In August, I was privileged to engage in a visit with someone I truly admire. Truth is I’d barely met this fellow before I cracked his latest autobiographical tome. Still, at book’s end, I slapped down my bookmark with a bittersweet sigh, grinning as if I’d just savored a marathon chat with a treasured pal.
When it comes to Music Row songwriting legends, no name chimes with more resonance than Bobby Braddock. After all, this is the cat co-responsible (with Curly Putman) for “He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today” — generally considered the greatest country song of all time. However, the George Jones classic is merely one title in a six-decade-long hit parade. Curiously however, in his new memoir, A Life On Nashville’s Music Row (Vanderbilt/CMF Press), Braddock chooses not to share his tune-crafting secrets or unveil the backroom politics behind the hits.
During a follow-up phone conversation, the native Floridian explained with self-deprecating candor, “I could have written more about the craft. But my craft? What do I know? There’s so many different ways you can write a song.”
The author chooses instead to reveal some juicy tidbits about some of country music’s most colorful personalities. He also cracks open his own bedroom door, bears his oft-wounded heart, and exposes the chronic insolvency of his bank accounts. “Who would I be to write these things about people I’ve known over the years if I don’t reveal myself?” he ponders aloud. “That’d be hypocritical. Especially with the ex-wives, I need to show that I’m a hothead and an asshole with checkerboard judgment.”
On the page, Braddock’s love life plays like a chaotic hook-and-ladder scramble to keep the pigskin in play. Referring to chronically indecisive wife #2, Braddock writes (as only a master lyricist could), “I had the addiction and Sparky had the fix: little shots of hope that kept me hanging on.”
To complicate matters, the guy found himself constantly up to his earlobes in debt, dealing with the uncontrollable tics of Tourette syndrome, and suffering bouts of clinical depression. Seems even a triple Hall-of-Fame songwriter’s life can suck sometimes. “This business is disappointment without end,” he muses. “A lotta people with thin skin, it drives ’em crazy. But I’m not the sanest person in the world.”
In sparkling anecdotes starring the Tree Music family (Don Gant, Sonny Throckmorton, Don Cook, Rafe Van Hoy, et al) as they party through the early ’80s like frat brats on spring break, the reader gets an affectionately comical glimpse behind the curtain “… where time took its time and the wine flowed like wine.” The dramatic darker side of Braddock’s emotional moon is illuminated in his recollection of the harrowing birth of his grandson.
Finally, the book’s theme turns from Braddock’s on-again/off-again love affairs and marathon skedaddle from the IRS to teaming up with a lanky, irreverent, mullet-headed Oklahoman. It’s a tale of how belief, perseverance, and talent can triumph as, under the patient mentoring of this battle-scarred music-biz vet, Blake Shelton launches his unlikely rise to country-music superstardom.
With precision, the author describes the early Shelton sessions — from picking songs and players to skirmishes with label brass. A quick listen back to those recordings reveals a master producer at the peak of his game, defying trendy studio trickery to capture performances that will surely stand the test of decades to come.
“I think I do better at producing than songwriting or writing books or anything else,” Braddock assesses. It’s evident that the septuagenarian’s passion for the studio still burns, as he expresses giddy excitement for a project he recently completed for bluesy belter (and ex-girlfriend) Tami Jones.
Braddock’s first cut (Marty Robbins’ “Matilda,” 1965) has earned all of a few hundred bucks over its 50-year lifetime. So, it’s a delight to see such a deserving creative soul at last reaping a 21st Century-sized largess with country’s first “rap” hit, 2001’s “I Wanna Talk About Me.” It wasn’t so long ago that the snooty, old-money Belle Meade clique began looking past their upturned noses at the motley crew from 16th Avenue to condescend, as Braddock so cleverly puts it, “… there’s gold in those hillbillies.”
But, why write a book? That’s a huge commitment, a huge responsibility? “I think part of it is ego,” Braddock admits. “With a book, the reader knows who you are. With our songs, not so much. And, I mean that’s a pretty big commitment for somebody to even read a book.”
Nearly 20 years ago, Tracy Lawrence reminded us that “Time Marches On.” With A Life On Nashville’s Music Row, the brilliant tunesmith who put that all-too-true phrase to music offers the world another memorable gift by chronicling a vibrant half-century of that same ever-fleeting commodity.