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Maggie Brown makes peace with her past

By TJ Simon, December 2004

If Country Music Television ever collaborates with the Lifetime Network to make a movie-of-the-week, the story of Maggie Brown would be fitting subject matter.

The story has everything: a musical child, dysfunctional family, mental illness, broken marriages and, in the end, a triumph of the human spirit culminating in a fine country album.

"It'll make you sad, but I wouldn't be who I am without all that," Brown, now 38, explains during a phone interview. By "all that," she is referring to her unusual upbringing that began in the rural outskirts of Ferriday, La., hometown of Jerry Lee Lewis.

"Jerry Lee Lewis was the first live performer I ever saw," Brown recalls. "I was five years old, and he gave me goose bumps. I had no idea people could do that. He was such a flamboyant performer."

After seeing "The Killer" in concert, Brown taught herself to play piano. A few years later, she easily picked up guitar.Brown's mother recognized her musical gifts at an early age. "I was a shy little kid, and music was the only thing I was interested in other than reading," Brown says. "She'd sing and I'd play along on the piano with my right hand while playing a toy trumpet with my left hand."

Under normal circumstances, a mother would have nurtured this gift into something healthy - a source of pride and esteem for a young girl.

Unfortunately, things weren't normal in the home.

"She was a Stage Mom, absolutely," Brown explains. "Mom had a problem with depression. The thing that brought her out of the darkest part of it was the idea that I was supposed to play music and become successful. It was a purpose for her. It made her happy and got her mind off being depressed. All I wanted was for her to not be depressed."

As a young teenager, Brown began writing original music. "I was writing songs - I don't remember any of them now - but once Mama got wind of that, she'd make me come out and sing when people came to visit. So, I became really careful about what I told her I could do."

Amid her mother's clinical depression and attempts at suicide, Brown's parents divorced, and money became a major problem for the family. Brown's ability to play music served as an outlet for their collective economic survival. At age 15, she was legally emancipated, allowing her the ability to play music in taverns for money.

"Mom only made a hundred dollars per week, so money was always an issue," she remembers. "The little I could make playing at bars on weekends really made a difference."

When Brown turned 17, her mother saw a sign - seemingly sent from above. "One day, there was a dark cloud in the sky shaped like an arrow pointing west," Brown says. "Mom thought it was a sign that we were supposed to go west. She started thinking that I'm supposed to go to California to pursue music."Brown adds, "She was a very superstitious woman."

Brown's mother sold the family's home and belongings to purchase a used tour bus. With a guitarist and bass player in tow, Brown and her mother drove west in search of fame and fortune in the world of country music.They made it as far as Salado, Texas before settling the bus into an open slot at a local trailer park. "Whenever we had a gig, we'd pack up everything we owned, tie it to the bus and hit the road," Brown recalls. "At first, we just played for nothing - food and drinks - just so people would know we were out there."As venues and promoters began to take note of her talent and superior stage presence, Brown was afforded an opportunity to open for larger acts passing through Central Texas including The Judds, Ronnie Milsap, and her original inspiration, Jerry Lee Lewis.

"I wanted to meet Jerry Lee Louis because he's from my hometown," Brown remembers. "They told him that there was a 19-year-old-girl from Ferriday who wanted to meet him. I was standing right there, and he said, 'Why in the hell would I want to meet anybody from Ferriday, La?' He finally agreed to meet me. He shook my hand, but he was totally not into it."

Despite relentless touring throughout Texas, Brown failed to be discovered by the music industry as her mother had hoped. Part of the problem was that Brown's mother lacked the business acumen to take full advantage of her daughter's gifts.

"She had all the heart she needed, but just none of the knowledge to get it done," Brown explains. "She was a hustler as far as getting me bookings, but she didn't know how to take it to another level."

After four years of regional touring with no commercial success, Texas had run its course, "Mama said the next step was Nashville," Brown recalls.And so, in 1988, Brown and her mother moved to Nashville. Famed producer and songwriter Jerry Crutchfield had agreed to assist Brown in honing some of the rough edges off her songs. This was an opportunity too good for Brown to pass up as Crutchfield had similarly mentored one of Brown's musical heroes, Tanya Tucker.

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