Looking Back To See: A Country Music Memoir
History hasn’t truly recognized the Browns (Jim Ed, Bonnie and Maxine), the trio of Arkansas siblings whose 1959 single “The Three Bells” became one of the Nashville Sound era’s biggest crossover success stories. Their hit streak wasn’t lengthy, lasting roughly into the mid-’60s. Even so, the group deserves more than footnote status.
Maxine Brown’s no-holds-barred memoir chronicles a family who rose from sharecropper shacks to the middle class and, finally, prosperity, as parents Floyd and Birdie Brown built a business base including a sawmill and the Trio Club in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. None of the Brown kids planned musical careers, but Maxine’s songwriting and Jim Ed’s singing talents changed that after she penned “Looking Back To See”, a novelty duet they recorded for Fabor Records in 1954, before younger sister Bonnie joined, adding a third harmony part.
As Maxine describes the wild, jarring and often traumatic rollercoaster that was the Browns’ career, compelling portraits emerge, some positive (Wayne Raney, Elvis), some disgusting (Steve Sholes and a chapter on Fabor-Abbott records owner Fabor Robison). She vividly recalls numerous slights, most notably fellow Arkansans’ jealousy over the group’s successes (local DJs pointedly ignored their records), and speculates that such a mindset is endemic in the state.
Her memory of Music Row is far darker than historians acknowledge. Recording for RCA in the late ’50s, the Browns were ready to quit when they brought “The Three Bells” to producer Chet Atkins. It changed everything, earning a Grammy nomination and a gold record but also enmity in Nashville, where old friend Little Jimmy Dickens cast aspersions on their country purity. Maxine describes a stoned Don Gibson assaulting Atkins in the studio, and dishes dirt on RCA’s financial chicanery. Jim Ed’s move to solo performing effectively ended the trio. Bonnie semi-retired; Maxine struggled to launch a solo career that ultimately sputtered.
Compelling as all this is, it can be a tough read, not because her tales don’t ring true, but because they do. Nonetheless, never does she opt for self-pity. In retirement, she refuses to allow even failing eyesight keep her from the occasional Browns reunion. “We had a great career in spite of all we had to endure,” she concludes.