Bobby Braddock: The Rhapsody Interview
Every two weeks, genius-level Q&A artist Rob Trucks, whose work has appeared everywhere from McSweeney's to the Village Voice to Deadspin, will interview a public person of interest -- an author, actor, athlete, political wonk, etc. -- about his or her relationship with music. Today, we've got country songwriter, producer and all-around living legend Bobby Braddock. Listen along with his personal playlist of all-time favorites, and enjoy.
For some, writing "He Stopped Loving Her Today" would be enough success to call it a career and retire to Florida. The melancholy anthem won the Country Music Association's Song of the Year in both 1980 and 1981. It won George Jones his first Grammy, served as his first million-selling song and revived the singer's reeling career. And multiple polls have since bestowed honors like Country Song of the Century and Greatest Country Song of All Time upon it.
But maybe because he's actually from Florida (Auburndale, specifically), Bobby Braddock remains in Nashville and continues writing songs. "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is just one of 13 No. 1 singles that Braddock has either written or cowritten over the past 50 years, and much of his work, like "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" (his first No. 1), "(We're Not) the Jet Set" and "You Can't Have Your Kate and Edith Too" (like "He Stopped Loving Her Today," cowritten with Curly Putman), has managed to transcend the boundaries of country music and enter the realm of pop culture lore. In his free time (you know, the few hours when he's not writing songs), Braddock, a recent inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame, not only discovered Blake Shelton, but also produced or coproduced each of Shelton's first five albums. And in 2007, Braddock published Down in Orbundale: A Songwriter's Youth in Old Florida, the first volume of his memoirs. Look for a second volume, Hollywood, Tennessee, which chronicles his time on Music Row, soon. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Ray Charles is kind of a hero for you.
Oh, absolutely. He's probably my ultimate musical hero.
When were you first introduced to the music of Ray Charles?
When I was a teenager, I had a friend who was one year older than me, and while most of the kids were into rock 'n' roll -- and there were some of us who were into country -- he was totally into R&B. And he would turn it up so loud on his radio. He'd listen to WLAC at night when it went to R&B, and he'd have his radio turned so loud that it was distorted, you know. It sounded awful. But that was my introduction to Ray Charles, and that was like "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" and "Drown in My Own Tears" and stuff like that.
And then in 1959, when I was 18 years old playing in a nightclub in Miami, driving back to my hometown in central Florida for the weekend to visit my parents, I had the radio on and heard "What'd I Say?" And I could not believe it [laughs]. I thought, "What is that? What is that instrument?" You know, I didn't think it was a guitar. I just didn't know what it was. And I bypassed my little hometown and went on to Lakeland, which is 10 miles away, and they had a Martin's Record Mart. And it was probably, in that part of Florida, the leading R&B record place, because people would come from Orlando and Tampa to get R&B records. And as I walked in the door I said, "'What'd I Say?,' Ray Charles." And he kind of smiled, shook his head, and he said, "This guy." And there was this big African American dude who had just come in all the way from Tampa to get it. And back then records cost about 79 cents. And I started off offering him $2, $3 finally, $5. So he let me have it for $5, and I took it to my parents' house and played it over and over [laughs].
You've given us a list of 15 favorite country songs. Do great country songs share certain traits, or are they more like snowflakes, and no two are the same?
More like snowflakes. And I had to be careful with this list, because the late '50s, when I was a teenager, I fell in love with country music. I mean, I loved Elvis. I remember seeing this sort of local American Bandstand-type show off a TV station in Orlando, where kids got on there and they were doing the same thing their parents had done. They were doing the jitterbug, the bop and, you know, listening to pop music with big brass sections. And this guy came on there and he said, "This is a record that's causing a lot of controversy. Some people say it's pop, some people say it's hillbilly. Tell us what you think." And I had heard Elvis' "Baby, Let's Play House," but this was "Mystery Train." And it sort of changed my life. I just fell in love with it. And then Johnny Cash came on, and I thought it was the same kind of music, and I fell in love with that. My brother -- my brother's four years older -- he and his friends had loved country music. And I didn't like it. I used to say, "I could write that sh*t."
And so I fell in love with Elvis and Johnny Cash, and then I started listening to the country pop stuff, and then I started going back and listening to stuff that my brother had liked, like Hank Williams and Carl Smith. And by the time I was a senior in high school, I was a country music aficionado. I mean, I just loved it. So I had to be careful on this list, or I would've put [only] songs that just had so much magic for me. I would've put Marty Robbins' "Singing the Blues" and Bobby Helms' "Fraulein," and it would've been just overwrought with stuff from the late 1950s. You get into the '70s and '80s, I mean, I was liking Foreigner and people like that, probably as much or maybe more than country music. The past 10 years, I'm a big fan of Eminem. Just a huge Eminem fan. And I was probably the only white male past 60 riding down the highway, singing along with the Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps," you know [laughs]. I love all kinds of music, but I had to be careful, because I just have a certain kind of affinity for country music back in the late '50s. So there are a lot of songs that I love more, but I love them maybe for ... I don't know. It's sort of like when a guy first falls for a girl and there's all that magic.
Our favorite songs are not always the most popular songs. Is it possible that the world has not heard the best song Bobby Braddock has ever written?
I think so. I think the best song that I ever wrote is a song that got on a George Strait album, and that was it. It was called "The Nerve". And I remember when Bill Anderson heard it, he started crying. He said, "That's the best song I ever heard in my life." And I said, "Well, I think maybe that's the best compliment I ever got." But George Strait cut it, and his producer Tony Brown said, "This is the song of the year." And then he said, "Promotion is a little worried about starting out with this song. We want to do it second, because it's so unusual." Then it was going to be the third single, and then it never became a single. And years later the guy in promotion told me, "We made a stupid mistake with this song." So I think maybe ... honestly, it's probably my best song.
What do you feel like when you put the pen down and that song's written? Do you know right then that it's one of the best, if not the best song you've ever written? Or is it one of those things that you kind of learn over time?
I think a lot of times we have a tendency to think the last thing we wrote is a lot better than it is, because the creative part of the brain and our critiquing part of the brain, those are not in the same place [laughs]. They're not the same thing. And I think that's the first rule of songwriting an aspiring songwriter needs to learn. It took me quite a few years to learn that. I do better if I get away from a song and approach it a couple days later. And that way I'm more apt to be hearing it with other people's ears, and I can be more objective about it. That particular song, when I wrote it, I felt like it was a really good song. I absolutely did. If I write a song and it brings me to tears, which is very unusual, I have a feeling that that is probably not a throwaway song, you know?
Have you ever written a song that you weren't particularly fond of -- maybe you write it and it feels like a wasted day -- and then had it end up being extraordinarily popular?
I let go of the notion of wasting days and writing songs after I started writing books [laughs]. You know, spending three years on the first one, and probably four years on the one I just finished -- which is called Hollywood, Tennessee, it's the one that will get me run out Nashville [laughs] -- I think that a song is a paltry time commitment. You know, say you spend a day on it. That's what you do. I mean, you write songs. Some of them are not going to be very good.
You mentioned receiving the best compliment from Bill Anderson, and that's got to feel good. When "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" hit No. 1 on the charts, I'm guessing that's a different kind of good altogether. Is there any relationship between the act of writing the song and the validation that song might receive later?
Yeah, those milestones are wonderful. The first time you hear your song on the radio. Or the first time you hear a recording of your song. The first Top 10. The first No. 1, absolutely. But the excitement doesn't stop. I mean, I've never had a No. 1 song that I wasn't at least somewhat excited about. To me, the most exciting thing was "Austin," which I produced on Blake Shelton, had been No. 1 for five weeks in a row and the biggest debut single in 10 years. Right after that, "I Wanna Talk About Me" by Toby Keith, which I wrote, was No. 1 for five weeks. Those came right together. So in that period of several weeks there, I had 10 weeks at No. 1, either as a producer or as a songwriter. And I can tell you, honestly, I felt like I was hot sh*t when I did that. That was a very, very good feeling.
You've had a long and very successful career. Are there any firsts left?
Well, to brag a little bit, I'm the only living person who has had No. 1 songs in five consecutive decades. And if I can get one in this decade, I'll be the only person in any genre who's ever done that. I don't know if I want to shout that one or not, because I don't want to jinx it or anything. But yeah, I would love to have that.
Do you ever have a particular singer's voice in your head when you're writing?
Sometimes, yeah. "Golden Ring" was like that. I specifically wanted to write something for George Jones and Tammy Wynette. There was an old kind of hillbilly gospel group called The Chuck Wagon Gang, and I wanted something that sounded like that: just kind of a group sing-along, almost a kind of Pentecostal-sounding thing. And I wanted to write that kind of a song, and I had that in mind for them. So that was some specificity there. I mean, certainly "He Stopped Loving Her Today" was not intended for anyone in particular. You know, I wasn't thinking of George Jones or anybody when we wrote that one. But "Golden Ring" is an example of trying to write something for somebody.
You mentioned Blake Shelton, and he's the only singer who comes up twice on the list. It's also the only time we have two songs from the same year. Did you choose both of those songs for his album in your role as producer?
No, the only big hit he had that I actually went out and found -- that I don't know how it escaped everybody else, because a lot of people had passed on it -- was "Some Beach." I chose these two songs because, well, for me to get on board with him as producer, naturally they had to be songs that I liked. And I just liked both of these songs immensely. "The Baby," you know, I didn't find. The A&R person found that, and we both immediately knew that we wanted to do it. But "Ol' Red" is a song that Hoyt Axton took to Blake. Sang it to him a capella. Blake had never heard a recording of it.
That one's been around for a while, right?
George Jones recorded it. Kenny Rogers cut it. Neither Blake nor I had heard this song when we went in there and did it. I was just blown away with the song, and I immediately got this arrangement, this swampy arrangement in my head, and went in there and did it with a weird combination of a Jew's harp, a harmonica and a cello. And after we recorded it, I heard the other versions. And I thought — well, I thought ours was better, you know [laughs]. "Ol' Red," to me, comes close to being a perfect story song. If I could name a perfect story song I think it would be "Ol' Red." Marty Robbins' "El Paso" would come pretty close, and that easily could've made my Top 15 list. If I hadn't played it every night for a year and a half on the road with him it probably would've.
You talked about stepping away from your own song in order to hear it as other people hear it. Is it an even more specified skill, as a producer, to try to hear songs that will showcase Blake's strengths?
Yeah, I think that's important, too, in producing. Absolutely. You have to imagine in your head that person singing that song. And that's a gift that helps you a little bit as a songwriter, and it certainly helps you as a song plugger. Great song pluggers are able to do that. "I Wanna Talk About Me," I wrote that for Blake because he was going around doing this little nerdy rap thing that he made up. And it was hilarious, hearing him in his Oklahoma-white-boy voice going around doing this rap. It was hilarious. So when I wrote "I Wanna Talk About Me," I had Blake in mind. We went in and cut it. ... And the label that we were on -- it eventually folded and Blake hopped over to Warner Bros. from Giant when Giant folded -- said they had done research on "I Wanna Talk About Me" and people did not like it. And it would not only not be a single, you know, it shouldn't even be on the album. So a song plugger at Sony played it for Allison Jones, who was an A&R person for DreamWorks, the label that Toby [Keith] was on, and she said, "Not only am I passing on this song, I hate this song."
And James Stroud [Toby Keith's producer] did not listen to songs. I mean, he was doing so many artists, he didn't have time to. And Allison is a good A&R person. I don't fault her. I mean, there's just something that rubbed her wrong about the song. She's a good A&R person. But I knew the only way I could get this song recorded would be if I got it to James, and he did not listen to songs. And I ran into him in the market and kind of cornered him, and I think he felt like he had to listen [laughs]. So he flipped open his phone and called his assistant and said, "Find me five minutes to hear a Bobby Braddock song." And I took it in and played it for him, and he just had a fit. Called Toby and played it for him over the phone. Big, big, huge record. And at the No. 1 party, Allison kind of sidled up next to Terry Wakefield -- the guy who originally pitched it to Allison -- and said, "I still hate it." [Laughs] I mean, you've got to respect that, you know?
Absolutely. Let's talk about a few more songs on your list, and let's start with "The Gambler." That may surprise some people, because Kenny Rogers doesn't have the critical heft that a Hank Williams or a Ray Charles or a Vince Gill has.
I think it's full of life lessons. Gosh, I haven't played poker in years, but I used to, and I never played poker without thinking of that. You know, I was thinking, "Okay. You've got to know when to fold them. You never count your money while you're sitting at the table." I mean, I always had that in mind. I kept that in mind as a lot of good poker lessons, and a lot of really good life lessons there, too. "The best you can hope for is to die in your sleep." I think it's just a great song. A great song that you can use, you know. And there are some things that just come from an emotional place. And some of these songs have to do not only with the song, but the heft they have. I mean, "I Can't Stop Loving You," of course, Don Gibson wrote it. Had a great record on it, too. The Ray Charles thing is just so very, very, very special. ... The way that song was recorded influences also the high esteem in which I hold the song. And I have to say the same goes for "Go Rest High on That Mountain."
I don't particularly think "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is the best country song ever written. I think it's the best country record ever made, with the possible exception of "Go Rest High on That Mountain." That's just a great record. I never get tired of hearing it. It's an emotional rush every time I hear it. It's not only the song, but it's that trio of Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless, you know. And it's just the emotion. And the song was so long that most producers and most artists would say, "This song is probably too long. Definitely no instrumental." But they go in there and put this whole fiddle solo in there. And don't stop at that. Then Vince plays a guitar solo. A great guitar solo, too. So the song's already too long, and they make it longer. And you know what? It made it an even better record. And so I just admire the record as much as the songs. So all of it together, I put that as my favorite song, because when I hear it on the radio I'm always going to stop there and listen to it.
As good a song as "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is, if it doesn't have that producer and those strings and George Jones' voice, there's a good chance it doesn't get voted the best country song of all time.
That's what I think. I think the people who are drawn to it ... surely, the story has something to do with it. That has to do with this enduring love, you know, that transcends so many things. With the guy whom I call a terrible role model. You know, the guy who couldn't move on with his life. But when I went in Billy Sherrill's office, I was not expecting to be blown away. It was not a song that I was all that excited about. But when I heard that record, I thought, "Holy sh*t." I knew it was something very, very, very special. Talk about a perfect country record. I think that's it. And people ask me my favorite thing about it. They think I'm nuts. I say, "The string section." The ascending strings: the cello, violin and violas. To me it sounds like the soul is ascending to heaven, you know. That's my favorite part of the record.
And if somebody tried to come up with a recipe for the perfect country record, the cello is not always something they would put into the mix.
Let's go back to Ray Charles. We started off talking about you paying $5 for a 79-cent copy of "What'd I Say?" so you could take the single home with you and play it over and over and over again. But "What'd I Say" isn't a country song, so it can't make the list. When you think of Ray Charles, do you hear "I Can't Stop Loving You" or "What'd I Say?"
You know, this is my favorite 15 country favorites. I just heard "What'd I Say?" the night before last. I heard that the other night, and I still love it. I think it's just one of the most exciting records ever made. And there are probably other Ray Charles things I like as well. Maybe "Drown in My Own Tears," but "I Can't Stop Loving You" is way up there. And I can't explain it. It's just such a great record. Of course, it's not a record that would be made today, because it would sound dated, the big, huge choral group. I don't know. It's just got a magic to it.