Poets and Prophets: Salute to Legendary Country Songwriter Bobby Braddock

September 15, 2007
When Bobby Braddock finished writing “He Stopped Loving Her Today” with Curly Putman, he logged the song into a notebook and gave it a rating, a practice he followed for all of his songs. On a one-to-ten scale, he gave it a seven.

Braddock realizes others have rated the song a bit higher. George Jones’s recording of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” went on to win two consecutive CMA Awards as Song of the Year, and it has repeatedly been voted the top country song of all-time in the media.

“I didn’t really realize the magnitude of this song until Billy Sherrill played me what he had done with it,” Braddock said. “I always felt that Curly and I had written better songs. But I think George Jones’s performance and Billy Sherrill’s production elevated it to the status it now enjoys. I do think it is better than I first thought.”

That kind of humility surfaced regularly as Braddock discussed several of his famous copyrights during a ninety-minute discussion of his career, before a standing-room-only crowd at the museum’s Ford Theater on Saturday, September 15, as part of the ongoing Poets and Prophets series at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

During his introduction, host Michael Gray, museum editor, cited statistics that underscore the enormity of Braddock’s career: more than thirty Top Ten hits, twenty-nine BMI performance awards, induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1981, and several #1 hits, including at least one in each of the last five decades.

Braddock’s hits include Tammy Wynette’s classic “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Womanhood,” George Jones and Wynette’s “(We’re Not) the Jet Set” and “Golden Ring,” Jones’s “Her Name Is,” John Anderson’s “Would You Catch a Falling Star,” Tanya Tucker’s “I Believe the South Is Gonna Rise Again,” Tracy Lawrence’s “Time Marches On,” and Toby Keith’s “I Wanna Talk about Me.”

Braddock began by sitting down at an electric keyboard and announcing that he tends to be nervous at the start of a public appearance. So he decided to alter his plans. “I’m not going to start out with the first song,” he said. “I’m going to start off with something else. It’s not a very good song, so if I mess it up, it doesn’t matter.”

The song, recorded by comic duo Pinkard & Bowden, “I Lobster and Never Flounder,” nonetheless nicely captured the cleverness that makes Braddock’s work so distinctive. He followed that with “Time Marches On,” a generation-spanning song that follows a family through cultural and political developments of the second half of the twentieth century.

Together, the songs show the breadth and quality of Braddock’s talent. He has written scores of serious songs that deal perceptively with large societal issues and with intimate, personal emotions. But he’s also known for drawing on his wickedly playful wit and somewhat bent view of the world. 

A master songwriter, and one who has written some of the most stirring songs ever recorded, Braddock refuses to take himself too seriously. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Braddock is among Music Row’s most well liked personalities. But his eyes, with their devilish twinkle, hint at the laid-back songwriter’s untamed creativity. 

Braddock is known for taking risks with his material, something that surfaces in “Time Marches On,” as well as such other hits as “I Wanna Talk about Me” and John Conlee’s “I Don’t Remember Loving You.” Braddock addressed “Time Marches On,” admitting, “It broke some rules. There are some things we’re told we’re not to write about. Emotional illness, you don’t normally write about that. Smoking marijuana is another thing that’s considered taboo. Cheating—there’s no more cheating songs. This may be one of the last ones. Country music used to be about real life.”

As Braddock’s solo performance of “Time Marches On” suggested, many artists and producers have borrowed strongly from his demo recordings when cutting one of his songs. That’s among the reasons Braddock eventually worked as a producer with Blake Shelton, a young star he helped discover.

“I figured if they’re cutting their songs like my demos, maybe I should just produce them,” he said. “Little did I know it’s the job from hell.”

However, Braddock did find gratification in helping the young singer develop into a star, and he has always liked working in a recording studio. “But I hated listening to songs and having to turn people down, because of all my years of being a songwriter and being rejected,” he said. “It about killed me to tell someone I wasn’t going to cut their song. I know how that feels like.”

Braddock also discussed another late-in-life venture, writing books. His memoir, Down in Orburndale: A Songwriter’s Youth in Old Florida, tells of his life growing up in a pre-Disney World Florida, when the state’s reputation and economy depended more on orange groves than on tourists. “I wanted people to see, hear, and sense what it was like to live in that era in small-town central Florida,” he said, describing it as a time when Florida was more southern than it is now. “People have written a lot about Miami and Key West, but no one had ever written about Polk County, Florida.”

Braddock had begun making up songs by age five, and he started piano lessons at age seven. He played in the high school marching band and performed in rock bands. He came to love country music through rock & roll, drawn in by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash’s mid-1950s work on Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, and then by hits by Ray Price and Marty Robbins.

“I just absolutely fell in love, and country became my favorite kind of music,” he said. “Even when I was playing rock & roll, country was my favorite.”

Braddock moved to Nashville in 1964, getting a job at Hewgley’s Music Store as a trumpet polisher, a job he lost when his apron got caught in a polishing machine. He later worked as Marty Robbins’s concert pianist, and Robbins was the first country artist to record one of his songs, taking “While You’re Dancing” to #21 on the charts.

“I was a huge fan, so that was a big, big thrill,” Braddock said of Robbins

Braddock signed with Tree Publishing in 1966, and he has remained with the music publisher ever since, staying on board as it grew into a Nashville powerhouse. It is now part of the Sony/ATV Music corporation and still publishes Braddock’s songs.

“Would it sound weird if I said a Ouija board told me to go to Tree?” Braddock said. “’Cause it did. I’ll tell you not to fool with those things, they’re kind of spooky.”

With Tree, Braddock had instant success, getting cuts by Tammy Wynette, the Statler Brothers and others. He became a favorite songwriter of top producer Billy Sherrill, a relationship that started when Tree’s Buddy Killen introduced the two.

Braddock also recalled stories from his recording career, having released five albums on five different record labels from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. The program included the recorded version of “Dolly Parton’s Hits,” a novelty tune from Braddock’s last album, Hardpore Cornography.

Besides his opening performances, Braddock also presented his versions of “I Wanna Talk about Me,” “The Nerve,” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” the latter played on a grand piano.

As a songwriter of such long-lasting and wide-ranging achievement, Braddock stands as a testament to artists who depend on instinct and nerve rather than following the rulebook. Few songwriters have broken more conventions and pursued as many different creative paths as Braddock. Even fewer have ever enjoyed his success or the level of respect he’s been shown.

—Michael McCall