You’ve heard the story: A poor Kentucky coal miner’s daughter discovers music, learns the guitar, and becomes a star. Loretta Lynn, right?
Yes, but it’s also Dale Ann Bradley, who grew up in a tar-paper shack in southeastern Kentucky, the daughter of an aspiring preacher who came to the area to study the ministry and married a local girl. Bradley was raised in a religious household devoid of music, but eventually became a bluegrass performer.
“I would call it America’s music,” she said. “And it covers all kinds of … experience. It tells the truth. Stories about murder, mayhem, love, broken hearts, Mom and Daddy — and it’s very entailed in human emotion.”
The family didn’t have electricity or running water until she was a senior in high school, when her father, who worked construction jobs when available, landed a position at a local coal mine. Through those years, she grew up in the Primitive Baptist Church, a strict adherence to biblical traditions; women were subservient, and girls couldn’t play sports. The only allowed music was singing in church, without instrumentation or even music notation for the hymns.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of musicians around here,” she said. “It was a very strict religion.”
The first movie Bradley ever saw was “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the biopic about Loretta Lynn’s rise from Kentucky poverty to stardom. That really hit home.
“It was so familiar,” Bradley recalled. “At the time, I was still living like that. [And] I always wanted to sing.”
She did, occasionally, at home, and when she finally got a guitar, she often played with a local boy. By the time she was in high school, she was on course to be a performer. When the family moved to Renfro Valley, where Bradley’s father was pastor at a church, she found the same rural Kentucky life — but music was accepted.
“People liked music,” she said. “They had it in their church. There was a lot less restriction in the religious area.”
Thanks to an uncle who gave her an 8-track player and stacks of tapes, her musical exposure grew. And when she began playing, she played mostly country, but she listened to everything. While she loved it all, bluegrass won her heart.
“I loved country music, I loved folk music, I loved rock music,” Bradley said. “The thing about bluegrass was the banjo … I fell in love with that instrument.”
She never mastered playing the banjo, but perfected her acoustic guitar and her bluegrass style. Today she plays traditional bluegrass tunes and plenty of original work, but she’s apt to play bluegrass versions of songs from other genres, if the lyrics have grabbed her. She does Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You,” and Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze.”
“If there’s [a song] that moves me for years, [I’ll do it],” she said.
This isn’t Bradley’s first visit to Maine, but her first to Bangor. And she’s eager to get here.
“The seafood’s great, people love bluegrass — there’s everything to love about it,” she said. “I’m truly honored, to be invited to be part of the festival. I know there’s a lot of bluegrass fans in Maine.”
Bradley will play several shows on various stages, but promises a song that perfectly fits with her Railroad Stage show on Sunday. “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” refers to the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, which hauled a lot of coal out of the Kentucky mountains in its day. That’s just some of the bluegrass schooling festival-goers will enjoy.
“They’ll get some culture from Appalachia,” she said. “And we’ll have conversations, and everybody can enjoy themselves, and hopefully walk away with new friends. That’s another part of bluegrass: [meeting] people that you’ll know for the rest of your life.
“Music transcends religions, transcends everything,” Bradley said. “It’s the best communicator and storyteller, and the best way to show emotions that I know of.”