One of the best singers in bluegrass music, Dale Ann Bradley, will be at the Imperial Theatre on Dec. 16 along with blind fiddler Michael Cleveland and Mountain Heart founding member Steve Gulley.
My opinion of Bradley’s singing ability is shared by the International Bluegrass Music Association, which named her its 2011 Female Vocalist of the Year. She also earned that honor from IBMA in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
That’s pretty amazing considering she was so shy as a teenager in Bell County, Ky., near Pineville, that it was truly hard for her to get on a stage and perform.
A kind family friend, Harold McGeorge, brought her out of her shyness and taught her about all kinds of music.
“I played with him in a band called Back Porch Bluegrass in Kentucky and east Tennessee,” Bradley said in a call from her home in Middlesboro, Ky.
“We had a weekly gig at a local state park, and that gave me a chance to work all of those kinks out. He had all kinds of albums, and he made sure that I had an instrument to play and that I could get to the events where I was to perform. I probably wouldn’t be doing this without him.”
Bradley said everybody needs someone in their life like McGeorge to encourage them in whatever they’ve chosen to do. “There is a lot of talent out there, and we’re supposed to lift each other up,” she said.
About 1984, Bradley had been lifted up by McGeorge enough to audition for the New Coon Creek Girls. She didn’t get the job and ended up getting married to a Navy guy at age 20 and moving to Jacksonville, Fla., for his assignment at Mayport Naval Station.
“I had never been out of rural Kentucky and I was scared out of my mind,” she said. “You have to understand that my place of growing up in Kentucky was just like that of Loretta Lynn’s in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, only I think her house was better than mine.
“I was working as a checker at Winn Dixie (grocery store), and my husband was going to be deployed overseas and I was expecting. I’d drive from my apartment to Winn Dixie and be crying all of the time.
“I met a lot of nice people in Jacksonville, but it was a big city and I wasn’t ready for that. Now I drive through San Francisco, New York and Chicago, and it doesn’t bother me.”
Bradley’s marriage was falling apart and, after her husband was deployed, her father took her back to Kentucky where her son, John Fitzgerald Bradley Jr., was born.
Bradley again tried out for the New Coon Creek Girls, who by then had a regular job with the Renfro Valley (Ky.) Barn Dance, and was hired. The band eventually evolved into Dale Ann Bradley and Coon Creek when guys were hired for the band.
One would be blind fiddler Michael Cleveland. Two other blind performers who have meant a lot in Bradley’s life areAugusta’s Terri Gibbs and singer-guitarist Jose Feliciano.
“Does Terri know that I recorded a song of hers called Anybody Else’s Heart But Mine?” Bradley asked when told Gibbs lives in the Augusta area. “I’d be honored to meet her when I come to Augusta. I’m a big fan.”
As for Feliciano, Bradley crossed his path at the Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival in East Hartford, Conn.
“I was in the festival’s hospitality tent, and there was Jose, who was a friend of the cook. He had heard me and told me that he liked my music and my playing.
“I told him, ‘If it’s not too much, I’d love to play something with you,’ and we agreed upon doing Me & Bobby McGee. I was a little nervous, but it was just a killer! It was amazing! Everybody was holding up their cell phones so their friends could hear it.”