An Interview with Dale Ann Bradley
It might seem odd to say that three-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year Dale Ann Bradley is one of the underrated talents in her field. Often overshadowed by Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent, first-rate singers with higher profiles, Bradley is herself a terrific vocal artist who’s able to convey conflicting emotions with passion and insight. The Eastern Kentucky native, who began performing in local bands as a teenager, first emerged as a part of the successful bluegrass outfit New Coon Creek Girls. In 1997, she released her first solo album, East Kentucky Morning, which featured a notable cover of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
A string of critically acclaimed albums have followed in the last 15 years, and Bradley’s new album, Somewhere South of Crazy is another high mark in her consistently excellent catalog. Bradley is credited on three of the 12 songs, including the title cut written with friend and collaborator Pam Tillis. That she’s able to perform such an array of songs—Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” and Bill Monroe’s “In Despair” are two notable covers—is a testimony of her immense talent. In her interview with Engine 145, Bradley describes music as the ultimate “ministry” and shares her desire to spread the word.
Blake Boldt: Where are you today?
Dale Ann Bradley: I’m on I-40 heading back to Knoxville. I just came back from doing something for the Nashville Folk Festival with Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris.
BB: Not bad company, right?
DAB: When you’re working with your total heroes, you’re definitely in a respectful position.
BB: You’ve had a number of wonderful musical relationships in your career.
DAB: I’ve been blessed, especially with Compass (Records, Bradley’s record label) and Alison (Brown) and Garry (West). Their additions set the song apart. Alison adds just enough to spice things and she has such insightfulness (sic).
BB: What’s one major lesson you’ve learned in your years of recording?
DAB: What I have learned is you want everything to be as perfect as you can get it, but sometimes you smooth it out and you lose the moment that had emotion in it. Sometimes you just need to leave it; sometimes you lose it if you slick it up. I want it to be sung or said in a different way that touches your heart.
BB: What would you say is the major theme of this album?
DAB: I feel like the song “Round and Round” set the theme for the whole album. It was the first song I’d written by myself for a while. It’s about maturity and really landing on a stone in a solid way after being many miles on a journey. The songs mean a lot to me personally; they’re about looking at what’s most important in life, and what you make a living at, what is your calling. It’s taking a look at your children and your relationship. It might seem like a cliche thing, but it’s coming full circle, emotionally and maturity wise. I feel it’s the best year of my career. We’ve had a wonderful touring year and a lot of publicity stuff going on. When you’ve got a product that people are behind like they are with this album, it’s a wonderful thing. You get to a point in your life when you get reflective whether you want to or not, and this album is definitely that.
BB: Mainstream country fans might be intrigued when they see Pam Tillis’ name in the credits. What’s the best part about working with Pam?
DAB: Pam emailed me and invited me to come down and do some writing with her. She’s a singer’s singer. Of course, I grew up listening to her dad. I’m a big fan of her materials. Her songs were so good. I’m very honored that she did that. I went down and spent a couple days with her. She had started writing “Somewhere South of Crazy.” She’d written it in the key of B, and I love singing in B. We finished the song and I decided to record it. I said “I would be so honored if you could come in and do the high harmony. I told her that everyone in bluegrass will love you because it’s in B. I respect her so much; she can sing, and she’s got this depth. Growing up with the songwriter that her father was, and a singer, too, she learned to appreciate all kinds of music. But she sure can sing bluegrass, and now the bluegrass audience can hear that. They are huge fans of Pam.
BB: The casual music listener might also remember “Summer Breeze,” but it takes special insight to make it identifiably bluegrass. How’d the recording of that song come about?
DAB: I was like everybody else; I grew up with that song. I loved that song growing up and learned how to play it and all the harmonies. I liked folk music, but I loved the banjo. Bluegrass was the love of my heart, but I loved those songs as well. I wanted to incorporate those lyrics and melodies into bluegrass. I had a real good friend who taught me there’s no limit with bluegrass and the players can play that. I don’t choose a pop tune just to have one on an album. Bluegrass is not limited. It goes from the root of the oak tree all the way up to the branches. It’s an entity that deserves to expand. The roots will always be there. Those first generation songs are precious and they will always be around. They’re a learning process. We’ve been through so much as a nation and I do feel like it’s America’s music, even with its Irish roots. We’ve been through a lot of things since those have been written, and I want to incorporate all that into an honest, pure expression. It’s all about the lyrics and melodies and things that mean something. I think our society is really searching for music that takes ‘em back to yesteryear with solid emotion to it.
BB: This year’s big music story in music, the success of Adele, is one sign of that.
DAB: I saw her on Saturday Night Live a while back and loved her. She’s just herself, and she pours it out there. When you can feel the message in the song, it’s great. We need that so desperately.
BB: If you were to work with another singer in any genre, who would it be?
DAB: I’ve worked with Alison Krauss three or four times. That would definitely be my choice. Steve Gulley, I’m always thrilled to work with him. He and I have sung together on so many different things. I would love to sing with Dolly (Parton), of course. Bonnie Raitt is one. John Prine and Kris Kristofferson, they’re two of my favorite writers. Ralph Stanley, I would love to get a chance to sing with him.
BB: In a few weeks we have the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards. You’ve only won Female Vocalist of the Year three times.
DAB: (laughs) I’m honored any time I’m in the running. There’s such good talent so I appreciate it so much. When I won, it couldn’t have meant any more to anybody than it did to me. You sink your life into this, so when your fans love your style of fans and the people give you a nod, that’s very special. I never took it for granted.
BB: To have feedback from fans and your peers must be the best part of the business.
DAB: We’re all in the same position, just trying to make it work. We work very hard to do what we love. Everybody that I’ve respected growing up has been very good to me in this business. When somebody that you’ve listened to and learned from is very nice to you, it validates what you do. I go back to sitting in a holler in Kentucky, and their music helped me get out of the holler. And when someone comes up to you and says your song helped them get through cancer or loss of a family member, and they can tell you the song and the words, then you know that music is a ministry. If we could keep that in the forefront of our minds, we would really understand more about what we’re doing. It’s just like doctors or people who do construction…we’ve all got something to offer and if we all work together, it works out.
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