Owen Bradley, chief architect of the Nashville Sound and Music Row pioneer, is dead at age 82. He died Wednesday morning in a Nashville area hospital. Bradley, who was born October 21, 1915 was influential in the development of the careers of numerous artists including Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. His production credits include the hit songs “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” “Crazy,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Hello Darlin’,” “I’m Sorry” and countless more. In short, Owen Bradley helped to transform “The Athens of the South” into “Music City USA.”
At age seven, Bradley moved with his family from the tiny hamlet of Westmoreland, Tennessee to Nashville. A multi-instrumentalist, Bradley was playing gigs in roadhouses, lodge halls – any available venue – by his mid-teens. In 1935 he was offered a part-time job with WSM Radio. Concurrent to his career at the South’s most powerful radio station, Bradley followed his personal muse and formed the Owen Bradley Orchestra in 1940. That ensemble was one of Nashville’s premier outfits and often played for country club parties and other prestigious Nashville social events.
During his tenure at WSM, Bradley rose through the ranks and by 1947 he was named the station’s Musical Director, working on highly popular programs including, “Sunday Down South” and “Noontime Neighbors.” About the time he assumed this new position at WSM, Bradley began working with Paul Cohen, then-head of Decca Records’ country music division. Under Cohen’s guiding hand, Bradley learned the record business and eventually began overseeing recording sessions.
Owen and his brother Harold, himself a well-respected musician, had the vision to see Nashville as a major recording and entertainment center. Their first venture was a film studio, which they opened in 1951. Three years later, the two men purchased an old house on 16th Avenue South and added the now legendary “Quonset Hut” to the structure. In 1955, the studio opened its doors for business, thus setting the stage for the development of what is now called Music Row. Numerous record labels utilized the Quonset Hut including Capitol, Columbia and Decca. Today 16th and 17th Avenues are lined with publishing companies, recording studios and every imaginable related music industry business.
In 1958 Bradley left WSM to head up the Nashville offices of Decca Records. With the title of Vice President, Bradley also assumed the mantle of producer for the label’s most celebrated acts including Red Foley, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe, Webb Pierce and many others. Although Bradley achieved great success with many of his artists, he has often been regarded as a “woman’s producer” due to the phenomenal successes of Wells, Lee, Cline and Lynn. In the case of Cline, Bradley recognized her incredible vocal skills and suggested that she record more pop-oriented material, which often featured lush orchestral arrangements and background singers. His reworking of Cline ultimately took the singer to the top of the charts. Bradley also amassed an incredible string of pop chart hits with teenager Brenda Lee. By allowing singers Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn to retain rural accents, both of these women rose to the top of the country field, thus establishing a high standard for all female singers who followed.
Two years after selling the Quonset Hut to Columbia in 1962, Bradley purchased a spread of land about 20 miles east of Nashville. Using a converted barn as a studio, many of Decca’s acts recorded at the rustic facility until it burned to the ground in 1980. A few years later, however, a new studio was built on the site and remains in operation today.
After Bradley left Decca (which later became MCA) in 1976, he continued to work as an independent producer and was the musical director for the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, which starred Sissy Spacek. In the late 1980s he produced k.d. lang’s Shadowland album which featured guest vocals by Wells, Lynn and Lee. The past two and a half decades have seen Bradley take home a host of industry honors including induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1974, the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award in 1976, and most recently the Heritage Award at 1997’s Nashville Music Awards.
In recent weeks, it was announced that Bradley would be producing singer Mandy Barnett, who garnered success with her portrayal of Patsy Cline in the Ryman Auditorium theatrical production, Always, Patsy Cline. Bradley is survived by his wife of 62 years, Mary Katherine and two children; daughter Patsy Bradley and Jerry Bradley, who heads up the Opryland Music Group operation.