Longtime Nashville resident Bradley Harmer may have had one of the most impressive writing mentors in American literary history.
Harmer grew up near Salinas, California, where one of his neighbors was the legendary novelist John Steinbeck (1902-1968). You almost surely read some of Steinbeck’s books in school or seen the legendary movies made of them, including The Grapes Of Wrath, East Of Eden, and Of Mice And Men.
“I used to sit on his porch,” Harmer says in a phone conversation in early January. “John Steinbeck was just a natural guy, it wasn’t like he was anything pretentious.. I would stop at his house, he told me a lot of stories and he was a great storyteller.”
After a life full of ups and downs that has included long, private battles with homelessness and alcoholism, Bradley’s own writing – songwriting – is at last beginning to see the light of day.
For more than 15 years, another Row singer and songwriter, Garrett Walker, has been Harmer’s faithful friend and supporter. After Garrett posted some of Harmer’s heartfelt songs on Facebook, industry folks began taking notice. Walker says that a label may be interested in signing Bradley, and a band in Florida with a record deal themselves may cut one or more of Harmer’s songs this year.
When Garrett brought Bradley to the attention of Nashville Music Guide owner Randy Matthews, Randy also took interest in the story of Harmer, who has no home but lives near Nolensville Road and is still battling the bottle every day.
“His music, that’s what drew me into Bradley. He’s a great, humble soul,” Walker says. “Bradley’s the nicest person you ever met, and his chords and his words are incredible. But as we speak (this was about 1 p.m.), we are behind the liquor store and Bradley just popped open his second beer.”
Then again, country stars from Hank Williams to Willie Nelson and dozens more have had their own demons with substance abuse.
Bradley’s father was a musician who hosted his own TV show. Dad knew Lefty Frizzell, Patsy Cline, Bobby Bare, and many other country icons.
The losses of both his parents were traumatic events for Harmer and may have contributed to his alcoholism. But through all of his trials and tribulations, the guitar and his songs were always there.
“I write my stuff in songs, but I don’t know how to say it,” says Harmer, who has an infectious laugh and a marvelous, upbeat attitude. “It works for me.”
What does Bradley think of all the recent excitement about his songs, which he’s been writing for decades but attracted little industry attention until late December?
“You know what, I’m kind of in shock,” Bradley says. “I’m kind of scared, and it’s only been a week. I’m excited. I’m 53 years old, and I’ve always been kind of a living room musician.”
Does music help him through the hard times?
“Yeah, when I want to say something I put it in a song,” he says. “I’ve forgotten more songs I’ve written than I remember. But I got one I wrote for my daughter called `Daddy’s All Right.’ She was like tiny when I wrote that, I just had the guitar on my lap.”
That wonderful little waltz is one of many fine Bradley songs. Another remarkable one is a much darker song called “Bleed,” which folks can her on his Facebook page. “That’s a song about a soldier going back to see the daughter he’s never seen, and he’s dying,” Harmer says.
Walker, a fine singer and songwriter himself, marvels at the talents of his friend. He compares Bradley’s musical style to that of singers and songwriters such as Jim Croce and Gordon Lightfoot. He’s also trying hard to get Bradley off the booze, and hopes that this musical success may lead Harmer to go into rehab.
But much great art and great songs come from pain, and one of Bradley Harmer’s real gifts is the ability to put his own often turbulent life experiences into words and music.
“My songs are heartbreakers. They’ve got to do with pain,” he says. “I gotta say, if it wasn’t for music I woulda blown up. It’s a way to vent for me.”
Soon, thanks to folks like Garrett Walker and Randy Matthews, fans and radio nationwide will find Bradley Harmer’s songs are a way for them to deal with their own life lessons as well.
By Phil Sweetland | firstname.lastname@example.org