Obituary: Owen Bradley

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The Independent Online
THAT Nashville is the universally acknowledged centre of the country music industry is largely the legacy of one man: Owen Bradley. A former bandleader and sometime session pianist, he went on to become one of the architects of the famed "Nashville sound" and was responsible for developing the city's 16th Avenue South, an area now known as "Music Row", into the hub of the industry.

A native Tennessean, Bradley began his musical career in several 1930s dance bands, including that of Ted Weems, of "Out of the Night" fame. He developed his skills as a bandleader and arranger and by 1940 was music director for the Nashville radio station WSM, home of the Grand Ole Opry. His work gave him a unique relationship with the show's stars and when the Decca Records executive Paul Cohen was looking for a right-hand man in Nashville, he chose Bradley.

With Cohen based in New York, it was left to Bradley to adopt a hands- on role and he rapidly made Decca a major player in post-war country music. Among the acts he produced were Red Foley, Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, Brenda Lee, the Wilburn Brothers, Loretta Lynn and, for three 1956 sessions, Buddy Holly.

Although Bradley worked with rock 'n' rollers like Holly and Gene Vincent, he was among those wary of the detrimental impact of the new music on the country market. Their response was the so-called "Nashville sound", a slick, accessible and phenomenally popular approach to country.

Bradley's arranging experience proved useful, although he was as guilty of periodic heavy-handedness as were the sound's two other principal architects: RCA's guitarist-turned-producer Chet Atkins and Don Law of Columbia. At its worst the Nashville sound was soupy and emetic, but at its best it could be stunning; reaching its apotheosis in the work of Patsy Cline - particularly "I Fall to Pieces", "Crazy" (both 1961), "She's Got You" (1962) and "Sweet Dreams" (1963) - whom Bradley had produced since her earliest days with Four-Star Records.

Through Bradley's advocacy of Decca's "Faith" series (known as the 14000 line), acts like Tubb, Foley and Jimmie Davis in the early 1950s made gospel recordings at a time when such projects were rare.

Bradley's first studio had been in rooms rented from the Teamsters trade union. An unexpected rent rise, however, led him to develop an alternative site on 16th Avenue which included the Quonset Hut studio. This action ruled out Decca's mooted move of its operation to Dallas and thus secured for Nashville its future status as Music City, USA. The Hut was later sold to Columbia but, by that stage, Bradley and his session guitarist brother Harold had developed their Bradley Barn studio complex 20 miles to the east at Mount Juliet. The Barn became a noted centre of production and Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Jack Greene, Marty Robbins and Jerry Wallace were among those who recorded there under Bradley's direction. It burnt down in October 1980, but was later rebuilt.

Having been promoted to A & R director in 1958 and vice-president in 1968, Bradley's career with Decca/MCA lasted into the 1970s, after which he worked on a freelance basis. Later projects included a two-album set with Kitty Wells for Step One Records in 1989 and k.d. lang's acclaimed Shadowland (1988). Bradley also worked as music director on the Hollywood movies, Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) and Sweet Dreams (1985), biopics of, respectively, Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline.

A quiet and modest man, in 1974 Owen Bradley rightly received Country Music's highest honour, election to its Hall of Fame. His son, Jerry, is also a record producer.

Owen Bradley, musician, producer and record company executive: born Westmoreland, Tennessee 21 October 1915; married 1935 Mary Katherine Franklin (one son, one daughter); died Nashville, Tennessee 7 January 1998.