Next to the roundabout at the northern end of Music Row in Nashville is a small park where a bronze sculpture by artist Ernest Gary Smith sits on a circular brick platform. Music City dedicated the park to the music great seated at a piano. His name is Owen Bradley. He and his contemporary Chet Atkins created what became known as the Nashville Sound.
While Atkins achieved worldwide fame as an artist, Bradley’s name may not ring a bell everywhere. But even non-country listeners at one time or another have likely heard Patsy Cline sing “Crazy”, “I Fall to Pieces” or “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Those recordings, still played today, represent the signature Bradley production. In 1988, toward the end of his career, he also produced k. d. lang’s “Shadowland” album. When he died in 1998, he was in the process of recording Mandy Barnett who played Cline in the stage production of “Always…Patsy Cline.” You might guess, correctly, that he produced the soundtrack of “Sweet Dreams,” the movie bio of Cline along with the soundtrack for the Loretta Lynn story, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
The Nashville Sound came with the advent of rock ‘n roll. Country music before then had been heavy on fiddles and steel guitar. Bradley as well as Atkins developed a pop crossover version of country to widen appeal, using studio musicians, more strings than fiddles and background vocals to collectively smooth out the twang. Even pop rock artists like Buddy Holly recorded with Bradley as well as big country names like Loretta Lynn and Brenda Lee (Lee had 12 top ten hits in the Sixties). But he didn’t abandon traditional country altogether and also produced bluegrass music by Bill Monroe.
Born in Tennessee in 1915 and raised in Nashville, Bradley started out in his teens as a professional piano player. During this era of live music on radio, he joined WSM as an arranger, instrumentalist, music director and performer. In 1947, Bradley went to work for Decca Records as assistant to producer Paul Cohen. He eventually began producing himself. In 1951, he and his brother Harold opened a film studio, moving it to the street that would turn into Music Row. The Quonset hut attached to the building became the first recording studio located on the Row.
With the departure of Cohen from Decca, Bradley took over as vice president of the Nashville division in 1958. It was during his Decca days that he blended pop with country music and helped take Patsy Cline to the top of the charts. He also produced tracks for artists who weren’t on Decca: Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop a Lula”, Marty Robbins’s “Singing the Blues” and Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel.” Bradley released some instrumentals by his own group as well.
After Columbia bought their Music Row studio in 1962, the brothers opened another studio a few years later in the burbs of Nashville called Bradley’s Barn where both country acts and pop artists such as Gordon Lightfoot and Joan Baez recorded.
Bradley’s contribution made him an honored member of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1974. If you didn’t know his name before, now you can understand why the bronze man at the piano stands as only one memorial to a legend in the industry.