Bradley was born and raised in eastern Kentucky, and like another high-powered bluegrass vocalist of note, Ralph Stanley (who was raised not all that far away in Dickenson County, Virginia), she was raised in the Primitive Baptist church where her father was a minister. Although many people associate the Primitives with shape-note singing (a system of learning musical notes by the shapes of the notes), Bradley says that's not the case with her background.
"Our singing was more like Ralph's, the way he grew up. You've got your regular Baptists, and you've got your Primitive Baptists...there's a little bit of difference in the doctrines, of course, regular Baptists are more Calvinistic, and the Primitive Baptists are more predestinarian, and both have no music (instruments). We didn't have any shape notes, and a lot of the music Ralph has recorded over the years, that's the songs that come out of a little book called 'Goble's Hymnal,' it's just a little bitty book with a leather back and front, looks like a little paper notebook that you'd write notes down in. It had a lot of old, old ballads, you know, spiritual ballads. The English in it is so old, it'll use phrases like 'methinks', it's really, really old."
"There's not a lot of that kind singing still going on, it's probably isolated to east Tennessee, southeast to east Kentucky and southwest Virginia right now...but no, there wasn't any shape note singing, it was all that old 'drone' mountain sound. I've said this before, when I would walk to church and come up to the door, it sounded like a whole big bunch of Ralph Stanleys in there singing, and I thought that was pretty cool."
Bradley's rise to prominence in bluegrass began when she met and struck up bonds of musical and personal friendship with Vicki Simmons, a driving force in the formation of the New Coon Creek Girls, a band modeled in tribute to the original Coon Creek Girls of the 1930s led by Lilly Mae Ledford. Simmons' latter-day version had become a regular part of Kentucky's venerable Renfro Valley Barn Dance.
"I had returned from Jacksonville," says Bradley. "I had married, and my husband at that time was stationed in Mayport, Fla. So I went down there, and I had my son during that time, and I came back to Kentucky, we moved to Somerset from there. I hadn't played music in three years, and I was really gettin' a hankerin'. I had met Vicki and the girls when I was about 18. Both of us ended up in a Marlboro Country Music Roundup final, and so I met them there and I thought they were really good and thought that would be cool to do, you know?"
"So when I moved to Somerset, she had contact information on me and contacted me. Pam Perry had left to go join Wild Rose, so Vicki asked would I like to come up and audition, just to see how it worked. They really wanted a fiddle player, and they needed a strong instrumentalist like a mandolin player or a fiddle player, and I played very little mandolin at that time and, of course, didn't play any fiddle, but we just had the best time and she said, 'You know, no matter what happens here, you keep singing - you just keep singing.'"
"So I did, I went to Renfro Valley, and that's, of course, where they started. They had been away for several years. Then during my tenure at Renfro Valley, they came back to the Valley to perform, and then the guitar spot came open, and I filled that and joined the (New) Coon Creek Girls from there. Then when the (New) Coon Creek Girls disbanded in 1997, we decided to just keep on doing what we'd been doing. We'd written a lot of songs and stuff, so we just kept right on."
While many in bluegrass, even at the highest levels, still have to clock in at the day job to make ends meet, Bradley considers it good fortune indeed that she can make a living doing what she loves to do best.
"I've done it for, well, ever since I can remember, it's been my job. I have on occasion done lessons, and that supplemented it very well and probably will do that this winter too. I do that when I'm not so busy that I can't, you know. I owned a little music store, but we've had quite a busy year, so I wasn't there like I needed to be able to, so I sold that to some good musician friends. But music, in one way or the other, is how I keep the lights turned on."
Though a full-fledged veteran in the bluegrass business, it's also true that Dale Ann Bradley is just getting into the prime years of her career. She believes that, as a rising tide lifts all boats, the increasing profile of bluegrass in general will lead to a new generation of astonishingly talented female singers and pickers, and though she modestly refrains from saying it herself, many of them will undoubtedly look to her as an icon and mentor. For her part, Bradley looks forward to being a part of a new century of bluegrass.
"I hope I'm able to still do this, and I hope to reach more people as time goes on and introduce them to bluegrass and, you know, the songs that are original by us. I hope to play more venues. I'd love to just do more of the same and just reaching out as far as I can with that."