Dale Ann Bradley will never forget the week she finally moved to Nashville. It was during the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual convention in 2007. Most of her clothes were still in boxes, so she stopped at Target to try on some outfits for that night’s awards ceremony. Then she settled into her seat, exhausted from lifting furniture all day.
Suddenly, much to her surprise and the audience’s delight, she won her first-ever IBMA female vocalist trophy. She repeated the feat in 2008 and again Thursday night (Oct. 1) at the 20th annual IBMA Awards show at the Ryman Auditorium, where she also shared the recorded event of the year award with an all-star cast for “Proud to Be a Daughter of Bluegrass.”
Bradley is genuinely moved by the accolades she has received in recent years.
“Nobody will know how much I appreciate it. I wish I could tell it,” she said recently over a barbecue lunch at the Station Inn. “It’s like an uplifting of hands, saying ‘You’re all right! Come on, come on!’ Nobody’s ever appreciated it more, that’s for sure.”
Her overnight success, as they say, was about three decades in the making. Bradley was born in Pineville, Ky., and grew up near the Cumberland Gap, where the states lines of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia meet.
“In the fourth grade, I realized the geography that the Cumberland River covered, and it was right here (in Nashville),” she says. “I would think about that every day because I crossed that river to go anywhere. Every day, I can remember thinking, ‘That river goes right there.’”
Bradley’s father came from outside of the mountains to attend Clear Creek Baptist Bible College in Pineville. He met Bradley’s mother and figured if they got married, she’d be willing to leave the area. She wasn’t. So the family stayed. Bradley felt restricted by the church’s doctrine yet was enchanted by the congregation’s beautiful a cappella singing, which she describes as “a thousand Ralph Stanleys.”
Meanwhile, her grandmother’s brother had found a successful career at Ford Motor Company in Detroit after World War II. He came to visit about three times a year.
“From one time to the next, he would make assessments,” Bradley recalls. “My grandmother raised two children on her own and took care of her invalid grandfather. We all lived in this two-bedroom house, so it was a hard life. … Every time, he would bring something that was very much needed, whether it was a refrigerator or anything like that. He knew that I loved to sing, so he brought me an eight-track tape player. You could take it apart and you’d have the left and right speakers, or you could put it together if you could get batteries and you could walk up and down the road.”
Her first albums were Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton’s Two of a Kind, Parton’s Blue Ridge Mountain Boy and Loretta Lynn’s Hymns.
“I’d play them so much that those eight-tracks would just break. Daddy is quite the Mr. Fix-It-Man, so he would get a screwdriver and take the back of the tape off and he would splice it. Sometimes, it would just bobble over the Scotch tape, and then it would pick right back up.”
After graduating from high school, she performed at a few local shows but rejected any notion of expanding beyond the region.
“There was no way that anything else was going to be accepted. When you’re raised like that in your community, you might believe it for a while — ‘No, you can’t do that! Lord, no!’ and Grandma passing out and all that. It was drama there if you didn’t do what your family wanted you to do.”
As a young woman, she moved to Jacksonville, Fla., with her new husband, but the marriage was already falling apart when he was deployed by the Navy for six months. Her father retrieved her and her 5-month-old son. She says she had pretty much given up on the idea that she’d ever play music again, but just in case, she made a demo tape to pass around in Nashville. On her way back home, she stopped at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance to give them a cassette. They promptly offered her a spot and ultimately signed her to a five-year contract. She later joined the New Coon Creek Girls as a singer and guitarist. Amid so much traveling, her father helped raise her son, but her marriage dissolved.
Bradley was still living in Renfro Valley, Ky., and making records under her own name when the pull of Nashville could no longer be ignored. She phoned her dad to deliver the news, and he called a Ryder truck to deliver her belongings. In her early 40s, she became a fulltime resident of Nashville, Tenn.
“Of course, it could have been worse because I’m used to not having roots,” she says. “That will catch up with you when you get my age, but I never had roots. Now maybe I’m getting rooted, slowly but surely. I’m too old to be a little seedling.”
On her latest album, Don’t Turn Your Back, Bradley masterfully blends her cheerful sense of humor with a perspective of persistence. As is her tradition, she also covers a few classic rock tunes — in this case, Fleetwood Mac’s “Over My Head” and Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Another song, “Rusty Old Halo,” reminds the listener that money isn’t everything, which can be painfully obvious to musicians who have practically starved themselves to pursue a career in bluegrass.
“I don’t want to sound derogatory, but you see so many of them, when they get to my age, it’s like a coal miner in a way,” she notes. “It’s that same thing: You get old quick. A lot of them go through their whole lives without benefits or retirement. But it’s a wanderlust. And people that have quit, for whatever reason, you can see it in their eyes. They’re not complete. They may be safer, but they’re not complete.”
And what does she see when she looks at herself in the mirror?
“I see a lot of lines — a lot of road lines,” she says, laughing. “But I know I wouldn’t be happy in a conventional form of life. I wasn’t happy there, either, so I’ll take my chances.”