GENERATIONS: Songwriters Jonathan Singleton and Bobby Braddock
By Edward Morris
A member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame since 1981, Bobby Braddock broke into the Nashville music business as pianist and backup singer for Country Music Hall of Fame member Marty Robbins, who became the first artist to record any of Braddock’s songs. Though he recorded albums for five major labels and would produce three Blake Shelton albums, songwriting remained the focal point of Braddock’s work. His long list of hits includes “D.I.V.O.R.C.E,” “Golden Ring,” “I Wanna Talk About Me,” “People Are Crazy,” “Time Marches On” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which was honored in both 1980 and 1981 at the CMA Awards as Song of the Year. In 2007, Louisiana State University Press published the first volume of Braddock’s memoirs, Down in Orburndale: A Songwriter’s Youth in Old Florida. The final volume will be titled Hollywood, Tennessee: A Life on Nashville’s Music Row.
A native of Jackson, Tenn., Jonathan Singleton wrote Gary Allan’s “Watching Airplanes” and Billy Currington’s “Don’t” with Jim Beavers and Josh Turner’s “Why Don’t We Just Dance” with Beavers and Darrell Brown. His band, Jonathan Singleton & The Grove, records for Show Dog-Universal Music; recently they toured with Eric Church and opened shows for Little Big Town and Carrie Underwood.
Is co-writing a natural condition or a strategic necessity?
Braddock: When I first came to town in the 1960s, maybe 20 or 30 percent of the No. 1 songs were co-written. Now I think it’s something like 70 or 80 percent. Co-writing is certainly the norm now. I’m always flattered when anyone wants to write with me, even if I can’t always do it.
Singleton: I think that’s what publishers use for the “baby writers” coming into town — you co-write. That’s how you meet different people. I had never co-written with anybody before I came here. In my band, the keyboard player wrote songs, and I wrote songs that were totally different. That was the problem we were having in trying to market the whole thing. When I started co-writing, I figured I could learn from anybody.
Braddock: Probably about half of my hits I wrote by myself and half I co-wrote. I have to admit there’s a certain pride that comes from writing a song by yourself: Then nobody wonders about who wrote what. But there are some songs I’m sure glad I co-wrote. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” with Curly (Putman) and “People Are Crazy” with Troy Jones. I wouldn’t have missed out on either one of those, that’s for sure.
Singleton: It’s odd for me to turn in a song I didn’t co-write. I need somebody to bounce it off of. If you have your schedule set and have to go co-write with this guy or girl, then you’re regimented into five days a week of writing, which I needed to do to practice. I’m still practicing, still trying to learn.
Where do songwriters congregate these days, aside from publishers’ offices?
Braddock: There’s a big writers’ building next to Sony/ATV, the old fire hall.
Singleton: You can still smoke in the fire hall. I’ve heard that Brown’s Diner used to be the place where all the songwriters would hang out. It’s still a small community, where everybody has worked with everybody.
Braddock: A lot of songs used to begin in bars when people were sitting around drinking and doing other things. Then some people came along who sort of introduced a work ethic. Bob McDill was one of those. He came in and worked 9 to 5 and showed that it worked. Look at those hits McDill wrote. I think more people approach it like a real job now than they used to.
Bobby, were you surprised at the response and awards that you earned with “He Stopped Loving Her Today?”
Braddock: When I wrote it, I thought it was an OK song. I did not think it was a masterpiece. I really didn’t. (Producer) Billy Sherrill played me what he had done on it with George Jones, and I realized then that maybe there was something in the song that went beyond what Curly and I were seeing in it. I think Billy’s production and George’s performance elevated it. Maybe it kind of raised the bar. George thought it was too sad, but he sang it about as good as anybody ever sang anything. I think Curly and I have both written better songs, but I don’t mind people telling me I’m wrong.
Jonathan, how did the success of “Watching Airplanes,” which you wrote with Jim Beavers, affect you?
Singleton: That was my first cut, the first time I got a hold, the first everything. I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on. It took off, and it was weird to me to hear (afterward) that someone whose name I knew wanted to write with me. I was scared to death. I’m wondering, does this mean I’ve got to do it again? I’m still not sure what we did.
Braddock: Well, you wrote a song that was not like anything else that was out there. That’s what stood out to me. It was totally original. People love that.
Singleton: When you get a song on the radio, all of a sudden you’re listening to Country radio 24 hours a day, waiting for your song to come on. I caught myself doing that for a long time. I love Country Music and I listen to it a lot. But I just love music — anything. So I try to go back now and not just listen to Top 40 Country. There’s some reason that song was different, and the reason was probably that we didn’t know that we were supposed to do it any other way.
Once you’ve had a big hit, is there an impulse to “repeat the formula,” so to speak?
Braddock: I’m more likely to do that musically than I am lyrically. Three or four times, I’ve gone into the studio (to demo) and my longtime guitar player (Brent Rowan) said, “Bob, you’re kind of doing ‘Time Marches On’ all over again,” referring to the groove and chord change pattern. And I’d think, “Damn! I am!” So it’s easier to repeat a groove or a riff. It’s an innate thing.
Singleton: At one point, I was writing the same chorus over and over. But I caught it. I haven’t had that many hits, but I’ve made it a point to try not to do something exactly alike. After Jim Beavers and I wrote “Airplanes,” we agreed we were not going to write it again — not even talk about it. So then we spent three months trying to rewrite it. Then we tried to do these R&B kind of things, and that’s where we got lucky with “Don’t.” We’ve got that new Josh Turner song out (“Why Don’t We Just Dance”) that’s also kind of R&B. So now I can’t write any more R&B.
Braddock: I love Country Music better than any other kind but, like you said, you like all music. I do too. I think it’s important, especially for older guys, to know what young people are listening to, and not just in Country. So over the years, any time a huge act comes along, I always sit down and study them. Pearl Jam, Hootie & The Blowfish, The Black-Eyed Peas — I may be the only white man past 60 in America who’s going down the road listening to “My Humps.”
How important are rural references to contemporary Country songs?
Braddock: The overwhelming majority of people in the United States do not live in rural areas. Most of them live in suburbia. Maybe 10 to 15 percent live in small towns. That’s still a huge, solid part of the Country Music fan base, though. It’s still a different world out there in small towns, a different mentality and a different culture than it is in the city.
Singleton: Sometimes when we go in to play a bigger city, it seems like they’re coming out to Country Music just for the weekend, which means you get drunk and hoot and holler. But a lot of us live those Country songs, you know, those Shenandoah songs — those ones that are real.
Braddock: There are things you used to put in Country songs that you just wouldn’t put in there now. Some people might think it’s a self-pitying thing. There’s a certain machismo that’s come along in Country Music now that would forbid a male Country singer from saying, “I sat down and cried my eyes out last night,” like some of the early hillbillies did. They’re not as apt to do that now.
Has the rising importance of digital singles affected your work?
Braddock: I think singles are alive and well. It’s sort of like it was in the 1950s, when it was totally singles-oriented. I wouldn’t say it’s the disappearance of CDs, but I think eventually it’s coming to that. I believe the songwriters who will be able to make a living are those who are able to write hits.
Singleton: When I was 13 or 14, you’d go buy a CD, you’d see who wrote on it and where they cut the songs, and you’d just speculate how awesome it was to make this record. But I don’t think they do that anymore. There’s not that physical thing of opening the sleeve and seeing what’s on there.
Braddock: It seems like Country Music and gospel music have not been hit as hard as the other genres, because many fans are older people and people who are probably not as much into technology.
Singleton: The thing you can’t replace is sitting in the front row with a beer, watching the artist sing that song.
Jonathan Singleton and Bobby Braddock Photo: by Donn Jones / CMA
Photo Courtesy of CMA
© 2010 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.