Jim Ed Brown wouldn’t have needed to record another note, let alone a new album, in order to ensure his lasting place in country music history. Brown, who celebrated his 50th year as a Grand Ole Opry member in 2013, experienced chart success beginning in the 1950s as part of the sibling trio The Browns, as a solo performer and, additionally, with duo partner Helen Cornelius, alongside whom he scored nearly a dozen Top 20 singles, most of them landing in the uppermost reaches of the country chart. Cornelius makes a guest appearance on Brown’s just-released album In Style Again, as does his sister Bonnie. While the album brings Brown’s impressively lengthy career full circle, it also does more than merely revisit past glories.
In Style Again, Brown’s first all-new collection since his 1980 swan song with Cornelius, was made possible, post-mortem, by his friend and fellow country artist Eddy Arnold, who passed away in 2008. “I was friends with Eddy Arnold. In fact,” he says, “I did a lot of shows with Eddy, traveled around the country with him some. When he died,” explains Brown, “Eddy left his trust in the name of his grandson, Shannon Pollard. He was setting up this label to record songs that his grandfather had recorded.” Brown expressed interest in participating in the planned Arnold tribute album, though instead he ended up with an offer to do an album of his own on Plowboy Records (named after Arnold’s professional handle, “the Tennessee Plowboy”).
“One of the reasons we started Plowboy,” says label co-founder Don Cusic, “was to honor ‘heritage’ acts who were connected to Eddy Arnold, which would further Eddy’s legacy. Jim Ed and Eddy were longtime friends, so Jim Ed was on our radar from earliest days,” says Cusic, an author of numerous books including a definitive Eddy Arnold biography. Cusic’s younger partners (Pollard and punk-rock veteran Cheetah Chrome) have given Plowboy something of a cutting-edge reputation, though this time around, the natural compatibility between Cusic and Brown put the ball squarely in the hands of the indie label’s elder, who produced all but one track (Bobby Bare produced the title cut at Brown’s behest) and wrote nearly half of the album’s 13 selections.
“When I picked songs for the Jim Ed album, I wanted them to be true to Jim Ed’s voice as well as to the country music of the ‘Nashville Sound,’ which Jim Ed played a part in popularizing. There is an aching for the sound of country music that came from the ’60s and ’70s—I hear it often—so we wanted to capture that sound with a mix of old and new songs. Frankly, it’s the music we’re comfortable with, and it fits Jim Ed to a T,” says Cusic.
Some of the remaining cuts were songs Brown had been reserving for just such an opportunity. “There were songs that I liked that I just held onto all these years,” notes Brown, adding that “I Love It,” by celebrated Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter Cindy Walker, had been given to him somewhere around 1967. Of special significance to Jim Ed, though, was the chance to finally cut a song he had handpicked decades ago to record along with sisters Bonnie and Maxine.
“‘When the Sun Says Hello to the Mountain,’ that’s a German song. I found the song back in 1970,” says Brown, “when I was over there on a tour. I heard the song on the radio and I got a copy of it and brought it home with me. I tried to get the girls to come back in and do ‘When the Sun Says Hello to the Mountain,’ but they said, ‘No, we’ve retired, you go ahead and do it.’ But I never did.” The vintage track, punctuated by keening, old-school pedal steel, is a standout and an unerring choice for a Browns reunion, unhindered by the fact that sister Bonnie ended up standing in for ailing sister Maxine, overdubbing a second harmony part in her absence.
Jim Ed’s own health issues would emerge not long after sessions for the album had been completed; as most know, he was diagnosed with lung cancer last fall. Just days ago, doctors informed him that his cancer was in remission. The entertainer reported that as recently as several days ago he hadn’t yet attempted to sing, mostly due to shortness of breath, a result of the reduction in red blood cells caused by chemotherapy. He’s since regained enough strength, though, to make what promises to be a momentous return to the Opry stage this weekend, Jan. 29 and 30. When he does, it’s a good bet he’ll perform one of his most-requested numbers, The Browns’ career-revitalizing 1959 hit “The Three Bells.” The watermark crossover hit spent 10 weeks at the top of the country chart and a month as a pop No. 1, also reaching the R&B Top 10, a highly unusual triple-genre occurrence.
“The Three Bells,” which originated in France in the 1940s and was later translated to English, is unique to the country canon. In a quaint, music-box melody, it tells the simple but richly sentimental story of one man’s life in miniature, as the bells of a town church celebrate his birth, his wedding and, finally, his departure from this world. Gently conveying the sacred meaning of those milestones, the classic song carries a message forever relatable to one and all, though its starring character has a very specific identity: Jimmy Brown.
Jim Ed Brown was 25 years old when he and his sisters cut “The Three Bells” at RCA Studio B on June 3, 1959. Now, at age 80, having faced down cancer, how must it feel to sing about his own namesake’s complete journey on planet Earth, captured in the song that became a cornerstone of his musical legacy? As the question is posed to him, Brown’s warm, knowing laugh suggests this isn’t the first time the idea has crossed his mind. His response is one that scores of fans will surely be celebrating with him upon his return to the Opry stage: “Well, I haven’t lived the third verse yet!”