When Dale Ann Bradley heads south on a short Florida tour next week, she’ll have two of her best friends in tow.
The acclaimed bluegrass singer will be joined by guitar player and tenor singer Steve Gulley and dobro player Phil Leadbetter for a show Jan. 9 at Mixon Farms in Bradenton, one of four stops on a Sunshine State swing.
“It’s my first time on this run,” she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Middlesboro, Ky. “We have good bluegrass fans in Florida.”
Show coordinator Mark Horn said he hopes to bring more bluegrass artists like Bradley to the area.
“This will not be your Grandpa's bluegrass,” Horn said in an email. “While they are tops in traditional bluegrass, they are on the leading edge, which makes it exciting to have them.”
Bradley sings a more contemporary blend of bluegrass, but is well-versed in traditional music. On her last project, she recorded “In Despair,” made famous by Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music.
She often ventures outside of the genre, but carefully chooses songs that suit her smooth singing style, including Seals and Croft’s “Summer Breeze,” Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” and Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” When Bradley brings a song into bluegrass from pop or country, it never sounds like it’s kicking and screaming. She puts her own stamp on the music and there’s no mistaking her voice, which is as clear and pure as an Appalachian mountain spring.
Since 2007, Bradley has received the Female Vocalist of the Year award five times from the International Bluegrass Music Association, an honor that moved her to tears during her award acceptance speeches.
“I am very honored. I appreciate it so much,” she said of the accolades from her peers. “I am just grateful people like what I do.”
Bradley and Gulley have performed together so long that the two sound like siblings when they sing.
“We’ve been working together for 28 years, on and off,” Bradley said of Gulley, who started out in Doyle Lawson’s famed Quicksilver band. He is also a founding member of the bands Mountain Heart and Grasstowne.
Since Gulley joined her band a few years back, they’ve been working together exclusively, drawing on a shared heritage, including a long stint at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance shows in the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky where they both grew up.
“It’s awesome. It’s just like singing with my brother,” she said.
Dobro player Leadbetter recently joined her band after taking time off to battle cancer. When he was ready to return to music, Bradley and Gulley welcomed him with open arms.
“I enjoy him – I love Phil. He is just a big teddy bear.” Bradley said. “He’s playing better than ever.”
‘Somewhere South of Crazy’
Bradley and country star Pam Tillis penned what could be the Florida Snowbird national anthem, “Somewhere South of Crazy.” Tillis had the idea and title for the song and Bradley said she jumped at the chance to write and sing with her. The collaboration became the title track of Bradley’s last album on Compass Records.
The song speaks of a northerner cooped up and cold, sitting in an office, staring at a screensaver beach on her computer and longing to visit a warmer climate with a more relaxed vibe.
“It was just the song I was looking for,” Bradley said. “It just had a good spoof on it.”
Is she singing about fleeing the ice and snow of an old cold town or old coal town? Bradley won’t say, but the mountains where she grew up are never far from her mind.
It wasn’t an easy upbringing. Bradley grew up “in a tar and paper covered shack,” her bio says, not far from Hazard and Harlan, Ky. Her father was a Primitive Baptist minister, and the little country church forbade instruments during services.
She didn’t get her first guitar until she was a teenager. An uncle helped broaden her musical horizons by introducing her to recorded secular music, including two women who grew up nearby and became country superstars, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.
“I often think of those days,” she said.
The music world first took notice of Bradley when she joined the New Coon Creek Girls in 1991. The all-female band opened doors for women in bluegrass before disbanding in 1997.
It isn’t easy for anyone to make a living in bluegrass, and few women thrive in the male-dominated profession. Bradley has fronted her own band for nearly 20 years and has made her own way by being “respectfully persistent.”
“You’ve got to hang in there. This bluegrass is an especially hard genre. You’re not going to get rich. Most of the time you’re traveling up and down the road in a van … 18 hours or more,” she said. “So far, I have raised a son in bluegrass. I have survived.”
Her persistence has paid off.
She performs with Gulley as a duet, in a trio with Gulley and Leadbetter, as well as in a full bluegrass band configuration.
“We stay pretty busy doing it all,” she said.
Although she’s moved away from the Cumberland Gap area of Kentucky several times, like many in Appalachia she finds it hard to escape the tug of home on the heartstrings. When a journalist asks if she still lives in Nashville, she quickly sets the record straight.
“Honey, I moved back home,” Bradley says in a sweet Southern drawl.
When she speaks or sings, you can still hear the mountains in her voice, and she sounds as if she’s never left.
Vicki Dean is the Day News Editor for the Herald-Tribune Media Group. She writes about bluegrass music every chance she gets.