What then do we make of Bobby Braddock, who came to Nashville in 1964, had his first country No. 1 in 1968, his most recent No. 1 in 2009, making him the only living songwriter having No. 1 country songs in five consecutive decades? These songs include “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” (one of Tammy Wynette’s career records), “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (repeatedly recognized as the one of the quintessential country songs of all time), “Golden Ring,” “Time Marches On,” “I Wanna Talk About Me,” Toby Keith’s career record and one of the most unique records in country music history, and, most recently, Billy Currington’s career smash, “People Are Crazy.”
I wanted to know how he did it. What came out of our talk is a rare peek into the mind of a great songwriter that can help us understand the arcane art of balancing the desire to write great songs with the need to write hit songs. We all believe that great songs and hit songs are not necessarily the same, but I believe Braddock’s body of work proves that great songs and hit songs need not be mutually exclusive.
Bobby Braddock is deadly serious in his dedication to being a songwriter, so when he decided to write his memoirs, it wasn’t surprising the amount of effort he put into the first volume, called Down in Orburndale, published by LSU Press in 2007. The result was a very funny yet soul-stirring book about growing up in Florida orange grove country. He is currently at work on his next installment (tentatively titled Hollywood, Tennessee), which covers his life from the time he arrives in Nashville to pursue his music career.
Most successful songwriters tend to have their relatively brief era but then they go away. To what do you attribute your longevity through all the music changes over the past four-and-a-half decades?
One, staying current on music of all genres over the years, not just country, and two, fear of running out of money.
Would you care to elaborate?
Whenever a new act came along, if I hadn’t heard anything by them, I’d go out and buy the album and listen to ‘em. I did that with Pearl Jam, Hootie and the Blowfish, with The Black Eyed Peas, Lauryn Hill and Eminem. I think staying hip to what everybody’s doing helps you in country music, since country music is not always all that country anyway. I mean, I know what country music sounds like. I’ve listened to it all my life.
There was a period back in the ‘80s when you went a long time with almost no cuts, which was unusual for you. Looking back, what do you think was the reason?
I was writing out of desperation, writing songs so personal that I couldn’t judge them objectively, and trying too hard to be original. Essentially, between 1984 and 1991, there were no hits. I think in the earlier part of that period, I was doing some of my best writing, but it was not necessary compatible with country radio at that time. Further on into the ‘80s, I think I started writing out of desperation. I can remember driving from my house to way south of Nolensville, Tennessee and back, listening to George Strait’s new album, and going home, and for about two, three nights trying to write something like what I had heard on the George Strait album. I look back on it now and think of myself as being kind of pitiful.
I’ve talked about Bobby Braddock being a risk-taker when he writes. What do I mean by that?
That I will risk looking like a damned fool in my quest for a hit song. I think that you probably—whose interview is this? I think you mean that I will risk looking like a fool or a crazy person in trying to do something that’s unique and different that people might like.
Do you agree that you will go to those lengths?
Oh yeah! But sometimes, I’ll do it without realizing I’m doing it. I’m just writing what I like.
To illustrate the length to which Braddock will let his imagination wander, let me quote from a George Jones hit, “Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad as Losing You),” back in 1973:
I’ve had the lit end of a cigar pressed against my belly
Whupped on with a crowbar till my eyeballs turned to jelly
Accidentally nailed my index finger to the wall
Cut off half my toes and soaked my foot in alcohol
I’ve had my pelvis ruptured by an angry kangaroo
But nothing ever hurt me half as bad as losing you.
Most of us have taken extreme flights of fancy with songs, but it takes a talent like Braddock to craft extremes into the kind of a song that will be swallowed by a hit artist (George Jones), a great producer (Billy Sherrill), nearly all the radio stations in the country genre, and much of the country listening public. “Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half as Bad as Losing You)” was a No. 7 Billboard country hit.
After all these years, do you still have the fire in your belly to write songs? If so, is that fire to write great songs and let them fall where they may, or is it a fire to write hits?
The fire has moved from my belly up to my esophagus. I always try to write the best that I can, and try to make it as commercial as possible, in the hope that someone will want to record it. Right now, the fire is to write hits. I remember a time when I was going through a breakup in my marriage that had a big emotional impact on me. I was writing songs that were totally autobiographical, and I didn’t care whether they got recorded or not; I was writing what was in my heart, and I listen to those songs [today] and I think, some of it is really powerful stuff. Then there are periods in my life when I was trying to be [too] commercial, and I think a lot of it’s pretty crappy.
The ones you were writing when you were emotionally stressed and trying to be cathartic, did any of those songs wind up being commercially successful songs?
A few: “Her Name Is,” “I Feel Like Loving You Again,” “Texas Tornado.” But most of the cathartic ones, no. They meant a lot to me, and when I listen to them now, they still mean a lot to me. They say, “The song remembers when?” Well, I remember when because I wrote it.
Why do you think so many of your cathartic songs were not successful?
The ones that failed were probably tailor-made to fit my own heart. I don’t think their blueprints were what people were looking for in country music at that time.
Can you define where country music is today compared to where it was in other eras, both in structure and in subject matter?
In the 1940s through mid-‘50s, the sounds were more rural and the lyrics more self-effacing than they are today. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, they stirred about half a cup of pop into the country stew. From the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, it was basically country, but with sounds and themes broad enough to appeal to a larger audience. By the mid-1980s, the crossovers had disappeared and the neo-traditionalists were the new big thing. Garth Brooks songs were an entity unto themselves, because, instead of country crossing over to pop, the pop audiences were crossing over to country. In the 1990s and 2000s, although fewer people lived in rural areas and small towns, the trend was toward lyrics about life in those places or lifestyles reflecting those places, often to a very rocking beat. I like to call this “redneck swagger.” While grandpa hillbilly cried because his woman had left him, modern-day grandson hillbilly doesn’t cry much, and if he’s missing his woman, often it’s because he dumped her and is starting to regret it. And while grandma hillbilly used to denounce cheatin’, modern-day granddaughter hillbilly may rip up your car or even shoot you. There’s a lot of this in 2009, but country songs today are actually all over the map stylistically, and the records they’re making today sound better than ever.
Look at concerts and just find out what kind of music people like, particularly a lot of young people. Country music is very popular now. I don’t know if it’s the most popular genre. I have no idea, I haven’t been doing any research on it, but I just get the sense that country music has a big following, especially among younger people. As there always have been, there are different branches and tributaries to the country mainstream. Some of these tributaries go to other bodies of water, like, Taylor Swift has a huge following. She calls herself country. I don’t think she sounds really country, but then again, what is country? I mean, it’s been a long time since country music was agricultural music, but the more country side of country is that redneck swagger music.
For instance, the song protagonist of, say, the early 1950s is totally different from the one in 2009. For one thing, southerners as a group are different. In those old Hank Williams or Webb Pierce songs, the protagonist was crying. You don’t hear the protagonist crying today. The old protagonist was crying and gettin’ drunk; now they’re gettin’ drunk and partyin’, and singing, “Kiss my ass!” You hear a lot of “my town’s more country than your town.”
About the “kiss my ass” songs, why on earth do you think their listeners assume that somebody out there doesn’t like them or their lifestyles? Where does the hostility come from? Who are they telling to kiss their ass?
I think it’s supposed to be the country fans telling the rest of the world to kiss their collective ass. It’s a little defensive, isn’t it?
Yes, is this related to—
The culture wars. But when I write songs today, I think love songs are still universal and I try to do those.
Are there particular songs out there that really speak to you?
Each era has its magic songs and this era is no exception. If Brad Paisley couldn’t sing a lick, I think he would be one of the most sought-after songwriters in town. His song “Letter To Me” is a masterpiece. I hear some country records occasionally that I really love. They can be the really country ones like “Whiskey Lullaby.” I loved Blake Shelton’s record of “Home.”
Back in the earliest part of this millennium, when I was managing a publishing company, I signed a young singer/songwriter named Blake Shelton to my company. Since I loved Braddock’s demos and I was trying to help Blake get a deal, I brought the two together. Bobby got Blake his record deal and produced three successful albums on him, each of which contained a multi-week No. 1 country single. But unlike a lot of producer/songwriters, Bobby did not try and jam a lot of Braddock songs down his artist’s throat. Instead, he spent many hours listening to thousands of songs submitted from the outside, and he and Blake recorded what they considered the best songs they heard. So during this interview, I asked him.
When you were producing Blake you took very seriously the difficult job of listening to songs off the street. What effect did that have on your writing? Did it detract from your creative energy?
One way it detracted was it impinged on my songwriting time. Bob McDill once said, “Garbage in, garbage out.” So I was listening to great songs that inspired me and not-so-great songs that probably hurt me. I used to get on the Natchez Trace Parkway—truly a parkway, because it doesn’t go through any towns and runs all the way from Nashville to south Mississippi—and I would take along several boxes of CDs, a picnic lunch, and set my cruise control on 45 MPH. I didn’t enjoy the OK songs, but I looked forward to the great songs that made me excited, and the terrible songs that made me laugh. During the time I produced Blake, I spent a huge amount of time and creative energy on those albums, and I certainly believe that I lost some songwriting time. But I really enjoyed producing Blake and it’s a pretty good feeling to know that the one opportunity I had to produce a new young artist, the work we did launched a country star.
Why do your successful “novelty songs” seem to have more gravitas and career friendliness for artists than most folks’ novelty songs?
I’ve gotten several novelty songs recorded, but the only ones that went to No. 1 were “I Wanna Talk About Me” and “People Are Crazy,” which were really serious songs presented in a fun way. In the former, a lot of people identified with having a friend who was a transmitter, but not a receiver, and in the latter, I think folks found the idea of an old man leaving his fortune to a casual drinking buddy to be a deliciously happy ending.