Bryan Dale Headley hammers out a life he never imagined
By Bill Richardson
Throughout an entire region of southeastern Illinois, Bryan Dale Headley is known as “The Singing Blacksmith.”
The blacksmithing part came first. The singing part came later. Both had innocent beginnings that eventually led to television appearances and both have, at times, left Headley questioning himself.
Headley, 45, is a farmer and a jack-of-all-trades who lives with his wife of 21 years, Tonya, near West Salem, Illinois, in Edwards County. He became a blacksmith at the behest of a friend, and later picked up a guitar and learned to play and sing. Now, Headley is in much demand, and appears regionally at various banquets, festivals, fine-art fairs, church gatherings, re-enactments and school functions.
He became a blacksmith in 2001, when his career path was shaped by tragedy. He visited a friend — a blacksmith named Rex Walden — to get some tent stakes made and was invited to “try his hand.”
“He wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Headley said. “He insisted I help.”
Headley was a quick learner, and it didn’t take Walden long to get him hooked on blacksmithing. A tragic twist soon followed, though, as Walden lost his life in an accident on Aug. 1, 2001.
Keeping a vow
“It was at that moment after learning of Rex’s death that I made the decision to start up my own blacksmith shop and carry on the trade that Rex had told me so many times nobody cared about anymore,” Headley said. “Well, I cared and vowed to keep the fire burning.”
He realized the task would be daunting, because he’d for the most part be teaching himself.
“My heart was heavy knowing the only person I knew to teach me was now gone,” he said.
Headley soldiered on. He started a shop with little knowledge and none of the tools of the trade. He joined the Illinois Valley Blacksmith Association and learned from watching other active blacksmiths.
After much practice, he improved and developed the skills that he says became his passion. The weekend trade shows that at first were rejecting him soon found him a welcome addition. It wasn’t long before he was busy every weekend, while continuing to get better.
“I had a forge, a beat-up anvil and a hammer,” he said. “After watching the smiths all day I’d go home and try to do what I’d seen them do. I won’t say it was easy, but it kind of was, as it seemed I possessed an understanding I couldn’t describe. I worked at my forge every spare moment available and over time my skills improved.”
He became an attraction, and festivals welcomed him. He was especially honored to be a demonstrator at Rockome Gardens, near Arcola, Illinois, in 2003. Eventually he was in such demand that he had an appearance on RFD Television’s “Decorative Ironwork.”
Forging a new path
It may have led to even bigger things, if not for some of Headley’s philosophical differences with network executives. He was informed that any mention of God and religion would not be allowed on the television show. The terms were unacceptable to Headley, who says he began searching for a new direction.
“I laid down the hammer and set out to learn to play the guitar, as I needed to do something different,” he said. “What I thought was the end, was actually the beginning as I look back now.”
Just as he’d progressed as a blacksmith, Headley also progressed as a musician. He began by picking Willie Nelson songs, but now is quite good at writing his own tunes.
“What started out as fun around the campfire over time evolved into songwriting and performing at small gatherings and festivals,” he said. “Many of those places I had previously performed as a blacksmith, going from local festivals to performing at the Illinois State Fair.”
A friend dubbed him “The Singing Blacksmith.”
“It stuck well,” says Headley.
Among the songs Headley plays during his shows is “The Veteran,” which was inspired by a couple of veterans from World War II, including Walden.
Another crowd-pleasing song is “This Ol’ Barn.” It’s the story of a barn on his Edwards County property, built by his great-grandparents and grandparents in the late 1920s. Headley and Tonya have worked hard to restore the barn to its original condition.
Headley’s excited about where his career is headed. He’s had discussions with a PBS station in Carbondale, and there is a possibility of doing a series of shows, some dealing with his work as a blacksmith and others dealing with his music.
These days, Headley is multi-dimensional. Sometimes he sings and plays guitar at his performances. Sometimes he blacksmiths. And sometimes he does both, making him, truly, “The Singing Blacksmith.”
None of it, though, was ever planned.
“I’ll talk about my life experiences through all of this,” he said. “I’ll share some songs I’ve written myself and play my guitar. And I’ll tell how God has led me in my pursuit. I give all the glory and success to Him. I couldn’t have put this together on my own.”
For more information, visit The Singing Blacksmith’s Facebook page.