He co-wrote the ballad that fans have repeatedly voted the greatest of all country songs, George Jones’s deliciously mournful 1980 hit He Stopped Loving Her Today, which has the further distinction of having been CMA Song Of The Year in both 1980 and ’81. That achievement, combined with other seminal hits like Tammy Wynette’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E, insures that had Robert Valentine Braddock never written a note beyond 1980, his name would hold a proud place in the annals of country music history. And yet, now in his early 60s, songwriter-producer-pianist-singer Braddock is hardly ready to rest on his laurels. If anything he seems to be on yet another career roll. When this interview was taped in November 2001, a Bobby Braddock song — Toby Keith’s single of the witty, hip hop-tinged I Wanna Talk About Me — was sitting atop every major U.S. country chart. Meanwhile Braddock’s first major label production protege, new country hunk Blake Shelton, is the talk of Nashville.
A fourth generation Floridian, Braddock was born in Lakeland on August 5, 1940 and grew up in Auburndale. If music was (as he claims) not a family trait, it certainly seems to have been in his blood. A piano student from an early age, young Bobby wrote his first song at eight. By his early 20s he was playing piano in rock and roll bands and producing independent records on local acts, sometimes of his own songs.
After moving to Nashville in ’64 Braddock worked briefly in a record store before landing a gig that changed his life — playing piano for country superstar Marty Robbins, who would go on to record several Braddock compositions, including While You’re Dancing, which charted in 1966. That same year Braddock began his long association with with Tree Publishing, signing an exclusive songwriting contract with the venerable company.
Like fellow Songwriter Hall Of Fame inductees Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran, Braddock was a songwriter first and a performer only reluctantly. Nevertheless, over the years he found himself recording for no less than five major Nashville labels. If the results of these affiliations failed to set the world on fire, consolation could always be found on the songwriting front. With over a dozen Number One hits to his credit, Bobby Braddock has seen his songs recorded by Jones, Wynette, Charlie Louvin, Nancy Sinatra, Johnny Duncan, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Statler Brothers, John Anderson and, in the mid-’90s, Tracy Lawrence, who scored big with Texas Tornado and the Dylanesque Time Marches On, a 1996 Number One hit.
Lean and intense and looking younger than his 61 years, Braddock takes writing very seriously (in spite of occasional forays into quirky humor such as the Statler Brothers’ You Can’t Have Your Kate And Edith Too). An avid reader, he ranks American novels of the 1920s as his favorite fiction (with authors F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe and Sinclair Lewis at the top of his list) and is lavish in his praise of Kentuckian Rick Bragg’s Pulitzer-winning work both as a New York Times feature writer and a novelist in the Southern tradition. Not surprisingly, he is hard at work on a novel himself, making no secret of the fact that the story it tells will be largely Braddock’s own.
Are you enjoying being a producer?
Yeah. There’s an awful lot of work that goes with it.
You kinda started off as a producer, didn’t you? Back in the early ’60s weren’t you doing some things for an independent label?
Oh, when I was a kid in my hometown I did, yeah, a little of that. But not in Nashville.
When you came here was it your plan to be a writer?
Yeah. I figured I could make a living playing piano but my big dream was to be a songwriter. I figured I’d make a living playing and see if I could get any songs cut.
Where do you think that came from, wanting to be a songwriter? Did you have that in your family?
I know you played piano at an early age.
I’d sit around and play piano and, when I was a teenager, I just started trying to put songs together, you know. I became aware of who the writers were. I knew there was such a thing as a songwriter. I mean, a lot of people I think assume that the singers write all their own songs.
Or they just happen by magic.
They just come from out of the air. (laughs)
Do you recall the process of becoming aware of songwriters? Were there particular songwriters that came to your attention?
Well, buying the records. I’d look on there and see who wrote the song.
What were you listening to?
When I was in high school I was listening to rock and roll and country. I loved them both — I just loved music.
You had a few stabs at being an artist. How important was that to you?
Not very. (laughs) I was on five major labels, some of them now defunct. MGM, Mercury, Elektra, Columbia, RCA. The last one I was on was RCA; that was in 1980. If it’d worked out I’m not sure I would have been able to handle it very well. Being on the road all the time.
That’s just not suited to your nature?
Well, it just goes to show you how easy it used to be to get a record deal! (laughs). And yeah, I’m probably not temperamentally suited to that kind of a regimen. I see Blake Shelton not having any life of his own and I can’t imagine ever having lived that way. I mean, there has to be a total dedication to that.
Do you see a difference in Blake and what you remember of yourself at an earlier age? Is he oriented differently?
Yeah, he’s more focused on that. Ever since he was a kid he’s wanted to be an artist. That’s been his dream. That’s just been his goal. Came to Nashville the day after he graduated from high school and he hit the street running, you know, and he never stopped. He wanted it very much.
How did you get together with him?
A friend named Michael Kosser was doing some writing with him and he played me a song over the phone that he had written with Blake, and I said, "who’s that singing?" He said, "well, that’s the kid I’ve been writing with." I was just very interested in his singing, and Blake liked the sound of my demos. I thought he had what it took to be a star. So we just started working together.
In that kind of relationship do you feel that he is sort of, I don’t know, doing by proxy what you yourself haven’t achieved as an artist? Do you feel he’s an extension of you?
No. No, it’s not really that way. I guess it’s just that I like to create; when I write a song I usually have an arrangement in mind, and when I demo a song, more often than not, they’ll cut the record pretty much like my demo. I was thinking for a long time, if they record the songs the way I demo ’em then why shouldn’t I be producing? I just love doing that. And watching him develop as an artist, seeing his dreams come true, helping him reach his potential — we’ve sorta been a help to each other. So it’s my chance to get in there with my little chemistry set and have fun. I just love the whole process, everything that producing involves.
However, I’m so hands-on that I couldn’t do this with more than one artist and continue being a songwriter. It just consumes too much of my time. I mean, it would if I had more than one artist. As it is now it consumes just enough of my time; it’s keeping me really, really busy. I wouldn’t want to be any busier than this.
Your plate is as full as you can handle.
That’s true. And I’m writing a book too. I can’t afford to do anything else. This is pretty much the extent of what I’m able to do in one lifetime.
Have you written prose before?
Some, yeah. Mostly things I’ve started, you know, and abandoned. But this — I’m sticking with it. I’m disciplining myself to do it.
It’s a novel?
Not really. To tell you the truth it’s a memoir, really. It’s not really fiction. But I hope it would be as interesting if I were a lawyer or a computer programmer or a beach bum. The music is...I’m not saying that it’s incidental but I don’t think it’s the most defining thing about it. It’s just a part of my life. It’s also, you know, just growing up, being in a rock and roll band in the early days, finding my way around Nashville, two failed marriages.
I think anybody’s life is interesting. The trick is writing about it in a way to make it interesting to other people. I don’t think my life is all that much more fascinating than anyone else’s, but writing is what I do and I think it maybe goes beyond songwriting. Maybe I can write about [my experiences]. I’ve known some pretty interesting characters and I’ve put ’em in there, some with their real names and some with pseudonyms.
You’ve been in Nashville since ’64. You’ve seen an awful lot of changes in this place.
Oh, radical changes.
Had you visited before you moved here?
A couple of times. I was here...I guess in 1959. I was 18 years old. I was playing piano with an act that was on MCA — actually Decca Records then — called Chuck & Betty. I met them when I was going to a radio announcer’s school in Atlanta and they had a deal, so I came with them to Nashville a couple of times. Went to a couple of recording sessions, got to see the A-Team at work, so I was sort of bitten by the bug and wanted to come back to Nashville. And did eventually.
So you’ve had your eye on this place for over 40 years?
Yes, I have.
Did you ever work on radio?
I worked long enough to be fired. (both laugh) A small station in central Florida. I was supposed to have the First Methodist Church on the air but there was silence for about 10 or 12 minutes. I screwed up, I got fired.
probably for the best.
I think so.
What was it like working for Marty Robbins?
Pretty exciting, ’cause I loved his singing, and pretty funny. Oh, I enjoyed it, it was a big deal for me.
Did he become a mentor of sorts? He was a great songwriter himself.
He became a great encouragement because he recorded a couple of my songs. That gave me a little bit of faith in myself as a songwriter. So after being on the road with him for a year and a half I asked out [of the contract] and went to Tree Publishing company — which is now Sony ATV Tree — and got a writing deal there. Been there ever since.
You’ve only had the one deal?
Yep. Spent my entire adult life practically at one publishing company.
When did you get signed there?
So that was really in the early days of Tree?
Who was there then?
Curly Putnam ran the studio and was the songplugger. There were just a handful of staff people there. I don’t know, it just seemed like there was an open spot. Roger Miller was the big deal there but he had moved out to the West Coast. Buddy Killen signed me, and he and Curly started getting me song cuts left and right. Got a record deal. Just seemed like everything sorta happened overnight there.
Not to be disparaging of those days or the obviously very talented people who were around, it seems like it might have been somewhat easier to get a song cut back in the ’60s and ’70s.
Oh, yes. A lot easier. And I had a pretty good connection with Billy Sherrill — I had his ear — and about half the songs in my career back then were George Jones and Tammy Wynette cuts. So that helped a lot.
I just read somewhere that you wrote "Her Name Is" for George Jones, which is a curious little song.
Yeah, it is.
And was it conceived to be "her name is...nothing the way we hear it?
No. I was seeing someone at the time who eventually became my second wife — and my second ex-wife — and she was still married. And I felt that it was supposed to be sort of a secretive thing. So that’s where that came from. And I thought the song was being rather serious; I think a lot of people thought of it as being a novelty song. But I’ve had this history of songs I thought were serious other people thought were novelty songs, and I’ve had songs I thought were novelty songs that people thought were serious stuff.
Well, it’s novel in that you’re trying to hear what that, I guess it’s a guitar, is "saying." It’s like one of those talking guitar things. You sort of think you’re hearing something but you’re not quite sure, so, yeah, it plays with your head a little bit.
Of course, a lot of people thought it was about George Jones and Tammy Wynette. They thought it was about their lives.
An awful lot of people say "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is the greatest country song ever. It’s the epitome of a monster country hit. How did that come about?
Curly Putnam says I brought him the idea. We wrote on it one afternoon and I took it home and finished it, and it laid around a long time and didn’t get recorded. Johnny Russell recorded it twice for two different labels; I don’t know if it ever came out on him or not.
Then Billy Sherrill got interested in it and he wanted an extra verse so Curly and I worked on that and came up with the thing about the ex-wife or ex-lover coming back to the funeral.
Is that what became the recitation?
Mm-hmm. Yeah. That wasn’t written till maybe a year and a half after the original.
Was it written to be a recitation?
Uh...you know, I honestly don’t recall. I really don’t. I know we came up with maybe three or four before Billy Sherrill was happy with it. And I know that George thought the song was pretty morbid; I think he wasn’t all that excited about doing it.
I thought the song was just an okay song till I heard the record Billy Sherrill played me. I thought it was great then, but I think that George’s rendering of the song and Billy Sherrill’s production had an awful lot to do with it becoming what people think of as being such a great song or the best song of whatever. (laughs) Whatever they say about it, all those wonderful things.
Well, I’ve heard them often. There’s obviously a great many people who feel that way.
I think Dickie Lee’s "She Thinks I Still Care" is the best George Jones song. I think "He Stopped Loving Her Today" was a great record. The song was obviously better than I initially thought it was, you know, but I think that marriage of just having all the right things and all the planets lined up at the same time or something...
I’ve heard a rumor that George was in pretty bad vocal shape at that point and that the rendition we hear was actually pieced together over a period of time. Is that true?
No, that’s not true. Billy Sherrill is definitely of the old school. After other [producers] were going in there with artists and overdubbing them later, he — back when he cut that, around 1980 — he still preferred to do everything live on the tracking session. He put the strings in later. The string section was a really important part of that record; he thought the record just kind of lay there, you know, thought it needed something. Bergen White did a string arrangement and it just uplifted the whole thing.
But my understanding is George did two performances on the live tracking date. He did one that didn’t seem to go so well and then did it once more, and that’s the one that we hear.
Great piece of work.
That was live. That was there on the tracking session when he sang it, if you can imagine that.
What would get your pick for the greatest country song ever?
Oh, that would be so hard to say. There’d be several that would probably tie with me. Don Schlitz’s "The Gambler" is certainly among those songs. Rodney Crowell’s "Please Remember Me" is certainly in that group — I think that’s the best leaving song ever written.
Those are both pretty modern choices.
Yeah. I love a lot of the old Hank Williams stuff; a lot of those songs are just really wonderful. My biggest influences, I think, were Hank Williams, Ray Charles and — even though they’re contemporaries, they’re my age, they still influenced me musically — The Beatles.
Those are my favorites. Ol’ Hank Williams’ stuff had a profound effect on me. I love all that stuff; I couldn’t say what was my favorite. "Kaw-liga" is certainly one of them. "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry."
Have you ever had a Ray Charles cut?
He cut a song of mine that Billy Sherrill recorded on him, and it never came out. It was never released and, as a matter of fact, I never even got to hear it. He’s certainly my hero — my musical hero. I just love his music. I learned to play piano listening to Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Floyd Cramer.
Did you ever learn guitar at all?
Not enough to count.
So you do all your writing on piano?
Yeah. All on keyboards.
Do you think that’s an asset? This is kind of a "guitar town," as it’s been called.
Sometimes it gets me out of things, ’cause you can’t carry a keyboard everywhere. That’s fine with me.
Of course, all the technology now, the patches...I’ve collected a lot of different guitar samples and patches and I have one that’s put together with some Martin guitar samples. And the best acoustic guitar players in town, I’ve fooled them with tapes. Thought it was a real Martin guitar. So I’ve finally reached a point where by playing keyboard I’m actually writing with a "guitar." Being a fan of the music, I mean, I know all the licks that guitar players play, I just don’t know the finger positions. I just do it on the piano. In fact I’ve done some overdubs on Blake’s stuff with keyboards. (laughs)
How would you describe your approach to writing, your process? What’s typical day in your life as a writer?
The best ones are the things I start thinking about the night before, and then get up and write ’em the next day.
Hank Cochran swears he can go to bed and dream a song. You ever do that?
Absolutely. I believe in that. I think it can be writing songs or making a decision or finding a lost billfold or whatever. What I’ll do a lot of times is I’ll write something down on a piece of paper and it’ll register with the subconscious. And then that night you’re literally sleeping on it. Yeah, I’ve done that. With me it doesn’t come so much in a dream — even though I have dreamed little bits and pieces of music that I’ve used — but usually it’s there in the subconscious and your subconscious, I think, is scanning everything that you know, everything that has been transmitted to your brain, and putting all that stuff together. And, next morning when you get up, that computer inside your brain has made the choice, you know, whether it’s a decision you have to make or a song you have to write.
So yes, I concur with what Cochran was saying. I look at it maybe a little differently than he does but it’s the same thing. Some people would call it a prayer. This lady one time I met at my publishing company, she told me that God wrote all of her songs. I asked her if God was ASCAP or BMI. (laughs)
What’s your ratio of solo versus collaborative writing?
Probably 25 percent of them are co-written in my career.
Is that right? So you work on your own quite a bit?
Oh yeah. The success rate is probably the same with co-writing as writing alone. I prefer writing by myself. There are some people I do enjoy writing with but, for the most part, it’s kinda like going to work.
If I’m writing by myself it’s kinda like I’m co-writing with myself, ’cause I’ll write something one day and listen to it the next day and think, No, you did that wrong. Here’s what you need to do.
For a lot of people co-writing has the advantage of fastening you to a routine, because creative people can sometimes be a little prone to procrastination and laziness, lack of discipline. Are you able to discipline yourself to do it every day or at every opportunity?
Yeah, I’ve learned to. I think a lot of times it’s just catch-up. Maybe I’ll put off doing what I’m supposed to and then it’ll start gnawing at me, and then I’ll write twice as many [songs] as I normally would just to catch up with it. But it boils down to a kind of a discipline really.
Obviously you’re able to do it on your own; you’ve been doing it for 30-odd years.
Well, the people that think that lightning’s going to strike and that you can’t discipline yourself to do inspired work, I think that’s not true at all. You can make yourself write stuff, and you keep doing it and keep doing it and eventually the good stuff will come, and you will become inspired.
If you just sit around and wait for lightning to strike quite often it won’t strike, you know. You have to actually manipulate that creative force.
All of these techniques will probably serve you well as a novelist.
Well, that definitely is discipline. I mean, for God’s sake that is discipline! I went off and got a little cottage by the ocean and spent a couple of weeks with a laptop just making myself do it every day. I look for time to do that and it’s hard to find time ’cause I’ve got these other things that involve other people, and I just find I have to carve out that time and say I’m gonna by God do it, you know.
What’s your favorite Bobby Braddock song?
My favorite thing that I wrote that was a hit was "Time Marches On."
A fairly recent one.
Yeah. I’ve had things that I’ve written that weren’t hits that are favorites, and I’ve had things that were hits that I’m not too fond of. But "Time Marches On" was one that I did like. I was kinda surprised that it did well.
Yeah, every now and again something shoots up the charts that surprises you and makes us all look good in the industry. "Time Marches On" mentions dope and it mentions...
All those things we’re not supposed to mention in songs —- Alzheimer’s, alcoholism, drug addiction, adultery, death, religion. All that stuff, you know. (laughs)
It broke a lot of rules. How do you explain it?
I think every once in a while one just kinda sneaks through.
Do you ever find that you just can’t write? Do you ever get blocked?
Yeah...but...No, I can’t really say I’ve ever had writer’s block. There’ve been times when I wasn’t writing but I figured if I wanted to badly enough I could make it happen. Just by sheer discipline.
Sounds like you don’t let yourself get panicked about it.
No. Stuff like, "oh, I’ll never write another thing again!," that sort of thing, I never worry about stuff like that.
Who’s your favorite contemporary songwriter?
My favorite Nashville writer, of my contemporaries, probably would be Bob McDill. That’s pretty easy.
What about some of the younger ones coming up now?
God, there are a lot of good ones...
What about people like Gretchen Peters, Matraca Berg?
Phil Vassar’s good. Even though Gretchen’s a lot younger than me I think of her as a contemporary ’cause we’re at the same publishing company and I’ve known her for years. She’s wonderful, she’s absolutely wonderful. I’m a big fan of Don Henry. Don Henry I think is a genius and I don’t apply that term to very many people.
What kind of shape is country music in right now?
I think it’s fine. It comes and goes. It’s not doing as well now but it will, in some form or other. There are enough people who like it. It’s not going to die — if it does, it probably deserves to! (laughs) But I don’t think that’s gonna happen.
Ray Price didn’t sound like Hank Williams did 12, 14 years earlier. Merle Haggard didn’t sound like Ray Price did. I mean, if the music continued to sound the very same we’d be stagnant. Everything’s got its era. I’ve heard this thing about traditional versus pop ever since I’ve heard about country music. I’m not so worried about that. I’m probably more worried about anthrax than I am about country music.
You do a terrific job of reinventing yourself for the decade at hand. I remember being surprised when I learned "Time Marches On" was written by the same guy who wrote "He Stopped Loving Her Today."
Imagine what I’m hearing from people about "I Wanna Talk About Me"! When you’ve been around as long as I have, I think people expect you to burn out or get too old to do it or whatever. The past few hits that I’ve had, people say, "well, did you write that recently or a long time ago?" Or, "did you write that by yourself or did somebody help you write it?" I feel like saying, "well, the nurse that puts the little smock around me before she wheels me down the hall, you know, she gave me a little help."
This interview originally appeared in the newsletter of the International Songwriters Association.
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