The Lost Music of Marty Brown
I often have read about those who traveled around the country in the early and mid-twentieth century discovering great blues musicians and folk songs. The music was always there, but it might have dwelled in obscurity had the music not been recorded. Those tales seem to be stuck in the past, because with modern technology and the Internet almost anyone can post something on YouTube.
But there remain talented artists who fall through the cracks, leaving one to wonder if the future may hold a revival for some late in their careers or after they are dead — modern legends who are ghosts to us, just as Robert Johnson’s image and music embrace us across time. I hope that some day the world will rediscover Marty Brown.
Marty Brown had some success in the 1990s with several outstanding albums. In 1990, he released his debut album, High And Dry, which was not a big hit but did modestly well. One music critic gave the album an A+, saying Brown is “the sweetest surprise to ride the train in a long, long time and so authentically country he probably still has a tick in his navel.” Small radio stations played his songs, but the big country radio stations ignored him, opting for less twangy artists. Brown’s voice and his heartbreak songs led writers to compare him to Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, such as on the title song to the album. But I first heard of Brown when I saw the video for “Every Now and Then,” perhaps playing on CMT, with his Everly Brothers-type vocals.
Marty Brown was born in 1965 in the tiny Ohio River tobacco farming community of Maceo, Kentucky featured in the above video. He began writing his own songs when he was fourteen, sneaking away with a friend to play music at honky-tonk bars. Later, he began making numerous trips to Nashville seeking a record deal while sleeping in an alley on Music Row. In 1991, the CBS news magazine show 48 Hours featured the artist in a story on country music, leading to his record deal with MCA.
During the Autumn of 1991, Entertainment Weekly and People Magazine described Brown’s tour to promote High and Dry as he rode in the record company’s 1969 Cadillac convertible to perform at fairs and Wal-Marts throughout the South. At each Wal-Mart, he performed on a small stage in a store aisle with little amplification. Fans brought him homemade cookies and fishing lures. At that time, the 26-year-old was already divorced with custody of two kids and living with his parents. Just months before starting the tour, he was working as a plumber’s helper, making $5 an hour. While on his first tour, he stated that his goals were to buy his dad a bean field, put his kids through college, get a nice trailer for himself, and “not live no highfalutin life style.”
The comparisons to Hank Williams continued. Somewhere around this time, Brown was filmed backstage at the Grand Ole Opry singing Hank’s “Moanin’ the Blues” for a German documentary about the country-music legend.
In 1993, Brown tried to reach a wider audience with the more diverse Wild Kentucky Skies, which is one of my favorite albums. The album features break-up songs like “I Don’t Want to See You Again,” love songs like “God Knows,” and a folk ballad about his grandmother’s death, “She’s Gone,” which would not be out of place on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. During this time, he toured with Jimmie Dale Gilmore. The title song features a more lush production than a lot of his other honky-tonk songs, but there is still an aching country sound. “Wild Kentucky Skies” should be the official Kentucky state song.
In 1994, Brown released another excellent album, Cryin’ Lovin’ Leavin’, capping a run of three outstanding albums in four years. AllMusic rates each of these three albums 4-5 stars out of 5. Brown did not sound like slick Nashville country, but the record company still could be hopeful because it was the early 1990s when other neotraditionalist and alternative country artists like Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam were breaking through and building audiences. Brown received some critical acclaim, but again the sales were not as high as the record company wanted. MCA Records dropped him.
Brown then signed with the independent label Hightone and released Here’s to the Honky Tonks in 1996. For the most part, Brown wrote or co-wrote most of the songs on his four albums, and on Here’s to the Honky Tonks, he co-wrote almost all of them. The CD again garnered critical praise but weak sales. He performed one of the songs from the album, “You Can’t Wrap Your Arms Around a Memory,” on Prime Time Country on TNN, where he also explained that he was inspired to write the song while watching The Honeymooners late at night.
And then that was it. Marty Brown disappeared. Only Here’s to the Honky Tonks remains in print. In the early 2000’s, I found an address for a fan club in his hometown of Maceo, Kentucky, so I wrote to the address, but I never received a response. If you look him up on CMT or AllMusic.com or Wikipedia, the official story ends in 1996 with Here’s to the Honky Tonks.
But of course there is more to the story. As country music became more pop-oriented, Marty Brown disappeared from the limelight and did not perform except for family reunions. But he continued to write songs, and a few were recorded by other stars. He co-wrote 1998’s “I’m From the Country” for Tracy Byrd. As time passed, Brown fell on some hard times as he fell out of the spotlight. In subsequent years the former local hero’s name occasionally appeared in the local newspaper in unfortunate stories unrelated to his music.
In the last few years, though, there have been signs of a career struggling to resurrect. Around 2008, a MySpace page popped up, selling a new CD he recorded with his son Marty Brown Jr. called Somethin’ Real. The website included some photos, showing that he had aged and was no longer the skinny kid in his early videos. I ordered two copies of the new CD. When I received them, the cover label was merely a copy of the 1996 Here’s to the Honky Tonks cover, but it included an autograph. Despite the amateur packaging and non-major label recording, the new music still had some of the magic, including the song “She’s Beautiful Everywhere.” His voice remains one of the most authentic country voices around.
Today, a few years later, the MySpace page seems to be gone. Another webpage has information about buying the album and a mailing address, although it is unclear if the sales are still operating since the MySpace page linked to the site is gone. A Facebook fan page merely includes the abbreviated Wikipedia bio. His son Marty Brown Jr. has a MySpace page but there is no mention of the music he made with his father. There are only a few Marty Brown videos on YouTube, and they do not fully illustrate his range.
Still, Marty Brown has not completely disappeared. From what I can piece together from my view in New York, Brown still makes music as a local celebrity. In October 2010, he played at the Roxy Theater in Franklin, Kentucky. I suspect fans who live in his area appreciate his talent, and his work is influencing others, including his son Marty Brown Jr. as well as another talented young son who writes his own music. But Marty Brown should be getting national attention from genuine country music lovers.
Why did his national career die out? Not enough people connected with his music, and you can blame that on several things, ranging from the promotion to his musical style. I love his music, although I realize that his hardcore traditional country sound is not everyone’s cup of tea. For example, after I loaned a Marty Brown CD to a country fan friend, he told me he loved the CD but “my wife said she’d divorce me if I ever play that music again.” Perhaps even Hank Williams would not get a record contract today.
Maybe Marty Brown’s career stalled because the man was too authentic. He remained rooted in his small town, and even as his career was taking off, his dream remained to buy a trailer for his family. It is difficult to imagine him hanging out with the Nashville elite. Some of my friends make fun of country music, but most Nashville singers can hang out with the big eastern city folk while at the same time maintaining some connection to the country. John Rich and Trace Adkins sing about being country boys, but they excelled in New York City on Celebrity Apprentice. There are a lot of country stars who I cannot picture doing yard work, but I can imagine Marty Brown mowing a lawn. Many country singers come from small-town roots and they maintain that connection, but stardom takes them to another level. Even Steve Earle, authentic as they come and another brilliant artist who spent some years in the wilderness after encountering fame, moved to Greenwich Village.
Maybe Marty Brown would have moved on if he had he found lasting fame, but I cannot imagine him in New York City or Atlanta or any other large city. He was always too attached to his roots, as shown by the video of “Every Now and Then.” He was and remains connected to his place and locked in time like many folk singers and old blues musicians. In spite of his amazing talent, destiny prevented him from being a big star on a national stage.
Brown described his fear of obscurity in his pre-fame days in a 1992 Los Angeles Times article: “I’d go to bed at night, crying myself to sleep,” he recounted. “I’d ask the Lord why he gave me this talent to write these songs just to have them sit in a drawer.” Maybe some day when Marty Brown is an old man playing acoustic guitar in a cabin in Kentucky, someone with recording equipment will go visit him to get one more album out of the music sitting in drawer. And when people hear the music, they will wonder why there were not more Marty Brown recordings — just like I wonder about the lost folk and blues recordings from the early 1900s.
Another version of this story with additional links and some updates on new performances appears on Chimesfreedom.
Do have any favorite artists who have disappeared? Do you know anything about Marty Brown? Leave a comment.