot alike. From her, I learned of little things you can add to an arrangement, which you’d think wouldn’t matter much, but truly does.”
That 2001 production collaboration with Tim and Dan on “Cumberland River Dreams,” also featured Tyminski chiming in on track, as he and Dale Ann blossomed into something of a mutual admiration society, with his compliment: “She is such a sweet person and I am a big fan of her singing. I think she is a natural singer, and she does not have to work at it. She can just naturally sing.”
Witnessing all of this behind-the-scenes polish and precision, Dale Ann thought it time to try her wings producing “Pocket Full of Keys,” which once she donned the hat, felt frightening. “Yes, I was scared to death that first time and it wasn’t any easier this time around,” though she should’ve been encouraged by the Grammy and IBMA recognition for that first endeavor. “That was great, but I never take the nominations for granted. I can’t even remember when I got my first IBMA nomination, but like I tell everybody, I’m just happy to be in there competing.”
We do recall her first win in 2007, for IBMA’s best vocalist trophy, and the next two years took home a second and third, along with ’09’s best recorded event, “Proud To Be a Daughter of Bluegrass,” shared with a star-studded cast. She also was voted best vocalist in ’11 and ’12.
There was a special fellow in Dale Ann’s youth, John Fitzgerald Bradley: “He and I kinda grew up together. I guess you could say we became childhood sweethearts.” While still a teen, she and John were wed. The next thing she knew, she followed her newly-enlisted sailor-hubby to Mayport Naval Station near Jacksonville, Fla., “I had my son during that time . . . and his father went out to sea duty.” That wasn’t unexpected, as they say “Join the Navy and see the world!”
Meanwhile, Dale Ann was missing her music, a love of which he didn’t share, and so she hadn’t performed for three years, before returning home. Actually, her father brought her back, and despite dad’s earlier reluctance against a music career, helped her make it all happen, she says.
“Once he saw how serious I was, he was supportive. He looked after my son from day one, and in retrospect, I couldn’t have done it without him.” She stressed that earlier her parents were apprehensive, both from a religious and social perspective, “then when my mother saw I was going to do it, I found out it was her long-ago dream, too. My dad always wanted to know where I was going, who I was seeing and was very protective of me. I’m glad about that today. Indeed my mother had a beautiful voice . . . but she died in 1999 at 53, my age now.”
A childhood friend of her mother’s was assigned to Dale Ann’s high school in her junior year as band director. It happened Mearl Risner and his wife Alpha sang that summer at Pine Mountain State Park in Pineville, and invited Pearlie Ann’s daughter to join them. As Dale Ann recalls, “He was so talented and I just wanted to learn everything.” It was from that experience that she formed her first backing band.
Dale Ann fondly remembers the band, Back Porch Grass, which after playing locally, she entered in a 1988 Marlboro Talent Roundup Contest in Lexington, where they made it into the finals but lost out, as did the New Coon Creek Girls. But it wasn’t a total loss, as Bradley was invited to play on John Lair’s legendary Renfro Valley Barn Dance program, and his all-girl bandleader Vicki Simmons remembered Dale Ann’s down home pure country vocals.
“Yes, I kept in contact with them, and Vicki wrote me when they were looking to replace Pam Perry (who formed a new band Wild Rose) . . . but mainly they wanted someone who played fiddle and mandolin. I could play mandolin, but not that good, and I didn’t play fiddle. Vicki said ‘If ever there comes a time we can support a vocalist, we’ll let you know.’ She did.”
So Bradley joined the New Coon Creek Girls in late 1991, along with banjoist Ramona Church. This collaboration resulted in such acclaimed albums as “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and “Our Point of View.” When they disbanded in 1997, she headed up Bradley & her Coon Creek Band, releasing her first solo CD “East Kentucky Morning.”
Dale Ann doubles down in her appreciation of her tenure as a New Coon Creek Girl and especially being with the Renfro Valley Barn Dance show: “I had a five-year contract with Renfro, where I learned so much. It proved invaluable and I couldn’t have been better educated professionally, if I went to a university. I learned stage presence and connecting with an audience, to really know music, band situations and even recording. You know, I was a solo artist there for a couple years as well, and being at Renfro helped me support my son, John Fitzgerald Bradley, Jr. He was 7 when I divorced, and I raised him there mostly in Central Kentucky.”
She still calls him “Gerald,” a variation on his middle name, though he prefers being called John. “When he was attending Berea College, he asked me to not call him Gerald, saying it seemed too childish. You know he earned The Red Foley Award there in his senior year, and did the Opry with me (playing bass). Gerald obtained a master’s degree in Education, and never gave me a moment’s worry. But now he’s into a nursing program and selling cars,” adding with a grin, “I hope he lands pretty soon.”
When it comes to composing, Bradley confides that “nine times out of 10, the melody will motivate me first. You see the melody has always put me in the mood for the lyrics and story of a song.”
A rare exception was her co-write with country diva Pam Tillis, who contacted Dale Ann by e-mail inviting her to get together for a writing session: “I flew down to do so. Bluegrassers love Pam – and her dad Mel, as well – and particularly the way she sings. I mean she can sing anything. She was a sweetheart to write with. We did ‘Somewhere South of Crazy,’ which became the title tune to one of my Compass Records albums (2011), and Pam sang on that, too.”
Their co-op effort earned IBMA nods for both best song and best album that year.
The opening track on Bradley’s latest CD “Southern Memories” was co-written years ago when she was 14 (with Ronnie Miracle), shortly after buying her first guitar: “He was an old friend and probably about 16 or 17 at the time. It was our story together, about growing up geographically and religiously, there in Kentucky. It’s about a longing of the heart and remembering where your roots are. He passed away last year (Feb. 16 at age 54).”
In recognition of her faith, she often features inspirational songs on her albums, such as the current offerings “One More River” and “Stand By Me” (revived by Mickey Gilley as a #1 country cut in 1980). She says, “I like to include gospel songs that are uplifting and don’t want to do those that are preachy and judgmental, preferring ones that offer listeners hope instead.”
In 2003 Dale Ann was confronted with a new challenge, when diagnosed with Diabetes, that atop a severe sinus infection at the time. But despite the affliction, she pushes herself and with the help of her booking agent, Donna Sullivan, manages shows as both a solo act and with Sister Sadie.
“I get tired once in awhile, but it never stays,” she points out, adding that with her medicine and regular checkups, maintains a steady schedule, including attending the 2017 annual IBMA Raleigh convention in late September, which determines whether she’ll add more trophies to her mantel. (Editor’s note: Unfortunately, she didn’t enter the winner’s circle this year.)
Besides all the IBMA awards, Bradley learned she’s being honored by her home state with induction into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, Class of 2018, next May 11 in Somerset, Ky. Sharing the honor with her will be Billy Ray Cyrus, Jackie DeShannon, Jason Crabb, Bobby Lewis and the late David (Stringbean) Akeman, all Bluegrass State performers deemed to have made significant contributions to the industry. Dale Ann has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, having already taken her bluegrass music to Canada and such far away places as Japan and Ireland.
“This award is so special,” smiles Bradley. “Kentucky has contributed to all styles and genres of music, and the artists from there, it seems like we’ve all come up hard scrabble, meaning being successful wasn’t easy. But by doing so, I think, you appreciate it even more when you do succeed.”
(Editor’s note: Dale Ann photos by Patricia Presley.)