Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter Bobby Braddock’s illustrious career includes penning classics like Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”; discovering, signing, and producing Blake Shelton’s first hits; and, most notably, writing (with fellow country legend Curly Putman) what is regularly voted “greatest country song of all time,” the George Jones epic tearjerker “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
While a staff writer at Tree Music in the mid-1960s, Braddock got the attention of Variety when he inked an artist deal with MGM Records. Last year he published a richly detailed memoir, “Bobby Braddock: A Life on Nashville’s Music Row” (Vanderbilt University Press), and recently in Nashville, Braddock was honored by his publisher, Sony/ATV, for his 50 years on staff, a stretch that includes 13 No. 1 hits.
By 1966 you were well on your way to prominence as a songwriter. Was performing your ultimate goal?
That MGM deal was one of five record deals I signed, which tells you a lot about how easy it was to get a record deal.
But you’d been performing before you signed with Tree.
Down in Florida I was in a band called Big John’s Untouchables, and I played keyboards in Marty Robbins’ band.
You must have had pretty good chops to play with a superstar like Robbins.
Well, it was a great experience. He was such a down-to-earth guy. Older women would bring him cakes and pies, and he’d ride on the bus with the rest of the band. He had a little Martin guitar and used to sing songs he learned from Mexican workers in Arizona. And he’d sing Hawaiian songs.
Is that where you got the songwriting bug?
My first important cut was “Matilda,” which Marty turned into a sort of Sons of the Pioneers song with a jazz melody. And he had a Top 20 hit with my song “While You’re Dancing.”
It wasn’t long before you had a smash hit with Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”
That got even more attention when they put it in that Jack Nicholson movie, “Five Easy Pieces.”
How did that go over down in Nashville?
My mother was excited to see the movie and took my sister-in-law. And because of all the “sh**ts” and “f**ks” in the film, they stomped out. I’m not sure they ever heard the song in the movie.
Do you recall Nicholson’s character saying that if his girlfriend plays her Tammy Wynette records “one more time, I’m going to melt them into hairspray?”
It was kind of a corny, stereotypical country song.
Billy Sherrill produced Tammy Wynette, and he also produced the George Jones classic you wrote with Curly Putman, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Not a bad collaborator to have in your corner.
You know, it took Nashville about 40 years to finally put Billy in the Country Music Hall of Fame. I understood why — even if I didn’t agree with it — because Billy had an acerbic sense of humor, and, to be honest, he didn’t like a lot of people. I called him “the Don Rickles of Nashville.”
He was certainly one of the greatest record producers in the business.
What he did was amazing. I think my favorite thing on any of our records was the way he handled the strings on “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” You could literally see the guy’s body ascending into heaven when you listen to the song.
With five record deals, you clearly had some intention of breaking through as an artist.
I would have loved for that to happen, but the truth is, I doubt if I would have survived. I had an addictive personality, and by the time I was 19, I was already doing a lot of speed.
You might have had a lot in common with many of the country stars of the period.
I was thinking about that when Merle Haggard died. Country music today is so slick and programmed, I wonder if the Nashville today would be on board for someone like Merle. Same with Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. They were kind of badasses. Country fans back then were perhaps a little more forgiving, and so the way they lived, it didn’t hurt them a bit.