Over the course of her career, Dale Ann Bradley has established herself as one of the foremost female practitioners of a particular blend of bluegrass music, a sound that incorporates various elements of country and Americana as well as the rootsier strains of more traditional templates. An adept interpreter, she’s earned everything she’s achieved, as the title of her new album, “The Hard Way,” seems to suggest.
Given that she had no real encouragement early on, Bradley literally seemed to build her career from scratch. Raised in the coal fields of Southeast Kentucky in a very strict religious household, she was forced to look beyond her immediate environs to see her way forward. In her case, it was a challenge that was both personal and professional.
“When I was growing up, the theology of our religion was predestination,” Bradley said of that early environment. “It taught the total depravity of man. You truly understood yourself as an undeserving creature. When one knows that’s what they are ... and we all are ... you don’t feel entitled, because we are not. That feeling makes you feel thankful for any good things that come your way, and then there’s much appreciation.”
Despite the honors and accolades that came later — among them, five annual wins for Female Bluegrass Vocalist of the Year from the International Bluegrass Music Association and the Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album that was accorded her for 2015’s “Pocket Full of Keys” — her fundamentalist upbringing didn’t necessarily provide her with a real mindset for success.
“It didn’t set you up to think you could have everything you wanted,” Bradley said. “You knew the way to survive was through working for it. Also, if you had heard that there was a place outside the mountains, you didn’t know exactly what was there. So you learned a sense of sharing and helping your friends as well.”
Bradley said her earliest influences — Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner and the a capella singing that she’d hear in church (“It sounded like 150 Ralph Stanleys, and I loved it”) — helped her shape her own sound, one which not only reaped the awards and recognition, but also a highly respected reputation among her peers. Nevertheless, she still retains a distinct down-home humility, one that seems unaffected by the recognition accorded her throughout her career.
“I treasure any award that I’ve been given,” she replies when asked if the kudos have made her feel valued and validated. “Its a wonderful feeling of love, and it feels wonderful that folks enjoy what you love to do.”
Then again, Bradley operates in an arena that draws a communal crowd to begin with. She readily cedes the fact the bluegrass thrives on that populist appeal.
“It may be the only genuine art form that’s left,” she muses. “It’s still about real people and real life. People need that as much as air and water.”
Happily, Bradley seems to have found all the nourishment she needs, Given a solo career that stretches back more than 20 years, she appears to be quite satisfied with her all she’s achieved so far. Indeed, the lyrics to the title track of her vibrant new album convey that contentment clearly and convincingly:
“I would sure be the first one to say / when I look back at myself today / wouldn’ta done it any other way.”
“I hope that the albums reflect growth from myself, and that everybody can see that growth in themselves,” Bradley said in commenting on her trajectory. “I’ve always recorded what has touched me in my heart. I pray for health to keep making music with such wonderful musicians and friends that I’ve had the opportunity to work with, and that I continue to make more friends in this bluegrass community.”
Bradley will make her bow at Steve Kaufman’s popular Acoustic Concert Series next Wednesday, and though it will be her first time, she said that based on the exceptional reputation Kaufman maintains with so many other players and participants, she’s eagerly looking forward to the experience.
“He’s an incredible musician and a sweet person,” she said, exuding that obvious enthusiasm. “Everybody respects him and respects the camp as a premier learning experience. I’m glad he invited me, and glad that I was able to do it.”
Still, when returning to the subject of her past achievements, one has to wonder if she ever feels like she sometimes competing with her own past?
“No,” she insists. “Anyway, I’d lose.”