Jerry Bradley, who helped remake country music, dies at 83

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Jerry Bradley, who helped remake country music, dies at 83
Mr. Bradley was the driving force behind “Wanted! The Outlaws,” which the Recording Industry Association of America certified as the first million-selling album in the history of country music.

by Bill Friskics-Warren

NASHVILLE, TENN.- Jerry Bradley, a record executive who apprenticed with two of the most storied producers in country music — his father, Owen Bradley, and guitarist Chet Atkins — before challenging that legacy and shaking up the industry, died Monday at his home in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, near Nashville. He was 83.

His death was announced by Elice Cuff-Campbell, senior director of media relations for BMI Nashville. No cause was given.

Bradley was best known as the driving force behind “Wanted! The Outlaws,” the groundbreaking 1976 compilation featuring music by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser and Jennings’ wife, Jessi Colter.

Rowdy and irreverent, the record was an out-of-left-field success, certified by the Recording Industry Association of America as the first million-selling album in the history of country music. It also ruffled the Nashville status quo, posing a threat to the hegemony of the smooth Nashville Sound associated with the work of Bradley’s father and Atkins.

The term “outlaw” had been gaining traction in country circles since the early 1970s, when publicist Hazel Smith and others started using it to describe the do-it-yourself, anti-establishment ethos of Nelson and Jennings. But it was Jerry Bradley, then head of the Nashville division of RCA Records, who had the foresight to package the emerging outlaw aesthetic and promote it to a wider public.

That included modeling the album’s cover after a Western-style “most wanted” poster sporting mug shots of the four singers on the record. And in a nod to the outlaw movement’s younger, more rock-oriented audience, Bradley enlisted Rolling Stone journalist Chet Flippo to write the liner notes.

“The appearance and the marketing of the album were extremely important in making Nashville look hip for the first time,” Flippo said in discussing Bradley’s achievement in a segment of the 2003 BBC documentary series “Lost Highway: The Story of Country Music.”

Building on the unprecedented success of “Wanted!” Bradley would go on to sign future superstars like Ronnie Milsap, Eddie Rabbitt and the band Alabama during his nine-year tenure at RCA. Each of those acts would release No. 1 hits for the label while reinvigorating the country airwaves with wide-ranging pop, rock and soul sensibilities.

Bradley also directed the careers of several established country stars while at RCA. He produced chart-topping late-1970s hits for Charley Pride and supervised the making of “Here You Come Again” (1977), Dolly Parton’s first million-selling album. He was even involved in Elvis Presley’s mid-’70s return to the top of the country charts after an almost 20-year absence, reestablishing his connection with his core country audience shortly before his death.

“I wasn’t so much a musical leader,” Bradley said, assessing his legacy in an interview commemorating his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2019. “I was more of a coach.”

Jerry Owen Bradley was born in Nashville on Jan. 30, 1940, one of two children of William Bradley, known as Owen, and Mary (Franklin) Bradley, known as Katherine. His father, a former orchestra leader, became one of the chief architects of the Nashville Sound through his work as a producer for the likes of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. His mother was a homemaker.

Bradley graduated from Hillsboro High School and as a teenager raced sports cars at the Nashville speedway.

In the early 1960s, after attending Peabody College, he began working at Forest Hills Music, the family’s music publishing company. He also started spending time at the Bradley’s Barn recording studio, where, under the tutelage of his father and his uncle Harold (both are also members of the Country Music Hall of Fame), he observed sessions by the likes of Joan Baez, Brenda Lee and Dinah Shore and on occasion contributed to them.

In 1970, eager to forge his own path in the music business, Bradley went to work for Atkins at RCA, where he became a liaison with the label’s headquarters in New York. Three years later, when cancer curtailed Atkins’ activities, Bradley succeeded him as head of RCA’s Nashville operations.

Bradley left RCA in 1982 and, after a brief hiatus, became general manager of the Opryland Music Group, which had recently acquired Acuff-Rose, the music publisher whose holdings included the catalogs of luminaries like Hank Williams, Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers. Not one to rest on his laurels, Bradley recruited a new generation of songwriters, including Kenny Chesney, before his retirement in 2002.

A longtime board member of the Country Music Association, Bradley played a crucial role in the development of the CMA Music Festival. Held annually in Nashville since the early 1970s (when it was called Fan Fair), the event showcases some 400 artists performing for 100,000 or so fans over four days.

Bradley is survived by a daughter, Leigh Jankiv; a son, Clay; five grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and a sister, Patsy Bradley. Connie (Darnell) Bradley, his wife of 42 years and a prominent executive in the country music industry, died in 2021. His marriage to Gwynn Hastings Kellam, the mother of his children, ended in divorce; she died in 2001.

“Greatness doesn’t come through blood; it is achieved through action and invention,” Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said, reflecting on Bradley’s entrepreneurship at the Bradley Hall of Fame induction.

“Jerry Bradley had his father, Owen, and his uncle, Harold, as north stars,” Young went on. “He understood that he could not imitate or reproduce their gifts or their manners. He would have to find his own path.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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