by Rick Moore
Jim Ed Brown’s smooth, understated vocal was a radio favorite for the better part of three decades, in contrast to the work of vocalists of the period like Marty Robbins and Waylon Jennings, who, while excellent, made their names through the cult of personality as much as their singing. But Brown achieved his success with a sound built on melody and tone more than vocal histrionics, making lifelong fans through his work with his sisters in The Browns, as a solo artist, and through a series of popular duets with Helen Cornelius.
Brown was recently diagnosed with lung cancer, and has slowed down a little temporarily. But he still knows how to use a microphone, as he ably demonstrates on his new album, In Style Again. Released on the upstart Nashville independent label Plowboy Records, and produced by noted writer and historian Don Cusic, the album finds Brown doing what he has always done: singing songs about life that fit his voice and personality. Music journalist Rick Moore spoke via phone with Brown about the new album and more.
This album features several songs written by producer Don Cusic, a Jack-of-All-Trades in the Nashville music industry as well as one of the founders of Plowboy. As someone who has obviously heard countless songs in his time, what made you decide to go with so much of Cusic’s material?
He just played me some songs that I really liked. We’ve also got a Bill Anderson song on there (“Lucky Enough”), and a Cindy Walker song (“I Love It”) that I’ve had since about 1967, ’68, something like that. I loved Cindy and her writing. But I just liked Don’s songs, so I decided to do them.
The sound here is very old-school, like using the pedal steel guitar. Why did you decide to go with an old-school sound, given today’s technology and musical climate and the versatility of the great session players on the album?
I just did what came naturally. The musicians asked me if I wanted this to sound like what they’re doing today on Music Row, or how did I want it to sound. I said, “Well, let’s just play naturally and see what comes out.” The musicians were just great.
You had quite a run with your 1970’s duo partner Helen Cornelius, who appears on this album. Why do you think your sound together attracted such an audience?
I think people just must like the way we sound together. I love harmony, love singing harmony, any time I can sing harmony or get somebody to sing harmony with me I love it. She and I just had a great sound. There was just something about it. We had this song we’d been doing backstage (“Don’t Let Me Cross Over”), and when it came time to do this album I asked her if she wanted to do a song with me, and she said yes. So we did. She still does her shows and I do mine, and sometimes we do one together. Matter of fact, we have one coming up together in February.
Don said, “You know, I think we should get Vince Gill to sing on this,” and I thought it was a great idea but I never thought he’d do it. Then one night I was on the [Grand Ole] Opry, headed for the stage, and Vince stuck his head out of the door and said, “Hey Jim Ed, I just did the harmony on your song!” I love Vince, he’s one of the best harmony singers in town. He’s a natural and a great gentleman.
It’s been over 15 years now since he recorded it, but what did you think when Alan Jackson recorded his version of your 1967 hit “Pop a Top”? A version which, incidentally, featured guitarist Brent Mason, who plays on the title track of your new album.
I thought it was great, thought it was fantastic. He’s such a great singer, such a great artist. I love Alan Jackson.
Do people ever confuse you with (legendary Nashville record label executive) Jim Ed Norman?
(Laughs heartily) Yes. (Laughs some more) We even have the same birthday.
I found out they were having a luncheon where they were celebrating his birthday, some of his friends and folks at the label. So I took a box of mail over there, walked in, and before he started his dinner (laughs again) I just dumped it out on the table in front of him and said, “Here,” and walked out. It was great.
So you really get his mail?
Oh sure, and he gets mine. His secretary sent me some over.
Mr. Brown, I appreciate talking to you today, and I’m glad you’re still out there working.
It’s Jim Ed. Well, the good Lord has blessed us, hasn’t He? I think He opens doors for us and we walk in them. Or sometimes we don’t walk in them and we should. But I’m still here and I still rely on Him.
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