Unfinished Business: The Bradley Gaskin Story (So Far)

When Bradley Gaskin lost his record deal in 2012 and had an album’s worth of his signature brand of country tunes shelved, he could have easily set his music career aside and found a different road to travel with his life. In fact, for a few years, he did just that.

Time spent on stage at the Grand Ole Opry turned into time spent in the halls of his daughter’s elementary school as a custodian. Gaskin admits he was content laying his guitar to rest and closing that chapter of his story. A chapter that, to that point, included winning a talent competition run by one half of one of country music’s biggest duos at the time, a near-top 30 song on country radio, and eventually, a record that was never released.

But then he started writing songs again.

What started as sporadically jotting down song titles lead him to picking up his guitar again. And with the support of a fan-turned-best-friend, Gaskin ended 2022 with a record deal, his first two single releases in a decade, and in the office of one of the most successful producers in country music history.

To write this second chapter, though, it’s important to venture back to the first, where a kid from Duck Springs, Alabama fell in love with the style of country music his family played around the house.

“I remember my granddad playing Haggard and Jones all the time,” says Gaskin. “He had this old crappy guitar that he probably knew two chords on, and he would try his very best to sing anything George Jones. When I first heard that, I didn’t know what they were singing about, but it caused me to want to do exactly what they were doing.”

And while that early love for music was present, it took Gaskin time to feel comfortable singing in front of his peers.

“All of my buddies were telling me that I should sing. They would tell people ‘Bradley sings!’ and I would say that I didn’t,” says Gaskin. “At first, I would hide. I would go off in a bedroom, the laundry room or the bathroom while they sat in the living room and I would sing.”

When he eventually overcame his phobia, Gaskin began singing in church, with one particular listener, and later his grandfather, making him realize that he may be able to pursue music professionally.

“I was singing acapella one night at a revival. When the church service was over, I was standing in the foyer, shaking hands and talking to everybody like you would normally do at a church service. This man walked up and shook my hand, and when I shook his hand, I could feel that he had something inside of his. When I pulled my hand away, I saw that it was a fifty dollar bill. I thought he meant to give me a five. I told him that I appreciated the money, but I think he meant to give me a five. He said ‘No, I meant for you to have that fifty. Someday, you’ll do this,’” says Gaskin. “As I got older, I would visit my granddad in Georgia. His drinking buddies would pull out a beer and he’d tell me to sing. I’d sing something Jones or Haggard, and I remember those guys pulling out fives, tens and twenties and giving me money to sing. It was insane. I didn’t know if I was good or if they were just drunk, but I took it.”

Compliments from the congregation and his granddad’s drinking buddies soon turned into compliments from a heavy-hitter in the country music industry after he heard one of Gaskin’s original songs.

“My wife said that there was this thing called Myspace, and I had no idea what it was. I had recorded a rough demo of a song called ‘Mr. Bartender,’ and she uploaded it. Two weeks later, John Rich and his partner, Charlie Pennachio, heard the song and sent me a message on Myspace. He said he’d love to talk to me. I didn’t know if it was the real John Rich, but I gave him my cell number,” says Gaskin. “About a half hour rolled around and nothing happened. I got to thinking, ‘that figures,’ and then my phone rang. I didn’t believe it was John Rich at first, and I said some stuff to him that I won’t repeat.”

When Rich assured Gaskin that he was the Fu Manchu, cowboy hat-wearing singer from Big & Rich, he expressed how much he loved the song he heard on Myspace.

“He asked me what I did, and I told him that I was a sheetrock hanger from Duck Springs, Alabama and hadn’t been married but a year and worked paycheck to paycheck. I told him I loved country music and I loved writing songs, and that it was always my dream to do it,” says Gaskin. “He asked me where ‘Mr. Bartender’ came from and who wrote it. I told him it was an original that I wrote myself, and he was blown away. He asked how many more songs I had like that, and I told him I had quite a few. He mentioned that he was doing a talent contest and that he’d like for me to enter, so I went up, played the show and won the contest.”

Image courtesy of Taste of Country

After winning the contest, Rich took Gaskin under his wing and quickly got the young singer/songwriter signed to a record deal with Columbia Nashville.

“John asked me if I was interested in putting my sheetrock hammer down and signing a publishing deal to write songs for his company, and he would try his best to get me a record deal,” says Gaskin. “John and I went into the studio to record and played for a major record company and got signed right out of the gate.”

Things were happening so fast, in fact, that Gaskin admits not having time to be nervous about his new situation.

“I played the Grand Ole Opry for the first time at the Ryman on Thursday, October 7, 2010. I hung drywall on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday with my dad, played the Opry on Thursday, got on a tour bus with John and went from Nashville to Florida, Florida to North Carolina and back to Nashville, then I hung drywall again that Monday,” says Gaskin. “It was a whirlwind. If there were any nerves, I had no time to think about it.”

The whirlwind continued when Gaskin heard “Mr. Bartender,” the same song Rich had fallen in love with, coming over the radio airwaves for the first time.

“My friends ran a radio station in Nashville. They told me I needed to listen to the radio at a certain time, and that would be the first time it was ever spun on country radio,” says Gaskin. “When it came on, I don’t even know how to explain it. Every memory from my childhood of loving music all the way to that moment flashed. I remembered singing for people at church. I remembered the moment that guy gave me the fifty bucks. I remembered singing for John Rich for the very first time and how I was chasing what I wanted to do. Every hero I had ever listened to growing up was on the radio, and for the first time in my life, I was too.”

Then, his young daughter came into the room and gave him a lifelong memory.

“My daughter woke up and came in the room when the song was on. She walked in and heard my voice coming through the radio. She went over and put her arm around my Bose radio, kissed it and said ‘dada!’” says Gaskin. “Ain’t no moment gonna beat that.”

As his tear-in-your-beer ballad continued to play on country radio, Gaskin began to hear that it may not fit in with the other songs coming over the airwaves.

“Everybody was telling me that the song was really traditional and they didn’t know what it would do. They didn’t know if radio would play something that traditional. There were a couple radio stations that said it was just too country and they couldn’t play it,” says Gaskin. “I got to see it climb the charts really fast for a handful of weeks, and then it hit a wall at radio when they said it was too country for what they wanted.”

By the time “Mr. Bartender” had run its course on country radio, Gaskin had a self-titled EP to his name with a full album of traditional country tunes set for release before his record label closed and shelved the rest of the album.

“They were supposed to release ‘Diamonds Make Babies’ as a single. I was told they released it, but I think it was pulled after two days,” says Gaskin. “We had a full record ready to go when the label closed and kept the album. Everything that they fell in love with me and signed me for is what they let me go for in the end.”

Without a label home, Gaskin’s confidence took a hit as he tried to soldier on.

“It’s a dark moment when you’re hearing everybody’s positivity and knowing that you busted your butt so hard to write, be away from your family and sink all your eggs into one basket. I didn’t have a backup plan. When I went for music full-time, there was no ‘if it doesn’t work,’” says Gaskin. “You go to a spot where nothing exists anymore. You’re out playing shows and people in a meet and greet line ask when your album is going to be released. It was literally the first question they’d ask. It sucked because I had to stand there and say that the label delayed it or ‘it’s coming, I promise,’ and it never came. It kicks your butt.”

Gaskin spent the next few years focusing on songwriting, but after hearing the same “too country” chatter that had plagued him as an artist, he decided to step away from music entirely.

“Every time I would send songs in, it felt like a curse to be country. I finally got to a point where I wasn’t writing anymore. I thought nobody wanted to hear what I had to say or what I wanted to sing. My publishing deal with John Rich ended in 2015, and we didn’t renegotiate or re-sign. I put my guitar down. It got to the point where I had a sour taste in my mouth any time somebody would mention music. It destroyed me,” says Gaskin. “I came home and started working with my dad again. Then I started working at a sawmill in Duck Springs. Eventually, I was a custodian at my little girl’s elementary school for five years.”

As time passed at the school, Gaskin slowly started getting back into the swing of things musically.

“Garth Brooks always talks about things being a blessing and a curse. My teeth had been kicked in, but during that down time, my focus and my mindset changed. About four years into working at the school, I started writing a little bit again. That turned into playing more guitar,” says Gaskin. “Every time I prayed that God would take away the musical urge and prayed that people would stop bringing it up, I would go to the school and a little kid would come up to me and say, ‘Mr. Bradley, I listened to you on the car ride in this morning,’ or ‘my daddy was playing ‘Mr. Bartender’ last night after I ate dinner.’ They would ask if I was ever going to sing again. Every time I prayed God would take away those moments, somebody would slap me in the face with it. That lead me to start writing and playing more.”

As he rekindled his love for his old life, he also rekindled a friendship that fueled the fire for his return to music.

“In 2011, my wife, daughter and I were at Rendezvous Ribs down in Memphis,” says Gaskin. “My wife got my attention and looked over and said there was a guy with a picture of me on his phone. Sure enough, the guy had the cover of ‘Mr. Bartender’ up. I walked over and introduced myself, and he said he played that song in his driveway for his little girls and said that he loved the song and that ‘this is country music.’”

That man was Jack Cole, who would sign Gaskin as the flagship artist to his new independent record label, 30A Life Records.

“I kept a friendship with Jack over the years. I was working at the school one afternoon when he called me. He threw out the idea of starting a record label, and I told him it would never work. He called me a couple mornings later and asked if I remembered that conversation, and asked ‘What if I could make it happen,’ and I told him, ‘I would call you an idiot,’” Gaskin says with a laugh. “Jack and his partner, Bob Clark, asked me to sign a record deal to be the first artist on their label. They wanted me to sing what I wanted to sing and write what I wanted to write with no questions asked. They were building an outdoor venue in Santa Rosa, Florida and they wanted me to play there every Friday night. So if nothing more ever came from it, I could put my songs on iTunes, sell merch and play that venue every Friday from March to September. I took the deal.”

In June of 2022, Cole and Clark held up their end of the bargain with the release of Gaskin’s first single in a decade, “30A Blonde,” which was followed by another single, “Sunset and Wine,” a month later. Upon his return, the songs earned thousands of combined streams and validated his comeback and artistic vision.

“I wish I would have listened to the people back in the day that were telling me that I should’ve kept at it. I should have paid more attention to the sweet comments on YouTube. I didn’t because I was so frustrated with how things went. I felt like I had no value and nobody cared what I had to say,” says Gaskin. “You hear everybody at award shows thank their fans. Some fans say that’s what the artists have to say, but there’s no artists without the fans.”

With his two return single releases now under his belt, Gaskin reconnected with another old friend that helped him get in touch with one of the most successful producers in Nashville.

“After I had recorded four or five songs, Jack Cole asked if I knew somebody in Nashville that would listen to my songs and throw a lifeline out there, make some calls and help us out,” says Gaskin. “I had a friend that used to work at a major label, Renee Bell. We sent her the songs and she got us in touch with Keith Stegall. We went from signing an independent record deal to working with one of the most iconic music producers to ever work in Nashville.”

Stegall, who has credits with Alan Jackson, Randy Travis and George Jones, among many others, to his name, took a meeting with Gaskin and quickly agreed to work with him.

“We were sitting there talking, and I was looking at the studio where all of my favorite country singers had recorded. I asked Keith point blank, I said, ‘You’ve worked with all of these people and wrote all these songs. When I walked through the front door, I saw Grammys on a table. I saw Song of the Year Awards. I saw CMA and ACM Awards. Why does a guy like you want to work with somebody like me?’” says Gaskin. “He told me the same way he believed in Alan Jackson and Randy Travis, he believed in me. I felt a huge weight leave me. He said he felt like I never had the opportunity to tell my story, and he wanted to help tell it.”

The next chapter of Gaskin’s story will come in the form of an album that is chock-full of tunes, new and old, that is beginning to take shape.

“I have a song meeting coming up this month, and we’re picking the very best songs to go in and record for the album. We’ve got our minds and ears ready,” says Gaskin. “We’ve been listening to some really good songs that great songwriters have sent us. We’ve written some really great songs, and I’ve gone back in my catalog of songs that people never got to hear. There’s songs I got sent or wrote ten years ago that people are going to hear for the very first time.”

As he looks forward to his next chapter, Gaskin looks back with the knowledge that he’s a stronger artist, creatively and emotionally, than he was when “Mr. Bartender” was playing on country radio.

“I’m stronger because of what I went through. Alan Jackson has a song that goes ‘everything I love is killing me,’ and it’s 100% true. Everything I loved, which was music, was killing me. It seemed like nobody wanted my stuff. I couldn’t get one of the biggest labels in the world to put out my record,” says Gaskin. “When you go through that, it makes you tougher. They say the older the violin, the sweeter the music. There’s more to my story that we haven’t gotten to tell, and there’s a lot of unfinished business to take care of.”

*Bradley’s music is featured on The Best of Pro Country playlist!*

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