A familiar quotation, believed to have originated with actor-comedian Martin Mull, asserts that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” If that notion holds true, the recently released memoir, Bobby Braddock: A Life on Nashville’s Music Row, is nothing less than a terpsichorean tour-de-force chronicling one of Music City’s most influential architects of wordplay. As a songwriter, Braddock’s tunes have not only inspired generations of other songwriters, they have served as solid building blocks for some of Nashville’s finest singers of the past six decades. Among Braddock’s best-known compositions are the iconic George Jones gem, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” Billy Currington’s “People Are Crazy” and a string of Tracy Lawrence chart-toppers. Braddock is enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the national Songwriters Hall of Fame. In addition to penning hundreds of songs, he also mentored a future country superstar, producing the early, career-establishing hits of Blake Shelton. But the story only builds from there.
The follow-up to 2007’s Down in Orburndale: A Songwriter’s Youth in Old Florida, which covered his formative years in the central Florida city of Auburndale, the new memoir was aided by 85 of the author’s personal journals going back as far as 1971. Braddock details not only the creative inspiration and collaboration behind some his most memorable songs, he recounts the harsh realities of the music business that often led to discord in his professional and personal relationships. Unflinchingly honest, frequently hilarious and always insightful, the book candidly and imaginatively captures indelible scenes populated with characters whose names are familiar to a wide range of country music fans. The writer of songs for the likes of Toby Keith, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tanya Tucker and George Strait, among many others, Braddock details the creative process and the inner workings of the music business, but the memoir also covers his life away from Music Row, his two marriages, various affairs, a money-swindling impersonator and his special relationship with daughter Lauren, whom he affectionately calls “Jeep.”
“When I was a kid, if Bozo the Clown had written a book about songwriting, I would have bought it,” Braddock tells Rolling Stone Country. “When I was in high school, I’d drive to a store in Winter Haven, Florida, which was a few miles away. As soon as I’d get out of school on Tuesday, I’d go there and get Billboard. I could tell you every song that was in every position on the pop chart and the country chart. I knew more about the music business then than I do now.”
While he’s certainly more memorable for such country classics as the Jones-Wynette duet, “Golden Ring,” Braddock confesses that while his older brother and his friends loved country music as teenagers, he “hated it.” Eventually, he came around.
“By the time I was in my teens, I wanted to be a songwriter,” he says. “I started liking country music and I wanted to write that. I felt certain that I could come to Nashville and do OK as a piano player. [He later played piano for country legend Marty Robbins]. I wasn’t sure about songwriting stuff back then. Would people actually like the songs? I didn’t know.”
By the dawn of the new century, Braddock was a well-established, multi-award-winning songwriter. He was also producing the debut LP by Giant Records newcomer Blake Shelton, who was still rocking a mullet but also making waves with industry insiders. Braddock believed that Shelton was on his way to mega-stardom.
“When I was producing him, we had an album that was close to going platinum,” he reflects. “I thought he was going to be like Garth [Brooks] or Shania [Twain]. I thought he was going to be huge. I also thought that he would be great for TV. I just thought that if he got on TV, he would be a natural. We used to talk about him being the next John Wayne. He could be amazing in the movies. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if that happened. We’ll see how it goes.”
How it went, for Shelton anyway, involves his first label closing just as his debut single was released. When the dust finally settled, Shelton landed at his current label, Warner Bros., with the smash hit, “Austin.” As for Braddock, in the middle of producing Shelton’s fourth LP, 2011’s Pure BS, he was “unceremoniously fired” by the label. Although it stung at the time, Braddock was already planning to hand the producer reins to someone else for album number five.
“I just felt that I couldn’t continue to produce and write books and write songs, so I told Blake we’d do one more album,” he says.
In spite of the many changes within the songwriting industry, Braddock remains a prolific tunesmith, always eager to put a fresh, clever spin on the current country norm. But he’s also mindful of what’s lacking, chiefly the camaraderie that existed with his fellow writers.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of that now,” he says. “I think it’s more of a sort of nine-to-five kind of business, rather than people hanging out and saying, ‘Hey, let’s write a song.'”
With more than a dozen Number One country songs to his credit, Braddock shares the inspiration and creation of five of his classic country hits.
“D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” Tammy Wynette (Braddock, Curly Putman)
“I had a song called ‘I L-O-V-E-Y-O-U (Do I Have to Spell It Out for You)’ and hit kind of a snag. But that song did eventually get written and Tammy Wynette recorded it a few years later. I got the idea of a couple that spells in front of their kid so the kid won’t hear all this disturbing stuff about his parents getting a divorce. Months went by and nobody recorded it. I asked Curly Putman why nobody was recording the song. He said the melody for the title line was too happy. The melody I had for the song was sort of like a soap commercial. Curly’s got this real lonesome, sad voice as a singer and he [sang his revised melody]. He didn’t want to take any part of the song or put his name on it, because he was more established than I was, but we compromised and he took 25 percent and put his name on it. It was not very long at all before Tammy recorded it. It was my first Number One. Looking back on it now, I think the song’s pretty corny. But I was glad to have it.”
“He Stopped Loving Her Today,” George Jones (Braddock, Putman)
“Curly says I brought the idea to him. I’m not absolutely sure where it came from. It may have had something to do with my second wife, Sparky. If there was ever a love of my life, it was probably her. The idea was to write about a love that was so powerful that only death could bring it to a conclusion.
Billy Sherrill told us George Jones was going to cut it but he wanted it to have a verse in which the wife or girlfriend of the protagonist comes back to the funeral. Billy says they started recording the song about a year and a half before and it took that long for George to finish it, to get the best take on it. But for that to have happened, Billy would have had to say, ‘Let’s leave this whole verse blank here, because Curly Putman and Bobby Braddock may write a recitation for it in a year and a half and we’ll put it here.’ That didn’t happen. It’s sort of a well-known remark that Billy Sherrill says George said, ‘Nobody will buy that morbid son of a bitch.'”
“Time Marches On,” Tracy Lawrence
“Time is a fascinating subject for poetry and songs. Coming from a small town in Florida, that whole citrus belt there was a very Southern culture. I noticed that a lot of people from the north moved there to retire. The bridge of the song talks about that. My mother-in-law from my first marriage had a bumper sticker that said ‘Sexy Grandma.’ I thought that was hilarious. The song had all those things they told us you couldn’t write about: drugs, dementia, cheating. Well, I guess they never told us you couldn’t write about cheating. Of all the songs I’ve written that were hits, that’s my favorite. It was nominated Song of the Year twice but it never won. Backstage at the CMAs, Vince Gill told me, ‘If my song [‘Go Rest High on That Mountain’] doesn’t win, I hope yours does.’ I said, ‘Well, the same to you.’ Since he wrote his song about his good friend [Keith Whitley] and his brother, I thought probably his song meant more to him than mine did to me.”
“I Wanna Talk About Me,” Toby Keith
“There were two inspirations for that song. One was a very good friend of mine [whose] assistant had been fired, so her workload doubled. Whenever I talked to her on the phone, that was all she’d talk about. I’d try to talk to her about something else and she’d just keep going back to that. I played it for her over the phone and she didn’t say anything. The next day, she called and said, ‘Did you write that song about me?’ I said, ‘That’s right!’ The other inspiration was Blake Shelton. He was going around doing this really raunchy little rap song he made up. To hear him in his Oklahoma white-boy accent doing a rap song was pretty hilarious. So, I thought, ‘I need to write a country-rap song for Blake.’ I wanted to write something about my friend and her loquaciousness, so I thought I would turn it into a rap thing.”
“People Are Crazy,” Billy Currington (Braddock, Troy Jones)
“[Music publisher] Frank Liddell, who produces Miranda Lambert and is married to Lee Ann Womack, had this writer, Troy Jones, and asked if I would write with him. I liked his writing, so I said sure. The title was Troy’s. Never in a million years would I come up with that title. I’m too OCD. I mean, I would say, ‘Some people like beer, most people like beer, but some people don’t like beer. Some people are crazy and some people are boringly sane.’ Or, ‘God is great. I think God is great. Is there a God?’ It’s probably the most co-written song I’ve ever been involved with. If I had to guess what each of us wrote, I’d say probably 50 percent. Of course, he wrote the impact part of the song because he wrote that title. But it was my idea to write the part about the old man putting this stranger in his will and not leaving his estate to his children. Troy told somebody later, ‘When he came up with that, I looked at Bobby like he had three heads.’ Probably the way I reacted when he gave me that title. David Letterman liked it so much he went into this positive rant on his show for about three or four minutes. I liked the song but I was surprised it was such a big hit.”
Bobby Braddock: A Life on Nashville’s Music Row is published by Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press.