Jim Ed Brown celebrates his 51st anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry with a new CD titled "In Style Again", in stores on January 20th, 2015. Jim's past recording partnership with sisters Bonnie and Maxine earned them hits with "I Heard Bluebirds Sing", "Scarlet Ribbons" and the 1959 million selling "The Three Bells". "The Three Bells" went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Pop and Country charts, number ten on Billboard's Rhythm And Blues chart and was featured in the final season of The Sopranos. Jim enjoyed his first solo hit in 1965 and his signature song, "Pop A Top" ruled the charts two years later. He and Helen Cornelius won CMA honors in 1976 for Duo Of The Year and the two enjoyed a string of hits throughout the '70s and '80s that included "I Don't Want To Have To Marry You" and "Saying Hello, Saying I Love You, Saying Goodbye". And if all that isn't enough, Jim Ed Brown has hosted four network television shows and a radio program and served as a spokesman for Dollar General Corporation and Arkansas Children's Hospital. He currently hosts the nationally syndicated Country Music Greats Radio show on more than two hundred stations per week. We talked with Jim Ed Brown about his career and the state of the music business today.
Q - Jim, I keep thinking there's just too much music being released today. I'd say it's hard to wade through all the music being made to get to the good stuff. What do you think of my assessment?
A - I think you're part right, but you know there's a lot of independent labels out there that are trying to get played, but your big record labels have the money and promotion to promote all of their artists and all of their songs. All people that are trying to record, it's awfully hard for them to get in the same way because they can't afford to pay for a promotion team like the big labels do. What's the old saying? Cream will rise to the top. The better songs, the better artists I feel will always be up there some way, some how. If the public gets a chance to hear it and they like it, then they'll force the radio stations to play it. But golly, there is an awful lot out there, isn't there?
Q - There sure is.
A - I'm out there too right now. I have a new CD coming out.
Q - It used to be getting into a recording studio was cost prohibitive. Now, with home studios, that's all changed. But it's still the marketing and promotion that's so important to an artist's success.
A - Yeah, it is. But still, if you're going to be competitive then your home studios... I know we've got Pro Tools and all that other stuff, you still need a studio because of the technology they have is so much better than what you have at home. I know that Pro Tools does an awful lot, but there's still echoes and all of those things that's hard to manage at home. I've got it, but I don't rely on that. I go to a studio to do my recording.
Q - When you were starting out, would you say it was the glory years of Country music and maybe music in general?
A - I think so. When you say the glory years, I think that was the glory years although there's some awfully good songs out there now and some great artists. When you look back at Patsy Cline and Hank Williams and Jim Reeves, all of those great artists, and Marty Robbins, well I could go down the list, yeah, I think that was the glory years. You know I have a radio show called Country Music Greats Radio.
Q - I was going to ask you about that.
A - I play those old songs and I tell stories about 'em. I'm familiar with many of the artists and the songs they recorded and how and why. I think the glory years was in the '50s, '60s and '70s. I asked Buddy Killen, he had a big publishing company. He's the one who started Tree Publishing, which is now a monster. I asked him one time, "What do you think about these songs now-a-days? How many of 'em are going to be around twenty-five, thirty or forty years?" He said, "You know, we'll just have to wait and see." I don't think that this is the glory years. There's an awful lot of songs out there. So, we've got to pick and choose.
Q - When I watch at Country music award shows I'm reminded of early Rock 'n' Roll. There seems to be a blurring of the music.
A - Yeah. That's what they're doing. These new kids on the block have a whole new beat from the old Country, the Country that we enjoyed back some years ago. And it is pretty Rock. In fact, if you go to the concerts, if they don't play Rock 'n' Roll then the kids don't like 'em.
Q - The female Country singers look good, but I'm not hearing anyone with a voice like Patsy Cline.
A - If they don't fit Playboy magazine, then they don't make it too well for the record companies. There's some beautiful ladies out there. There's some great voices, some great voices out there still, but no, I don't hear the Patsy Clines. I don't hear the Jim Reeves. I don't hear the great voices we had back then. Marty Robbins was also very good in his own way. So many of them were. Garth Brooks has had a couple, three songs that are going to last. "I Got Friends In Low Places" is going to be around for a long time. There's some songs that are going to make it, but I still love the old.
Q - Did you meet Patsy Cline? How about Hank Williams Senior? Or is Hank Sr. before your time?
A - I didn't meet Hank because he died a year before I got into the business. I started in February of '54. He had already passed away. I never got the chance to meet him. I love his songs. He wrote some great songs. I loved the stories behind the songs and the stories of him. Patsy Cline, I knew Patsy Cline well. My sister knew her better than me. Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline. There were some great ones back then. Hank Williams wasn't around that long. Some of the great ones died awfully young, didn't they? Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, Jack Anglin. I don't know why, but that's just the way it happened.
Q - You have to stay out of those small places.
A - You know what? I owned my own place at one time. When Jim Reeves died, Patsy Cline, I said if that's the way it is, I'm gonna get out of it. So, I sold my place and I gave up my licence. I said I'm not going to try and fly anymore. If I can't get there by land, my feet on the ground, then I won't go.
Q - On the ground. I would think you've got a fighting chance of surviving. In the air...
A - If you're a pilot and you own your own plane and you fly it all the time. You're not familiar with the plane. That was Jim Reeves problem. He was in a plane that was too fast for him. He didn't know how to handle a plane that fast. That was one of the problems, but there were other things too. These little planes can't take the weather like the bigger ones can.
Q - Even the bigger ones have problems.
A - Yes sir.
Q - Was there a lot of Country music in Sparkman, Arkansas when you were growing up?
A - No sir. If you look at the late '30s, early '40s, we didn't have a radio. We didn't have electricity. We had a battery operated radio and we could only listen to that on a Saturday night when the whole family was there. And there weren't many stations around anyway. There was only a few stations. They kept growing. I knew when we started recording in '54, there was only 78 radio stations around the whole United States and Canada that played any bit of Country music. If they played an hour a week, that was considered one of the 78, but there wasn't many of them around. I listened to a lot of radio when I got into high school and had a chance to. There wasn't much Country, so I listened to all kinds of Pop and Big Bands. I still love to listen to them. I love to hear them and I love to sing with Big Bands. In fact, I sang with the Billy May Orchestra some. We did The Ed Sullivan Show. I loved the orchestras, but I love Country music more.
Q - Do you remember who else was on The Ed Sullivan Show with you?
A - I don't. I don't remember who exactly was on there.
Q - That was big time.
A - Oh, yes. That was big time. Even Dick Clark with American Bandstand, we did that a few times. We went to England and did a show, Boy Meets Girl. We went to Japan and did television, but Ed Sullivan was the big show.
Q - When you were drafted in 1956, did you think your career would still be waiting for you when you got out?
A - You know what? I didn't know. I thought it would be. In fact, when I found out they were going to draft me, I went ahead and volunteered for the draft so I could get it over with. At that particular time I wasn't doing an awful lot. I wasn't touring. I was still working at the saw mill and the log woods Monday through Friday and Saturday and Sunday too. I don't remember if I thought it (my career) would be there or not. I think I thought that it would be.
Q - What did you do in the Service?
A - I took my basic training and I was in charge of supplies. The supply sergeant said, "Jim Ed, I'm going to be going to Germany, gyroscoping to Germany. Will you take over supplies" I said, "If you'll show me how to do it." And he did. I ran Supply for a long time and then whenever we'd gyroscope up to Germany they sent be back home and transferred me to the Chemical Corp. That's where I spent most of my time.
Q - Did you ever cross paths with Elvis in Germany?
A - No, I did not. (laughs) I knew Elvis. The Browns, Maxine, Bonnie and I helped to start Elvis. We paid Elvis $50 a night to play with us. We paid Bill (Black) and Scotty (Moore) $25 a night. That was way back in '54. He had a song called "That's All Right Mama". My mother told me she thought he was going to be a star. So we started working with him, booking on shows we booked.
Q - That was before Colonel Tom Parker entered the picture, right?
A - Yeah. Elvis talked to me about that. He caught me at the Robinson Auditorium in Little Rock, Arkansas and he said, "Jim Ed, I need to talk to you." I said okay. So, we sit down in the hallway. He said that his manager in Memphis, Tennessee thought he was getting too big for him and I needed to find a manager. He asked me what I thought about management. I said if it was me and I had the opportunity, I'd go to Colonel Tom Parker. He said he had been talking to him. So, That's where he eventually went to.
Q - You must've thought pretty highly of Colonel Parker.
A - Oh, I did, yeah. He had managed Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow. He had managed some big artists and he did a great job with them. Yeah, I thought he was a great manager.
Q - Was it tough to be working with your sisters? I'm talking on stage and off.
A - No. It was great. I loved harmony. Always have. With them it was great to have family with you. It's always nice to have a crutch you can turn to if you need one. We still talk to each other at least twice a week, Maxine and Bonnie both.
Q - They live where?
A - Arkansas.
Q - Do you have to live in Nashville? Could you move back home or would you want to?
A - Well, number one, I wouldn't want to. Number two, if you're going to be in this business then you need to be around where you can find all the songs. You need to be around all the writers and the other people that are in the business because you gain a lot from that. I think it's not imperative that you be here, but it's an advantage.
Q - I almost forgot to ask, what was Patsy Cline like?
A - Well, she was a great singer and if she liked you, she loved you. But she was a little rough around the edges in some ways. She could tell you off real quick if you got in her way.
Q - I suppose you have to be tough when you're in the business she was in.
A - No, not really. Loretta Lynn, look at her. She's one of the sweetest ladies. Her sister Crystal Gayle. I helped to start Crystal Gayle with a TV show I had. She's a sweetheart. Reba McEntire, I love Reba. Some of these younger girls I really don't know that well. Some of 'em are rough around the edges, but that's life I guess, in a way.