In some ways, Dale Ann Bradley is just like the rest of us. She daydreams about getting away to the beach, frets about the search for true love and feels the aches and pains of getting older.
But Dale Ann, unlike most of us, has the ability to turn life’s little curve balls into terrific songs. She’s at it again on her newest release, Somewhere South of Crazy (Compass Records).
Dreaming about getting away and feeling the sand beneath her feet? She and Pam Tillis turned that sentiment into the title track of the new project. Pondering the difficulty of finding and maintaining a relationship? Dale Ann transformed that universal angst into Round and Round, for my money the best of the 12 songs on the new CD and one of the best the Kentucky songbird has turned out in her stellar career.
Those songs make me wish Dale Ann was a more prolific writer, a sentiment I shared with her in a recent telephone chat that coincided with the release of the new album.
“I don’t write as often as other writers do,” she acknowledged. “A song has to find me. It kind of has to stay with me for a while.” But when a song does stay with her, the result is worth waiting for. For example, life on the road is common musical motif, the stuff of countless songs. But, to me, none brings home the loneliness of the road with the heart-tugging directness of Round and Round. When Dale Ann sings (“Ooh, ooh, and the wheels go round and round, takin’ me away from where I want to be. Ooh, ooh, and I just can’t stand the sound of cryin’ in the night for the love of my life with you I’ve never found”) you can feel the despair of someone torn between what she wants and what she has to do to pay the bills.
Dale Ann also has a knack for finding great songs that she doesn’t write. She calls a previously recorded song, Gordon Lightfoot’s The Circle Is Small, something that represents “the Dale Ann style.”
Longstanding fans know that she also has an ear for 1970s pop songs that translate into crowd-pleasing bluegrass tunes. This time around, she grasses up Summer Breeze, which paid a lot of bills for Jimmy Seals and Darrell Crofts over the years, first as a hit by the duo and then as a remake across a range of musical styles.
“Those lyrics: ‘See the curtains hangin’ in the window, in the evening on a Friday night.’ That could be straight from Bill,” she said, meaning Mr. Monroe himself. “And the melody is quite Celtic.”
While redone pop songs have become a staple, she said it isn’t a conscious choice. “I don’t pick out a pop song intentionally,” she said. But she quickly added that she has a soft spot for songs that grabbed her in her younger days.
Intentional or not, she sees her penchant for pop songs as a sort of musical preservation. “If somebody doesn’t put those songs out in an original way, then they may be forgotten,” she said. “They’re endangered, too, just like first-generation bluegrass.”
While this project is still brand new – it was officially released August 30 – Dale Ann is already looking down the road to see what’s next. “I would like to find a swing kind of song,” she said. “It’s something I haven’t done and it’s something I’m a fan of.”
She’s not in a hurry to see 2011 end, though. “I’ve had the busiest season of my career,” she said.
So is there a song about growing older in her future? “Well, let me tell you,” she said, “you’re joints just don’t feel like they used to after driving 18 hours.”
But, her protesting joints aside, Dale Ann is still, to play off her album title, Somewhere South of 50, so don’t look for her to stand down any time soon. The three-time IBMA female vocalist of the year (and a nominee for that crown and three other awards this year) still has songs to sing and songs to write.
“I’ve been blessed for little girl in a holler down here in Kentucky,” she says with an aw-shucks attitude that seems genuine. “We’ve put in the time. Now we just need to enjoy every second of it.”
[Editor’s note] Dale Ann will be appearing on tonight’s (8/31) Music City Roots program from Nashville. You can hear the show live starting at 8:00 p.m. (EDT) online.