Jerry Bradley, an executive who trained with two of country music’s most celebrated producers—his father, Owen Bradley, and guitarist Chet Atkins—before challenging that legacy and sparking industry change, died Monday at his home in Mount Juliet, Tenn., near Nashville. He was 83 years old.
His death was announced by Ellis Cove-Campbell, Senior Director of Media Relations at BMI Nashville. No reason is given.
Mr. Bradley was reputed to be the driving force behind it “Wanted! Outlaws,” The groundbreaking 1976 group featuring the music of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Tomball Glaser and Mr. Jennings’ wife, Jessie Coulter.
Loud 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 country music history. It also upset the status quo in Nashville, posing a threat to the smooth dominance of the Nashville Sound associated with the business of Mr. Bradley and Mr. Atkins’ father.
The term “outlaw” had been gaining traction in rural circles since the early 1970s, when publicist Hazel Smith and others began using it to describe the do-it-yourself and anti-establishment ethos of Mr. Nelson and Mr. Jennings. But it was Jerry Bradley, head of the Nashville division of RCA Records, who had the foresight to package the outlaw aesthetic and promote it to a wider audience.
This included modeling the album cover after the western “Most Wanted” poster in the form of sports shots of the four singers on the record. And in a nod to the outlaw movement’s younger, more rock-oriented audience, Mr. Bradley enlisted journalist Chet Flippo of Rolling Stone to write the notes.
“The appearance and marketing of the album were very important in making Nashville look modern for the first time,” said Mr. Flippo, speaking about Mr. Bradley’s accomplishments in part of the 2003 BBC documentary series Lost Highway: The Story of Country Music.
Building on the unprecedented success of “Wanted!” Mr. Bradley would go on to sign such future stars as Ronnie Millsap, Eddie Rabbit and the Alabama Band during his nine-year tenure at RCA. Each of these acts would release several chart-topping hits while energizing the country’s airwaves with more large-scale pop, rock, and soul sensibilities.
Mr. Bradley also managed the careers of several country stars while at RCA. He produced number one singles in the late 1970s for Charlie Pride and oversaw the production of Here You Come Again (1977), Dolly Parton’s first best-selling album. He even took part in Elvis Presley’s mid-’70s return to the top of the country charts after an absence of nearly 20 years, re-establishing his connection with his core country audience shortly before his death.
“I wasn’t much of a conductor,” Mr. Bradley said, taking stock of 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 January 30, 1940, one of two children of William Bradley, known as Owen, and Mary (Franklin) Bradley, known as Katherine. His father, a former conductor, became one of the principal architects of the Nashville Sound through his work as a producer for the likes of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. His mother was a housewife.
Jerry 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 began spending time at the Bradley Barn recording studio, where, under the tutelage of his father and uncle Harold (both of whom are also inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame), he observed and occasionally contributed to sessions for the likes of Joan Baez, Brenda Lee and Dinah Shore.
In 1970, eager to make his way in the music business, Mr. Bradley went to work for Chet Atkins at RCA, where he became liaison with the company’s New York headquarters. Three years later, when cancer curtailed Mr. Atkins’ activities, Mr. Bradley succeeded him as president of RCA operations in Nashville.
Mr. Bradley left RCA in 1982 and, after a brief hiatus, became managing director of Opryland Music Group, which had recently acquired Acuff-Rose, the music publisher whose holdings included such illustrious catalogs as Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, and the Everly Brothers. Never resting on his laurels, Mr. Bradley recruited a new generation of songwriters, including Kenny Chesney, before retiring in 2002.
A longtime Country Music Association board member, Mr. Bradley has played an important role in the development of the CMA Music Festival. Held annually in Nashville since the early 1970s (when it was called Fan Fair), this event showcases around 400 artists performing for 100,000 or so fans over the course of four days.
Mr. Bradley is survived by a daughter, Lee Yankief. Clay’s son has five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. and her sister, Patsy Bradley. Connie (Darnell) Bradley, his wife of 42 years and a prominent executive in the country music industry, He passed away in 2021. His marriage to Gwen Hastings Killam, the mother of his children, ended in divorce; She passed away in 2001.
“Greatness doesn’t come through blood. It is achieved through work and invention,” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, commenting on Mr. Bradley’s entrepreneurship at the Bradley Hall of Fame.
“Jerry Bradley had his father, Owen, and uncle, Harold, as the North Stars,” Mr. Young continued. “He understood that he could not imitate or imitate their talents or behavior. He would have to find his own way.”