“We played on Short Vine almost every night — Dollar Bill’s, Shipley’s, wherever — and we’d make our guarantee and we were selling our single. It was good money,” Brown says at Erwin Musper’s Bamboo Room studio in Alexandria, Ky. “I remember sitting in my bathtub, drinking a Heineken and thinking, ‘This is great, but it can’t last.’ This is the only business where you spend thousands to make hundreds.”
Obviously, he was right. Brown ultimately relocated to Nashville in 1990 (“I jokingly say I went to Nashville, played both of my licks, they liked one, so I stayed …”) and made a living with the Falcons, Big Bill Pickle and the Legendary Jerkin’ Gherkins and as a hired gun, but returned to visit his terminally ill sister and stayed to care for his mother. Eventually, he began pursuing music here again.
While top local Roots acts like StarDevils, Catalog Cowboys, 500 Miles to Memphis and Magnolia Mountain have kept him busy, Brown started considering a solo path, an inkling that resulted in Browngrass & Wildflowers, Brown’s first album under his own name. Utilizing original material from his voluminous archive and newly written songs and inspired by the 25th anniversary of Northern Kentucky public radio station WNKU, Brown began recording with the intention of creating both his debut album and a fundraising vehicle for the station.
“I’ve been kicking around as a sideman, and glad to do it,” Brown says. “I feel like a songwriter that was gratefully good enough to play his instrument and be used for other people’s music. The years I was with the StarDevils and 500 Miles to Memphis and the year I’ve been with Magnolia Mountain, my songwriting was just sort of sitting on a shelf. And the WNKU anniversary kind of sparked me — WNKU’s probably been playing me for 25 years. It all just seemed to crystallize.”
When his original recordings didn’t match his expectations, Brown moved the project to Musper’s Bamboo Room.
With Musper’s unmatched technical skills and the impressive capabilities of the studio, Browngrass & Wildflowers evolved from a small self-recorded project to a full-blown production. In the end, nearly 40 local players lent their talents to Brown’s effort, including members of The Tillers, The Turkeys, Magnolia Mountain and 500 Miles to Memphis, as well as Brad Schnittger of The Sundresses, Tracy Walker, Gary Winter, Raif and Sadie Faircloth, Kelly Thomas and ex-Falcon/StarDevil John Schmidt, among many others.
“The idea of working with so many different people, and that the whole thing could swell up to some higher level of productivity, I think that’s the best thing about it,” Brown says. “The biggest aspect of it is it’s a culmination of all these artists that are issuing their own things and they’re popular and talented and I got them to join me in my quest.”
Browngrass & Wildflowers is an amazingly diverse album, from the Americana swing of “Bite the Bullet” and the Roots Rock chug of “Dangerous Man” to the Bluegrass strains of “Almost Gone,” the pure Country/Rock twang of “Wishin’ Well” and Brown’s raging cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” all of it sounding like the greatest album Dave Alvin never made. Brown reflects on how his membership in 500MTM and Magnolia Mountain impacted this album with typical insight.
“I’m a product of all that I’ve heard or done or been a part of,” Brown says. “If I’d just put my own band together to do an album, it wouldn’t have been this. It wouldn’t be a bad album, it just wouldn’t have the intensity of the artistry.”
Although Browngrass & Wildflowers morphed from solo album to all-star project, Brown’s original intention remains intact — to make the album a fundraising tool for WNKU. In addition to album proceeds benefiting the station, Brown has organized the Browngrass Festival, a live event at the Southgate House this Saturday featuring most of the album’s guest artists. Brown is hoping Browngrass becomes an annual event much like St. Louis’ long running Twangfest, also a public radio benefit.
Erwin Musper, whose flawless production is the icing on the project, offers perhaps the best observation on the success of Browngrass & Wildflowers.
“This is not just a CD for charity, it’s a great CD,” he says proudly. “I’ve worked with world famous people and the difference is that they ask questions and they go after things. It’s a way of thinking. When David came in, he asked those same questions. He’s not sweating the small stuff and he puts his finger right where it counts. That happened a few times, so to me, this is what lifted it beyond average. It was the making of a great album.”
Brown summarizes the same thought in his own inimitable fashion.
“We had Aaron Sharpe from WNKU over early on because he couldn’t be in a situation where he was forced to play an album because he was receiving money — it had to be something they’d already be playing,” he notes. “We didn’t give this to charity because we couldn’t sell it any other way. This is a good album.”
When Brown talks about Browngrass & Wildflowers, whose cover painting was provided by his wife Bobbi Jean, his pride doesn’t come from an egocentric, look-what-I’ve-done headspace, but rather from a sense of accomplishment and the musical commitment and community that effectively raised the bar on the project.
“I’ve always wanted to feel this way about music,” Brown says. “Other people have been bitter for me. People say, ‘Aren’t you pissed off that you didn’t make it?’ What do you mean? I’ve made it. And then this happens. When something happens to you in your music, I’ve always wanted to be able to say, ‘No shit!’ and not, ‘Of course it happened, I’m that good.’ I’ve got a strong ego, but I still want to be delightfully surprised at all the great things that can happen when you’re not expecting it.”
DAVID RHODES BROWN presents the Browngrass Festival Saturday at the Southgate House with guests 500 Miles to Memphis, Magnolia Mountain, The Tillers and many others. Go here for tickets and venue details.