CHAPTER BY CHAPTER
A LIFE ON NASHVILLE'S MUSIC ROW
This is a nonfiction story about the world of country music as seen through the
eyes of the author, written from deep within the Nashville music industry, spinning
five decades. Based on my eighty-five volumes of day-to-day journals, it combines personal soap opera with mini- biographies of fascinating characters: famous, infamous, and unknown. It is an inside view of America’s most popular music, and a history of Nashville’s famous Music Row. Throughout, there is an implied TV across the room broadcasting the news of the day, and in the corner is an imaginary jukebox playing the songs of our lives.
CHAPTER ONE: TWO CITIES After a rocky marital start, my pregnant bride, Sue, and I leave Florida in September 1964 for the city of country dreams as I hitch a trailer to my car and she hitches her wagon to my star. The two cities referred to in the chapter title are Nashville “the municipality” and Nashville the “entertainment center, or a destination, or a dream.” Sue and I put aside past grievances as we get caught up in the excitement of living in this music Mecca in Middle Tennessee. Our only friends are other Florida expatriates such as Donna Anderson (the older sister of future star John Anderson), recording artist Wilma Burgess (perhaps the first lesbian country singer), and Tampa rockabilly star turned Nashville country songwriter, Benny Joy (“such a nervous wreck that his entire head trembled”). Benny introduces me to the “founder of Music Row,” producer-executive Owen Bradley, who sometimes runs and hides when he sees Benny coming (Sue quips “Benny is no joy”). I try selling vacuum cleaners, working at a music store where I almost get strangled by the trumpet-polishing machine, and barely escape getting shot in the head at Jessup’s Best Buys Used Cars. I eventually get a job playing piano in a dive where I become acquainted with a drummer who calls me up one day with news of a golden opportunity, saying “Hey man, do you want a job that could last forever?
CHAPTER TWO: SINGING THE BLUES The second chapter is the story of playing in the road band of superstar Marty Robbins, an unusual-looking but charismatic singer-writer who is thirteen years into a highly successful country-pop recording career. Getting two of my own songs recorded by Marty convinces me that my forte is not piano but songwriting. Here are memories of the magic and the excitement of the big package shows of the day, and a parade of some of the big classic country stars such as Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Sonny James, Buck Owens, Roy Acuff, and a young man named George Jones, of pop acts like the Beach Boys and Roy Orbison, and even a future president, Richard Nixon. The supporting cast includes the band members—all given nicknames (I become “Blinky”)—and the band wives, featuring future country star Jeanne Pruitt. Sue and I become parents, experiencing both great personal tragedy and the strong support of friends, “new ones but good ones.” A little taste of the country charts and too much time away from home prompts me to resign from the band and pursue a fulltime songwriting career on Music Row. Some of the anecdotes in this chapter could be aptly titled “The Worst Piano Playing Ever Recorded,” “Getting Fired on Stage,” and “Okie Jones’s Fart Remover.”
CHAPTER THREE: A TREE GROWS IN NASHVILLE It’s here that the songwriting career begins at Tree Publishing Company, Nashville’s biggest. We meet publisher Jack Stapp and his dynamic young vice president, Buddy Killen, who is the power behind Tree’s success. Though I fall short of Buddy’s prediction that I will be “the next Roger Miller,” I am dazzled and bedazzled by all the sudden attention as I start getting a lot of songs recorded and land a record deal myself with MGM. Songwriter-songplugger Curly Putman becomes my mentor and sometimes collaborator. I’ve attempted to capture the excitement of Music Row in the 1960s, shining the spotlight on songwriting and publishing. It’s also the story of a young couple discovering a brand new world, with a brand new baby girl (Lauren, nicknamed “Jeep”). There are guest appearances by stars on their way up: Dottie West standing in line to demo her newly-written song, and gorgeous nineteen-year-old Dolly Parton. Here you’ll meet songwriter John Hartford, excited about his new composition “Gentle on My Mind;” and encounter my teenage heartthrob, 1950s pop star Connie Francis. This is a story of personal milestones: first Top Ten, first Top Five, and finally the first #1, “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.,” recorded by Tammy Wynette with her genius producer, Billy Sherrill. It’s also the story of this young Southerner with conservative small-town values who begins to distance himself from racism and becomes enchanted with pop culture. And there is a lesson I learn too late: hiding under your house is not the best way to avoid unwelcome guests.
CHAPTER FOUR: CHEATIN’ SONGS As the chapter title hints, life imitates art imitating life imitating art and so on.
The chapter opens with me overhearing Sue telling someone on the phone about her affair with a policeman; she promises me she’ll quit, I retaliate with a one-nighter, and life goes on. While doing demos at Columbia Studio B, I befriend a janitor named Kris Kristofferson. When man walks on the moon, I write a song about it and sing it on the NBC nightly TV news…drunk. When I discover that Sue is having another affair, this time with a young doctor, I start seeing an old Florida friend, Charlotte, who looks like “Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, with Bette Davis eyes.” I renounce fire-and-brimstone religion shortly after writing a much-acclaimed religious song, and turn against the Vietnam War while having a hit with possibly the most pro-war song ever written. Little “Jeep” is her daddy’s constant companion and a fixture on Music Row.
I continue to get songs recorded and have a very big hit in the United Kingdom, “Did You Ever.” The chapter closes with me at a music-biz party where I get seriously messed up on a few tokes of Willie Nelson’s powerful hashish and almost dive head-on into an empty swimming pool, but get stopped just in time by the girl who will later become the love of my life.
CHAPTER FIVE: THE TACO BELL BUILDING: This chapter is named for the Spanish- mission-style building that Tree Publishing Company buys and moves into in 1971. About this time, my eighty-eight year-old father dies (he was in his late fifties when I was born) and there is a look back at the life of this colorful Old-Florida citrus grower and small town politician. Some of the anecdotes in this 1971-74 chapter could be titled “Making Love in the Confederate Cemetery,” “Getting Drunk with My Basset Hound,” “Pickin’ with Chet,” “Mom Meets Goober,” and the unforgettable tale of the old boy who shocks an upscale party by proclaiming, “I once fucked a bear for the F.B.I!” The spotlight shines on two great, legendary super songwriters: cocky Hank Cochran and craggy-faced Harlan Howard. Walking through these pages are Chet Atkins, Roger Miller, Andy Griffith, Burt Reynolds, and larger-than-life Tex Ritter, who dies of a heart attack while bailing one of his band members out of jail. I get to babysit a drunk George Jones and hang out with Paul McCartney, who calls me “BO-bee” and about whom I write in the book, “I was a flea and he was an elephant. Meeting him made me realize that I needed to get my butt in gear. When the history of country music was written, I didn’t want to be a mere asterisk, I wanted to be at least a small paragraph.”
CHAPTER SIX: OMEGA AND ALPHA The end and the beginning—the end of my affair with Charlotte and the beginning of my affair with Sparky (the girl who stopped me from diving into the empty swimming pool a few years before). The chapter opens with Watergate, as Buddy Killen intrudes on a tryst as he watches President Nixon’s resignation on TV in my girlfriend Charlotte’s motel room. This is a chapter of interesting stories: Nashville’s most famous murder case (and a young local TV reporter named Oprah Winfrey); and a marriage so bad that I decide to swim away from my house in the middle of a flood. It is also a chapter of interesting characters, including Jim Stafford, my Florida hometown friend whose star is rising and who gets his own network TV show; and Don Gant, Tree’s new vice president in charge of creative—an amazing songwriter magnet-advocate. And it’s a chapter about my hit songs of the day: a #1 in Britain in 1975, and several country hits in 1976 including “Golden Ring” and “Thinking of a Rendezvous.” When Sparky and I fall seriously in love, I stop seeing Charlotte and separate from Sue.. In the closing scene from Chapter Six, I call Sparky from the bachelor pad that I have just moved into, and the dialogue reads as follows:
“Baby, I can’t wait to be there with you this Monday,” she cooed.
“I feel so free,” I said, as I gave the girl a box with my heart in it, then handed her the key.
CHAPTER SEVEN: A MAN OBSESSED Chapter Seven is about my obsession with Sparky and the way it spills over into the music. She leaves me twice to reconcile with her ex, and both times I try everything under the sun and moon to get her back. In the Tennessee Arctic winter of 1976-77, I ski-break my leg without even skiing, on the ice in Tree’s parking lot, and Sparky comes back out of sympathy—then leaves two weeks later as I throw my crutch at the closing door. She returns a few months later and life is one big happy music-fest party, our best–friend couple being two singer-writers, beautiful future star Deborah Allen and boy genius Rafe Van Hoy. Sparky decides to stay. In between all this drama are my hits on the radio, and the writing of two future #1’s: a song written with Curly Putman that will become much bigger than either of the writers, George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and one written with Sonny Throckmorton and inspired by Sparky, T. G. Sheppard’s “I Feel Like Loving You Again.” There is an Elvis eulogy, a Tammy Wynette party, streaking Music Row, cracking up at a funeral, and the story of Asshole Johnson. The chapter ends with a night of sweet domestic bliss, the undivorced Bobby and divorced Sparky and my twelve-year-old Jeep and Sparky’s little boy, Allen, living in a big rented house high on a windy hill, as I ponder a song I wrote with Hal David, “Nothing Lasts Forever (Not Even Forever),” and think “That doesn’t apply here...this will last forever.”
CHAPTER EIGHT: PARTY TIME This chapter opens on the second floor of Tree International in the office of Don Gant one early fall night in 1979. A glassy-eyed Gant is at his desk, presiding over a crowd of some of Nashville’s hottest songwriters and their spouses or dates, on a couch, in chairs, and on the floor, drinking chardonnay and smoking marijuana, all swooning over the sounds coming from the big speakers of hit songwriter Sonny Throckmorton. It is a time of uncommon camaraderie, getting together night after night to hear and support each other’s music, this is the “Tree crowd,” and a dreamy-faced Gant smiles lazily and says, “Enjoy this, because there will never be times like these again.” This is how Sparky and I spend much of our time and it sets the tone for the rest of the chapter. In this eventful period the hits keep coming, Music Row mogul Jimmy Bowen signs me to record two hugely expensive, self-indulgent albums, and there is a divorce (from Sue) quickly followed by a marriage (to Sparky). This chapter presents a retrospective on the Outlaw Movement and a profile of Waylon Jennings. And there is the anatomy of a historic recording session—producer Billy Sherrill, the great George Jones, and “He Stopped Loving Her Today,”—and the big awards that come only a few months later. There are several funny stories, but a couple of sad ones: the death of Tree CEO Jack Stapp, and the mysterious disappearance of Jeep’s mom. I use the 1959 Buddy Holly plane crash as a metaphor for my second marriage: the pilot thought the little plane was ascending when in fact it was drifting downward in the blinding snow. The chapter ends with a foreshadowing of trouble in paradise.
CHAPTER NINE: THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES The best of times are the country-starry nights of accolades, honors, and awards; the worst of times are the sad, dark days of betrayal, devastation, and depression. Sparky gets a job singing with an Elvis-Tom Jones-type entertainer, Joe Vegas, a job that soon turns into an extramarital affair. She tells me that it’s just a phase and begs me to hang in there and amazingly I try. I get a girlfriend, but when Joe Vegas leaves town and goes home to his wife, I drop the girlfriend and run to Sparky’s suddenly available arms, only to slide back into the depths of hell when Joe Vegas is back in town. This sad scenario is repeated time and time again. During 1981’s country music week, I journal my reaction to the week’s various honors: induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (“miserable”), CMA Song of the Year award second year in a row (“miserable”), and three BMI heavy-airplay awards (“miserable”—extra miserable because Sparky backs out as my date at the last minute because she needs to rehearse with Joe Vegas). When I check into a mental hospital, for therapy they play us a song about mental illness, not realizing it’s a song Harlan Howard and I wrote. After a few weeks of anti-depressants and cognitive therapy, the fog begins to lift and I have the resolve to go ahead with a divorce. Sparky keeps asking for more time, and on the eve of the divorce she calls, begging me to delay it, but I know I must move on. The chapter ends with, “Our relationship with each other wasn’t over, but it would never be the way it used to be, and would gradually fade away like the stars in the sky on the dawning of a new day.”
CHAPTER TEN: COLD WIND BLOWING This is the sometimes painful story of a reversal of fortune as a songwriting career goes from red hot to ice cold, chronicling all the humiliation that goes with it. The situation is resolved only by making a deal that I eventually regret, the sale of my writer’s rights to Buddy Killen as I re-sign with the company, having to start my career all over again at the age of forty-eight. There are major changes through this period as Lauren/Jeep moves to New York to attend acting school, and when Tree is sold and becomes Sony/Tree. But life goes on as I produce a bluegrass version of a Beatles song with a future country star, interview the survivors of America’s worst train wreck, and do a rap record with Rafe Van Hoy as The Plain White Rappers. There are several little romances and two big ones. Some apt titles for the anecdotes might be “Prune Juice Braddock,” “Playing with Dolly’s Hits,” “Mom Does Broadway,” and “Shooting Up Music Row.” Sad are the untimely deaths of close friend Don Gant and rising star Keith Whitley. There is the profile of a country giant, the great Garth Brooks. Also walking through this chapter (in alphabetical order) are John Anderson, the Bellamy Brothers, Matraca Berg, Johnny Cash, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Holly Dunn, David Keith, Lobo, John Schneider, Del Shannon, Ricky Skaggs, record mogul Phil Walden, and the Whites.
CHAPTER ELEVEN: COMING BACK The title explains the chapter: a fruitful new season following a long dry spell. There are three #1s: “Old Flames Have New Names,” written with Rafe Van Hoy, and “Texas Tornado” and “Time Marches On,” both written solo. This is a long chapter that covers the entire 1990s. The torch passes from Buddy Killen to Donna Hilley, and Sony/Tree comes to be known as Sony Music Publishing and/or Sony ATV. There’s slapstick comedy almost turning tragic as I defend my girlfriend’s honor not knowing that the big trashy-mouthed drunk I attack is a karate expert who will body-bash me against the girlfriends car; and there’s the fascinating look at the lady who may have been Nashville’s best groupie. There are also sad stories: the suicide of my beautiful young friend, Angela, the accidental death of Lauren’s friend Jon, and the strange death of Tammy Wynette. My mother comes back from dementia for two whole days as if touched by a healing hand, and Lauren marries Jim Havey in an unforgettable wedding in the lobby of Nashville’s Union Station Hotel. Also…producing an album on longtime friend Deborah Allen…becoming a publisher to (and forging a close friendship with) Kathy Locke. Herein are profiles on two songwriters, Bob McDill and Kim Williams. There is a road trip with Brooks & Dunn, more Garth Brooks and John Anderson, and appearances by Bobby Bare, Clint Black, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Porter Wagoner, and Chely Wright. Toward the end of the decade I meet Blake Shelton, cut some sides on him, and go to every label in Nashville before finally obtaining him a recording deal. This is Part I of a mini biography of the fascinating, funny, and most talented Mr. Shelton.
CHAPTER TWELVE: BRAND NEW CENTURY The chapter title tells it all. It opens with me doing a “legends show” at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium with Mac Davis, Loretta Lynn, and the famous Broadway writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Part of this chapter could be called Blake Shelton Miniseries Part II as it chronicles the story of the biggest country debut single in ten years, and my getting sacked as Blake’s producer right after the young singer’s third multiple-week #1. This is also the real-time story of the 9/11 attack on America, told in e-mails between Lauren in Manhattan and me in Tennessee. This is a story-rich chapter with true tales about a fifth decade of #1 songs (“I Wanna Talk About Me” and “People Are Crazy”); a group called Music Row Democrats and encounters with Al Gore, John Kerry, Michael Moore, and Janet Reno; almost losing both daughter and grandson in the delivery room; an evening with Paul Simon; meeting seventeen-year-old Taylor Swift at a reception for Barry Gibb; my first book tour; the deaths of Harlan Howard and Buddy Killen; Nashville’s Thousand-Year Flood; and country music’s royal wedding. The chapter closes with a phone call from CMA head Steve Moore sharing this little bit of information: “You’re being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.” There are always the anecdotes, such as:“The World’s Oldest Sock Hop;” “Busted: The True Story of the Butt-Dialing Girlfriend;” “Hit Record with No Label;” “Blake Programs My Cell Phone in Spanish;” and “Bubba, the Miracle Cat.”
CHAPTER THIRTEEN: LOOKING BACK (AND AHEAD) The thirteenth and final chapter is short on words but long on sentimentality and philosophy. It opens on the stage of Nashville’s Ford Theater as I’m inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and moves on to other stages and other honors. There are stories about the deaths of George Jones who recorded twenty-nine of my songs, and John Egerton who mentored me through two books including this one. I discuss aging—God, do I discuss aging—and also discuss my grandson, abortion, and famous people. I scan the past fifty years and take another look at the city and the music as it once was, and recollect some noted people who are now gone, such as Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, and the father of Opryland Theme Park and the CMA Awards, Irving Waugh, as well as some who are still around, like the Louisiana cousins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley. We go back even further than that, a flashback involving my father and me, and a movie screen cowboy. There’s a farewell to Glen Campbell as he rides off into the sunset. And we look in awe at some of the stars of today: Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert and Pistol Annies, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, LeAnn Rimes, Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, and Lee Ann Womack. At the end of the chapter and the end of the book, I finally let go of the long story I’ve been carrying around in my brain and computer for several years, as I figure out how a man ends the story of his life while he’s still alive.
All content (C) 2015 Robert Valentine Braddock