Island Profile: Roots in Nashville royalty with a Shelter Island foothold

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | Del Bryant, with 8-year-old son Thaddeus, on their front steps in the Heights.

Del Bryant, who is in his mid-60s, believes that the story of his life is closely interwoven with the story of his parents, Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, the song writers with “Bye Bye Love,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream” and “Rocky Top” among their credits.

He’s the president of BMI, Broadcast Music, Inc., an organization devoted to protecting the artistic and financial interests of song writers, including those of his parents with their more than 900 songs including many country hits.

“In many ways,” he recalled, “I was raised at the Grand Ole Opry. As kids, we were there every week, running around backstage.”

His parents came to Nashville, Tennessee in 1950, where the Ryman Auditorium was well known as a venue for country music.

Success was far from immediate. His mother said they finally made it only because they’d had more stamps and time to push their song pitches into the mailbox than publishers had to send them back.

His father, son of a small town Georgia lawyer, had been trained as a classical musician, receiving a violin for his fifth birthday. He wrote many of his songs in his head, visualizing treble and bass, before he put anything down on paper. His mother came from an Italian family in Milwaukee in which everyone played some musical instrument and sang but no one had had any kind of training.

When she wrote songs, she started with an idea for lyrics, and then hummed into a tape recorder. Often they wrote together. They put “Rocky Top” down on paper in 10 minutes. It turned out to be one of the most famous songs in bluegrass history, and is now the official Tennessee state song and the fighting song of the University of Tennessee.

“As children,” Del remembered, “we didn’t really realize that our folks were any different from anyone else’s parents, except that we knew they were home more. I grew up thinking everyone was in the music business. I knew there were firemen, doctors and lawyers, but that wasn’t who came to our house all the time.” Regular visitors included Don Gibson, Faron Young, Chet Atkins, the Everlys, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas, Jimmy Dickens, Roy Orbison, Jim Reeves, the Crickets, Tex Ritter, Patsy Cline and Burl Ives. They were all in the living room at one time or another.

After high school in Nashville, Del graduated from the University of Miami in 1970 and returned home to work with his parents in the music business. He went to work at BMI, which was founded in 1939, in 1972. At the time, the company was bringing in $40 million a year; now the figure is close to a billion. With the exception of overhead, all of that money goes back to the copyright owners, the publishers and writers to whom the songs belong. The company’s function is to protect copyrights and ensure that writers receive compensation for their work.

That requires an enormously complex system of oversight; every venue where music is played, whether on radio or television, in a film, in a commercial, or on the Internet has to be reported and monitored.

“We collect from the stations based on how many times the song is played,” Del said. “This supports the creative work of songwriters, musicians, composers and, at the same time, makes their music more easily available to the stations performing the music.”

Understanding his parents struggles to protect their copyrights “logically leads to the passion that I have to protect songwriters, to protect their rights and to ensure that their livelihood is guaranteed,” Del said. “I’ve really given my life to this because I appreciate  so much not only what songwriters do, but what they give up to do what they do. What makes you succeed is mercurial.

Just a few make it. Art of all sorts is littered with the talents of those who never reach the public. But BMI exists to be a conduit into the games for those lucky few, helping those who are destined with more ease, more understanding and more structure.”
BMI is headquartered in Manhattan and Del and his wife, Carolyn, and son Thaddeus, 8, have an apartment in Tribeca. Del has three adult children, Heather, Tremayne and Felice, from previous marriages; this is his third, her first. “It took me three tries to get it right,” and they’ve been together now for 20 years. Carolyn, now a full-time mom, was a former stock broker at Merrill Lynch and afterwards spent some time modeling and acting.

They’ve had a home in the Heights since 1999. They were weekending in the Hamptons that summer with friends. “We drove them all around, and ran out of things to do. Carolyn had heard of this place on Shelter Island, the Ram’s Head Inn, and we took the ferry, for the first time, went to the Ram’s Head and watched the sun go down.”

Then driving through Bridge Street, he took some of the brochures out in front of one of the brokerage offices. That night, reading it in bed, he saw a picture of a house he found charming.

He said to his wife, “I like the way that looks. Let’s go back tomorrow by ourselves and go look at that place.” And now they own it.  They’ve spent  every Thanksgiving and Christmas there since and visit regularly throughout the summer. “It’s Thaddeus’s favorite place,” he said, “a special little slice of heaven.”