Country music songwriting legend Bobby Braddock recalls Auburndale, Fla., where he grew up in the 1940s and ‘50, as a rural, Southern burg where orange groves alternated with cattle fields.
Traffic was nonexistent, condos hadn’t been invented yet, and a boy could spend his days like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, in search of aimless adventure.
Down in Orburndale: A Songwriter's Youth in Old Florida
(Louisiana State University Press)
But when Braddock turns the picture around, and tries to view it from the perspective of the black people living in the Central Florida town back then, the rosy patina of a bygone time and place falls away.
“The part of the world I’m from was definitely the South,” Braddock says by phone from his home in Nashville, where he’s lived and worked since 1964. “I remember very clearly what it was like. The racism was so universal you didn’t even think about it.”
Braddock’s memoir “Down in Orburndale: A Songwriter’s Youth in Old Florida,” recently published by Louisiana State University Press, ends where most show-biz memoirs would just be getting started, with Braddock and his new bride packing the car for the drive from Orlando to Nashville.
“`Orburndale’ was what we called Auburndale,” says Braddock, 66, a fifth-generation Floridian. “This book is a character study, and the best character is my father. He was a citrus grower, and the mayor, city manager and municipal judge of our little Mayberry.”
Within a few months of reaching Nashville, Braddock found a job playing piano in Marty Robbins’ band. Less than two years later, in 1966, Robbins recorded “While You’re Dancing,” the first Braddock-penned tune to climb onto the country music charts.
“Songwriting’s not that big an investment of time, compared to writing a book,” Braddock says. “You spend the same amount of time writing a song you’d spend to watch a mediocre movie. Songs are a case-by-case thing, but it’s a great feeling when you write something that becomes a hit.”
Tammy Wynette’s 1968 rendition of “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” written with frequent collaborator Curly Putman, marked Braddock’s first chart-topping hit. That song began a string of 13 No. 1 hits, among 33 Top 10 songs on the Nashville charts written or co-written by Braddock.
Braddock’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” written with Putman and recorded by George Jones in 1980, is generally regarded as country music’s greatest song. A poll by Country America magazine and the BBC named it best all time, while R&R magazine named it Song of the Century.
“What I know that most people don’t is how many bad songs I’ve written,” Braddock says.
Braddock’s last chart-topper was Toby Keith’s 2001 crossover hit, “I Wanna Talk About Me,” which also enjoys the distinction of being the only country-rap song to reach No. 1. For the past six years, he’s spent most of his time grooming young country star Blake Shelton, serving as producer and arranger on Shelton’s first three albums.
But though Shelton has delivered hits, it wasn’t enough to satisfy his record company, which insisted on a fresh producer for the fourth record. “I’m proud of what Blake and I accomplished,” says Braddock.
With free time on his hands, Braddock started thinking seriously about writing his memoir. After all, he’s kept journals his entire life—“85 volumes, with dialogue and everything,” Braddock says—and he thought he had something to say.
“This book is a picture, for good or bad, of what Florida was like in the middle of the 20th century,” Braddock says. “I meant it to be a little bit `Look Homeward, Angel,’ a little bit `Porky’s.’”
As a boy Braddock used to wonder why the white kids could sit on the red stools at the drugstore, while black kids had to stand at a side door to buy their milkshakes.
“Not that I had a strong sense of inner morality,” he says. “I was just curious. I remember Klan rallies, but I never questioned the way things were.”
Braddock carried those prevalent racial attitudes into adulthood. Now, he says, it’s hard to believe he ever thought segregation was OK. His parents and people like them “weren’t necessarily bad people,” but accepted white supremacy as natural and right.
“My parents never said the `N’ word,” Braddock says. “... But mostly we were like the Germans in World War II. We looked the other way.
“I was well up into my 20s before I had a significant change in attitude. To be honest, in my case, I started becoming less conservative on all issues, not only race but also the Vietnam War, religion, everything. My values have pretty much stayed the same since.”
Braddock put those values on the line during the 2004 presidential election as a member of Music Row Democrats, a group of Nashville country music figures supporting John Kerry in an industry and a region still reverberating from the Dixie Chicks-Toby Keith brouhaha.
“What I got out of that experience was not so much how I feel about politics,” says Braddock, “but the polarization of America, with people screaming at each other in the total absence of civility.”
Braddock says a liberal wing does exist in country music, including not only himself but a spectrum of creative types ranging from country rock cult figure Steve Earle to singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell to chart-topping superstar Tim McGraw.
McGraw, who hasn’t exactly been silent about his views, has avoided the rejection faced by the Dixie Chicks, Braddock says, “because he doesn’t ram his ideology down people’s throats.”
“My big point,” he adds, “is that the Democratic Party is the party of the majority of people who listen to country music—working-class people. That’s my whole point, but I’m not sure it got through.”
Braddock says it’s not Republicans he opposes, just the present administration. “It’s the jingoism that insists this war is in the interests of working people,” he says. “And race prejudice that gets poor people to vote for the interests of those who suppress them. I hope that’s about run its course.”
Change has always been an important part of Braddock’s work—one of his biggest hits, recorded in 1996 by Tracy Lawrence, is titled “Time Marches On”—and it’s the dominant theme of “Down in Orburndale.”
“From what I see around me, the South is more tolerant than it was 40 or 50 years ago, but a lot of the old attitudes are still there,” Braddock says. “A good deal of prejudice in Nashville now is against the Hispanic community. Strangely enough, this prejudice is not only white, but also comes from the African-American community.”
It puts Braddock in mind of his early days scratching around Florida with a country band. He spent 1959 in Miami, playing a club owned, he believes, by the mafia.
“I heard a lot of prejudice toward the Cubans when they first started coming in,” Braddock says. “But I can’t think of a bigger American success story. They lost everything, came here, and did well again.”
Country music has changed, too, serving less and less to tell stories about the rural South. “It’s replaced the old rock as the fun music,” Braddock says. “Still, some profound stuff gets on the radio, but most of the fun stuff has almost nothing to do with country.
“I see this as a thing, not good, not bad. Interests change, you know. I’m still writing songs for people like Kenny Chesney and George Strait, but I’ve become more interested in writing books.”
Despite working with words as a songwriter, Braddock required the encouragement of friend John Egerton, a prolific nonfiction writer whose work includes “The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America.” It was Egerton who put Braddock in touch with Louisiana State University Press.
“I think it’s possible for a songwriter to become an author in the same way a songwriter can become a jet pilot,” Braddock says. “Nothing in my experience prepared me. I’d ask writers how to take a story and make it last 100,000 words, and they’d want to know how to take a story and compress it to three verses.”