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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Harold Bradley--An appreciation

Harold Bradley (Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame)

Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Harold Bradley, perhaps the most widely recorded guitarist ever and certainly one of the founders of Nashville as a recording capital, died Thursday at 93.

“Harold Bradley’s legacy can be found in much of our country music history,” said the Country Music Association’s CEO Sarah Trahern. “His musicianship throughout the decades can be heard just about everywhere, and his dedication to preserving Music City will live on for generations to come. We’re grateful for all that he’s done for country music and our industry.”

The younger brother of legendary producer Owen Bradley—also enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame as an architect of country music’s more lush Nashville Sound—Bradley’s session career went back to the 1940s, with classics like Red Foley’s “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy,” Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” Elvis Presley’s “Devil in Disguise,” Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” (on which he played banjo) and Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” foremost among his thousands of recordings.

Bradley, who himself produced the likes of Eddy Arnold and Mandy Barnett, was the longtime guitarist in his close friend Slim Whitman’s band, and also ran a couple small recording studios in Nashville in the early 1950s. He and his brother opened Bradley Film and Recording in 1955, one of the top studios in town and one that helped usher in the Nashville Sound. After selling it in 1962, Owen opened his famous Bradley’s Barn studio in nearby Mt. Juliet.

To top it off, Harold Bradley was the first president of Nashville’s chapter of the Recording Academy. In 1991 he began heading Nashville’s chapter of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and eventually became its international VP.

“My heart is just broken over the passing of my longtime friend, Harold Bradley,” tweeted Loretta Lynn. “He played on so many of my records. He and his brother Owen were such a big part of my life in music. They’re family to me. I’ll sure miss him.”

Fellow guitar great Duane Eddy likewise saluted Bradley via Twitter: “Icon, Nashville recording legend, keeper of the Country Music flame, and wonderful friend.” Tweeted Matraca Berg: “Oh man. The gentleman, the incredible Harold Bradley is gone.”

At the Country Music Hall of Fame, CEO Kyle Young recognized that “for decades, Harold Bradley went to work doing something that he called ‘playing.’ He surveyed every sonic situation and determined what he could do to make things better, more melodic, and more harmonious.’

Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow lauded Bradley as the organization’s first Nashville president and “key member of the community [who] played a pivotal role in the formation of Music Row, having created the first recording studio on the famed street alongside his equally renowned producer brother Owen. He achieved countless milestones throughout his remarkable career, and in 2010 was honored with the Recording Academy's Trustees Award for the significant contributions he made to the field of recording. Harold will not only be remembered for his musical accomplishments, but for his unwavering dedication to our field and commitment to advocating for his industry. We have lost an integral member of our music community.”

But probably no one felt Harold Bradley’s loss more deeply than Mandy Barnett.

“My band member, creative collaborator, and dear friend,” Barnett called him on Facebook. “There will never be another guitarist like him who contributed so much to the legacy of country music. He was a brilliant musician and the greatest person I‘ve ever known. I‘m eternally grateful for all the effort and time Harold put into helping me and my career, and for all the great memories on the road and at the Grand Ole Opry. He was the truest of friends and I will always miss him.”

In a conversation later, Barnett recalled how “everyone who met and dealt with him loved him.”

“He cared about musicians and young talent, and was extremely kind--and conscientious about coming up with the right arrangements for songs. Extremely well-prepared, the consummate professional,” said Barnett. “And he was a wonderful musician, and leader: He ran the musicians union here for years, and he always wanted things to be fair and come out good for both parties in any situation.”

Bradley also promoted an old-fashioned work ethic, per Barnett.

“If he booked a session with someone who wasn’t famous and then someone who was famous called, he would not cancel the session already booked,” she said. “He had that kind of work ethic, that when he told you he would do something, he would do it. I got used to that kind of work ethic early in my career, and it’s taken some getting used to now when younger guys drop you like a hot rock for a better-paying gig! Those days of that kind of gentlemen, who when they gave you their word you could count on it, are over.”

Owen Bradley famously produced Patsy Cline, and Harold played on classic Cline cuts like “Crazy.” Barnett, of course, first found fame in the title role in the original production—and cast album--of Always . . . Patsy Cline.

“I met Harold during Always…Patsy Cline through his brother, since Owen and I started hanging out,” said Barnett. “We were working on a record and played gigs together, and then he died and I talked to Harold about finishing the album, and we did some shows together. I had a hit-or-miss band that I couldn’t depend on for anything, and asked Harold, ‘Would y’all ever want to help me be in a better band?’—and he joined my band and from then on it was a different story.”

Bradley brought along fellow late Nashville legends like Buddy Harman on drums and Hal Rugg on pedal steel.

“I shared a window of time when they were in their late ‘60s and early ‘70s and still great,” said Barnett. “Time passes and people don’t realize their contributions. Had Owen and Harold not bought a studio, the whole country music industry might have ended up in Dallas, where they had a studio with echo and everyone wanted echo. And Harold was an advocate for the ‘A Team’ [Nashville’s top studio players] as a whole, and wanted Slim Whitman in the Hall of Fame so badly. These things really mattered to him.”

She noted that Bradley “stayed really sharp all the way to the end.

“He was still creative and constantly coming up with ideas for me and giving me advice,” she said. “I’ve never known anyone like him—just an awesome, awesome person. It’s the end of an era.”

Mandy Barnett performs with Harold Bradley on guitar and other legendary Nashville musicians



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