From a fragile woman battling mental health issues to a homeless veteran struggling to stay alive to the Native Americans traveling the Trail of Tears, the songs on Dale Ann Bradley’s finely crafted new album, Things She Couldn’t Get Over, explore some of humanity’s most heartbreaking challenges yet also celebrates the strength and resiliency of the human spirit.
A five time winner of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) female vocalist title, Bradley recorded the Pinecastle Records release last summer during socially distanced recording sessions with her band—guitarist Kim Fox, Matt Leadbetter on dobro, Mike Sumner on Banjo and Ethan Burkhardt on bass. “I had half of the songs and then things came to me, what I wanted it to be,” she says of honing in on the album’s message. “At a certain point, you always think about if you want to leave something behind and what is that? I believe this would be it. Not that I plan on going anywhere, but I’m saying this is an album like that. Hopefully I’ve said something that brought some understanding or some peace.”
Bradley has built an impressive career by delivering solid songs fueled by excellent musicianship and her clear, pure voice. She’s a member of the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, has received two Grammy nominations and earned multiple accolades in the bluegrass community. In addition to her solo career, she has also been a member of the all female group Sister Sadie, who is the IBMA’s reigning Entertainer of the Year, an unprecedented accomplishment. “We won Vocal Group last year and it was the first time a female group had ever won it and then it’s the first time a female group has ever got Entertainer of the Year. It knocked the breath out of me,” Bradley says of her surprise at their win. “We were watching it virtual and I couldn’t believe it. I did not expect that at all and I smiled before I cried. It was a sweet feeling when you’ve loved something and put everything you’ve got in it and people give you a nod.”
Born in rural Kentucky, Bradley’s family didn’t have running water in their home until she was in high school. Her dad worked in construction, coal mining and was a minister in the Primitive Baptist Church. At 14, Bradley got her first guitar and began singing in high school. Her talent began earning her acclaim when she joined the New Coon Creek Girls in 1991. By 1997, she had recorded her first solo album, East Kentucky Morning, which climbed to top ten on the Bluegrass Unlimited chart.
Bradley wrote or co-wrote three songs on the new album, including “Living on the Edge.” She got the idea for the empowering anthem as she was thinking about people in her past who had been overbearing and tried to bully her into following their lead. “I would always feel like I needed to do what they wanted rather than what I felt like I ought to do [because of] the repercussions from not doing what people want you to do. You could get ostracized and you were threatened with that all the time,” she says of what inspired the song’s defiant lyric. “So I’m like, ‘Go ahead make your angry pledge, get mad, push me out here on the ledge because buddy, I’m getting used to this. Just knock me down or leave me alone. Hit me with your best shot.’ Everybody makes mistakes and nobody has the right to push anybody or judge anybody so that’s kind of what it is about.”
The title track, “Things She Couldn’t Get Over,” was written about a girl Bradley knew in high school who suffered from mental illness. “She just walked the halls. She wouldn’t stay in class. To sit in a classroom, she could not do that, but they would let her [roam]. They were just wanting to help her get through,” she says of how teachers and school officials tried to accommodate her. “She was funny and she didn’t start nothing, but buddy, if someone started something she would jump in there and defend herself. She just had some obsessive-compulsive things, but she was a good kid. She was a very unusual person with maybe two or three different things going on mentally that really made it hard to treat her.”
The girl never married and continued to live in that small down until she died of breast cancer. “I met her again later in life here when I moved back to Kentucky and her mental condition had really taken a toll on her,” says Bradley, who thought of her during the pandemic and began writing the song. “During COVID I had been working on the album and writing stuff and that one kind of found me. She just came into my mind. People like her were misunderstood. I just felt like it was time—when everything is so crazy and people are trying to just survive—it’s time to realize that the mind can’t bear a whole lot either. The body can’t and the mind can’t. If we recognize things and can reach out a hand and give a smile, a cup of coffee or maybe help somebody find some place that they can get some help, I think that’s going to be a must in our future because we can’t bear all of the stuff that we do anymore. It’s been a weird year.”
Another poignant song on the album is “Lynwood,” a tender tale about an encounter with a homeless Vietnam vet. “David Morris co-wrote that and sent it to me and I listened to those lyrics and I thought, ‘Wow! That’s exactly what is happening now,’” she says of the song Morris wrote with Gordon Roberts and Donate Gardner. “I think you ought to give back to your soldiers.”
In recording her new album, Bradley also includes covers of “L.A. International Airport,” a hit for Susan Raye and also John Anderson’s “Yellow Creek,” an album cut from his 1986 collection Countrified. “It’s about the Trail of Tears,” she says of the forced relocations of approximately 100,000 Native Americans between 1830 and 1850 by the U.S. government. “I thought man it’s time for this song and so I’m tickled to death to get to do a John Anderson song. I don’t think I’ve ever got to do one before.”
Bradley is also happy to revive “L.A. International Airport.” First recorded in 1970 by David Frizzell, the song became a global hit for Raye, peaking at No. 9 on the Billboard Country Singles chart in 1971, No. 54 on the all genre Billboard Hot 100 and became a bigger success internationally hitting No. 2 on the chart in Australia and No. 1 in New Zealand. “I’d heard it for years,” says Bradley, who recalls seeing Raye sing it on Hee Haw when she was a child. “This is a pretty broken hearted song and it kind of brings back that late ’60s thing too. I thought the band really brought it because none of them had ever heard it. They didn’t know who Susan Raye was. They did a great job.”
The album closes with “In the End,” an emotional ballad about what’s truly important in life (get a first list of the song above). “That’s a scratch vocal,” Bradley says of recording the song in one take. “I left it on there because I couldn’t do it again. The night before we recorded that song, Debbie and Steve Gulley were coming down to Nashville to sing harmony and she called me and said, ‘Dale, he’s so sick. I’m going to take him to the hospital,’ and then she called me later that night and told me he’d been diagnosed with cancer. It was all over him.
“So the next morning, I did the best I could on it, but you talk about a come to Jesus moment. It was and it just floored me,” she says. “I sung that knowing how his situation was. Those words were held up in front for me to see for my own self. It don’t matter about your political views. After it’s all over with, it don’t matter where you sit on the pew. It don’t make much of a difference how much you knew when it’s time to leave. And we’re going to leave. Even though that was painful, that very thing has brought me peace after he was gone. I listen to the words to that song and really know that everything is true. It really helped me.”
Like other artists, Bradley is looking forward to getting back on the road when it’s safe to do so. However, in 2021 her plans are to concentrate on her solo work as she’s left Sister Sadie. “We’ve been together for between seven and eight years and I think it was probably time,” she says of her decision to exit the award-winning band. “I love each and every one of them and I think they do me too. They are planning to go on and they’ll be great… I’m happy where I’m at and they are at the top of the heap right now.” The soft-spoken singer/songwriter is excited about getting her new album out and is hopeful fans will connect with the songs. “I hope the songs give a person an opportunity to simply to walk in somebody’s shoes throughout that song and maybe it will lead to an understanding,” she says. “Maybe that’s what is needed more than some kind of action out of fear. I know it’s a touchy time, but I hope it gives people an opportunity to walk in other people’s paths.”