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Honky tonker goes the indy route

By Joel Bernstein, November 1996

For Marty Brown, "Here's To The Honky Tonks" isn't just the title of his latest album, it's a mantra. Brown believes the honky tonk is the lifeblood of country music.

And he emphasizes, "when I sing about honky tonks I'm not singing about line dancing places, I'm singing about cut and stab places, knives sticking in the bar places."

Brown isn't one who believes only happy songs should be on the radio. "They're treating the hurting songs like the crazy cousin you keep locked up in the basement. Everybody's had their heart broken."

Brown says the reaction he gets indicates there are plenty of people who want to hear songs about heartbreak. "My life is up and down like everybody else's. I've lived every song on this album. People all over the world get little pieces of my life. Other people are relating to my life.

He rues the current state of country radio with the observation that "you can have all the bubblegum you want, but every once in a while you need a big chocolate bar."

There is a paradox to Marty Brown. This man who reveres the hardcore honky-tonks, and who started his musical career by sneaking out to those bars at age 14 to play for tips, is a devoutly religious man.

He's also a devoted family man who mentions his young son, Joshua, in just about every other sentence. "I love the Lord," he emphasizes, but "as long as you do things in good taste, as long as you use your head, there's nothing wrong with drinking."

Brown's first MCA album, "High and Dry," had a real fifties sound.

Some people who regarded him as the resurrection of Hank were dismayed by more modern sounds on his subsequent albums. After three albums on MCA, he moved to the independent Hightone label.

With complete artistic freedom, he's made a country album that's very contemporary sounding. This surprises people who assume anyone with artistic freedom will want to make non-commercial music. Why anyone would think that every artist deliberately sets out to be unpopular and achieves commercial success only when forced to by greedy record companies is hard to comprehend.

Brown was unhappy with the way his first album was marketed. "The media played too much on my (country boy) image and my personality," says the Kentucky-bred singer, admittedly pretty naive when he first hit Nashville. "I've learned a whole lot. I've gotten a lot of firsts in my life."

"I love Hank and George Jones, sure. I like AC/DC and Aerosmith too. They didn't play on that. If it's good music, I get my hands on it. The beginning of 'High and Dry' was a blues riff I got from AC/DC."

"I look at my career like Dolly Parton. She came in from the hills of Tennessee, wrote songs and had a great personality. They kept playing up her personality. Eventually, she took the ball in her hands and said 'I'm gonna take care of the music part.'" Of course, Parton also had a couple of assets that Marty Brown could never match.

But otherwise, it's a reasonable comparison.

Brown appreciates good music of all types, but he doesn't always have time to keep up with it. He tells of playing Farm Aid in October with Willie Nelson and Hootie & The Blowfish. "I didn't know who they (Hootie et al) were. They came running up to me like little kids. 'We partied to 'High And Dry' in the dorms' at South Carolina.' I had to sing harmony with them."

He then returned to his old Kentucky home, where his mother maintains an unofficial Marty Brown archives. She had taped the show and they were watching it. "I said 'Look mama, I'm with Willie Nelson.' Then, my sister comes in and goes wild. 'That's Hootie & The Blowfish.' I said, 'they were nice boys but who are they?' She brought in their CD, and I really liked it."

Brown still lives in the rural part of Kentucky where he grew up, regularly taking the two-hour drive to Nashville. "It's beautiful. The trees are starting to get on fire" he says about the encroaching fall foliage.

In all the hoopla over the sound of his debut, a lot of people failed to notice that every song was a Marty Brown original. "I'm a songwriter first," he insists, and he takes every opportunity to tell how some of his new songs came to be.

"You Can't Wrap Your Arms Around A Memory" is his new video. "I was watching The Honeymooners. Alice and Ralph were having a big fight. She said that to him, and I jumped up and started writing."

"'Flipside Of Love' is the one I'm most proud of on the album. I was in a bar in Illinois looking at the jukebox. I started wondering what's it like for the flipside of "Swingin'." That gets played millions of times and every time you have to go through the motions without getting heard." Brown immediately wrote the song on a napkin.

"Why Do You Crucify Me" was inspired by a crucifix given to Brown by his mother. "He died to save our sins. If they would have looked really hard and not have been sinners, he wouldn't have had to die. But the song is about a relationship gone wrong. When you can do a double meaning, it's more challenging as a writer. Let the listeners decide whether it's a religious song or a love gone wrong song."

"One of my favorites on the album is 'He Thinks Daddy Hung The Moon,' written about my little boy Joshua with his big blue eyes. I'd have to watch him during the day while his mama was working. We'd watch Winnie The Pooh. I'd feed him Mini-wheats. That's his favorite. But he was breast-fed, and they get very attached to their mothers. I'd do all these things and the minute she walked in the door, he'd run over to her and it's 'Who are you, daddy?'." That's Joshua playing the little boy role in Brown's new video.

For whatever reasons, Brown's MCA albums didn't sell very well, and a parting of the ways was inevitable. "Me and MCA left as friends. They knew I had a talent in me. The whole thing is timing. I like Hightone a lot. This is good for both of us. I have some fans, and they're noted for making cool records."

Being on an independent label makes it even less likely that Brown will crack country radio, but it definitely has its advantages. At MCA "I didn't feel like I had control. This is the first album I'm controlling it. I got to pick the musicians. I'm so proud of them. Listen to the guitar work (by J.T. Corenflos) on the title song. Picture me on my knees in the studio getting them to give it up."

Brown admits that "if it was up to me, (country music) would still be fiddle and steel out front, guitar in the background. Today, it's hot guitar out front. The kids grew up listening to rock 'n' roll."

But he has his favorites among current artists. "I like Alan Jackson a lot. He's trying to be real and get a root to him. Billy Joe Shaver wrote me a three-page letter after hearing my first album and sent me his album. We met and became friends. I really like BR5-49's music a lot. I've jammed on stage with them and know the lead singer very well." Ironically, BR5-49 is scoring at radio with one of the few covers Brown recorded for MCA, Moon Mullican's "Cherokee Boogie." "We talked a lot about that. We said, 'Old Moon would be proud.'"

Marty Brown doesn't need hit records to be happy as long as he can make records. "I'm a guy who loves the Lord, kids and country music. I was born to be a singer. That's what I was put on the earth to do."