Kicking of 2018 with Don Brown and special memories.
This whole first part of the year has been heavily saturated with Don Brown, his music, and his family. I wanted to tell y'all about Don, and how I came to learn and love his music.
Around about 2003, my lifelong friend and banjo picking buddy, Steven Lawson, and I had started a little band called Blue Generation. We were two kids who were always with his Grandpa, Udell Stout. He took us to every jam and festival we wanted to go to. (I'll get more in detail with Udell, Steven, and the band in other blogs. bear with me) We couldn't even drive yet. This particular night we were having "band practice" at Udell's Brother's home in High Ridge, MO. We arrived a little early, so Steve and I headed to the basement to unpacked our instruments. Elvis, Udell's brother, had him one of those tall cabinet-like entertainment systems, with the glass door. it had an individual component for every function: the main head, the tape deck, the CD player, an Equalizer, and on top... the record player. Elvis had a few records in the bottom of the cabinet, so Steve and I, being the curious boys we were, retrieved those records and started sifting through them. What we didn't know was our outlook on Bluegrass Music, and some of the old guys we hung around, would drastically change that night with those records and the hiss of the needle.
We saw pictures on the record covers of Rich Orchard, Frank Ray, Ray Gore, Frank Flowers, and even Elvis Stout. But, they were dark headed and young. We knew these guys as old whited headed 70-some year old pickers who were showing us the ropes. Looking back, I would say that this was when the seed was planted that sprouted into my love for Missouri Bluegrass, later spawning my creation of The Missouri Bluegrass Preservation Association. Ray Gore was there on the cover of Don Brown and The Ozark Mountain Trio- Live On Stage grinning like a possum.
What I neglected to say earlier was Ray was Blue Generation's guitar player and tenor singer and was fixing to meet us at Elvis' for practice. Steve and I slapped that record on and cranked it! Ray came into the house and was hit by his own voice from 30 years past creeping up the stairs from the basement. He immediately came down the stairs and said "where'd you get that from?" Steve and I were so excited, we could barely talk. We had known, somewhat, that he was a legend in the area, but we had no idea of his past until that night. Our "practice" turned into a history lesson as Ray told stories of his days with The Ozark Mountain Trio and the recordings I was hearing for the first time. I can still hear how good those tube speakers sounded and felt on Pray The Clouds Away.
From that night on, I had caught the fever for Don Brown & The Ozark Mountain Trio and the only way to cure it was to find every piece of music I could from the band and learn it. The mandolin playing I heard on those recordings tickled my ear in a different way than most other. It was like the first time I heard Monroe's mandolin. It was new, to me, and exciting. Along with the enthusiasm in his mandolins, Don Brown's vocal style was electrifying. The more I discovered of his music, the more I loved it and wanted to pick and just like him. I became almost obsessed with his phrasing, both in his voice and mandolin afflictions. Why wasn't anyone doing this material? If they weren't, I surely was, so I set out to sing those old songs that Don and Ray cut back in the day. The coolest thing was, I had the tenor singer on the recordings to sing with!
Through the 3+ years of Blue Generation, we reproduced many of the old songs of the classic Ozark Mountain Trio from the beginning in 1959 to approximately 1974. Our number one "Hit" was Letter's Overdue. One of the songs I heard that night in Elvis' basement. Singing those songs with Ray Gore was something special for me and one thing I will cherish for the rest of my days.
Gonna sidetrack here, but I believe its necessary. I'll tell you a short history of Don Brown & The Ozark Mountain Trio, so you can feel a little more informed and acquainted.
The first version of the trio consisted of Don Brown, Norman Ford, and John Harford (Hartford). Yes, that John Hartford, before the "t" and Gentle On My Mind. From the beginning, The Ozark Mountain Trio had an extremely unique sound. The vocal arrangement of lead, tenor, then high baritone stacked above that was slightly new to the Midwest. Later vocal arrangements even included a baritone and bass, along with the three aforementioned parts. This sound continued on to, roughly, 1979.
Some have told me that the first recordings were in 1964, while I've been told 1959 as well. I believe that 1959 is more accurate (based on a 1969 Bluegrass Unlimited article) for the Extended Play 45rpm featuring four gospel tunes. John Hartford was the first to bow out, at which time the band became a 5 piece group. Sometime in the middle '60s, Norman Ford left the Trio, so Don was then the sole original member. The classic version of The Ozark Mountain Trio was then configured. Don Brown, Herman Beck, Cecil Blankenship, Ray Gore, and Bobby Puckett is the band heard on numerous 45's, Live On Stage, and Tall Pines. This is the band that won numerous contests, including Bean Blossom in 1971. This is the band that travelled the country in an old Greyhound bus, spreading Missouri Bluegrass wherever they went.
Don Brown & The Ozark Mountain Trio went on to record The Way Is Narrow and Beautiful Memories LPs. Beautiful Memories was a family affair, with sons Donny Jr., Denny, and Danny all being a part of the Trio at that time, (Gerald Jones on fiddle) and staying for a number of years after.
Don is appropriately named the "Father Of Missouri Bluegrass" and was the first inductee of The Missouri Pure Music & Bluegrass Hall of Fame. He continued The Ozark Mountain Trio tradition until his unexpected death in 2002 (age 66)
Fifteen years after his passing, the Missouri Bluegrass Preservation Association nominated Don Brown for it's Pioneer Of Missouri Bluegrass Award, to be presented on January 5th, 2018 at the Missouri Area Bluegrass Committee's Annual Winter Bluegrass Festival in Eureka. With that announcement, an idea came to my mind.
The Po' Ramblin' Boys have been a part of the MABC Winter Festival for the past two years and would be returning for the 2018 event, so I would be there already. Since Don was being honored, it seemed like an appropriate time for a Don Brown & Ozark Mountain Trio Tribute Show. After getting the green light from Tammy Harman, the first person I called was my old singing partner Ray Gore. We hadn't sang together in quite few years, maybe four times since I had left the St. Louis area in 2009. He was all for it! At nearly 83, he is the last surviving member of the classic Tall Pines version of The Ozark Mountain Trio, so he had to be a part of this to make it work! With Ray agreeing, I then took off and started contacting past Ozark Mountain Trio members, along with friends of Don's.
An overwhelming amount of support and enthusiasm started as soon as it was announced via social media and the MABC Ramblin's. Requests started filing in from fans of the old songs, which helped make a set list pretty quick. It came together a lot easier than imagined.
Being that I was stepping in for the role Don on a majority of the set, I put my nose to the grindstone. Not only was I singing his lines and songs, I needed to be prepared on the mandolin to the best of my ability. If we were gonna do this, we were gonna do it right! After studying every day for two months, the time had come to get on the stage and let 'er rip.
The auditorium at The Six Flags Holiday Inn was warm and stuffy. Not a seat in the house was vacant, as we set the mics appropriately. There were folks standing in the side aisles awaiting what we had pushed for several months and had become the headlining attraction for the Friday night schedule. Needless to say, I was nervous. Our short practice was stuck in my head, where Don Jr. and Danny Brown joined Ray, Bob Minner & I. It was in that room that Denny said "You've studied dad." It was in that room that I was singing one of Don's signature songs and looked up to see Don Jr. crying. I had known that this was more than an average show, but it really hit me in that room. This was going to be a special night stirring old memories with music, laughter, and a few tears.
My nervousness faded as the first song came to an end. The crowd roared in applaud and that big possum grin across Ray's face. This was as much for Ray, as it was for Don and his family. To sing with him again was a treat. His voice is still crisp and clear, with that Ozark Mountain Trio signature. To see his smile and face light up was worth all the practice and work applied to make the tribute show possible.
Being that Don had two distinct phases of his career, we decided to split the show into two segments with his Pioneer Of Missouri Bluegrass Award presentation between. It really was neat how everything turned out. The first segment consisted of Bob Minner, Ray Gore, Leevon DeCourley, Zach Hardesty, Gerald Jones, and myself focusing on the Late 1960's-Early 1970's era of Don's Music. The second half was more of reunion than a tribute and went over exceptionally well. Don Brown Jr., Denny Brown, Danny Brown, Frank Flowers, Zane Prosser, Thayne Bradford, Tim Gray, Gerald Jones, and Ray Gore represented OMT Alumni. They were joined by Don's 1924 Gibson F-5 mandolin as Frank Ray stepped up to help on the second half. It was a real treat to have that instrument on stage for such an occasion.
We were grateful to have Don's widow, Betty, and her Husband, Joe Cannon, with us for the event. Betty accepted the Pioneer Of Missouri Bluegrass Award with elegance and class. She spoke of the 45 years that she was by Don's side and how it embodied his love for music.
When the night drew to a close, a mass of people came to the back green room. People I had never seen before. Folks that had never attended the festival before tonight. Most of these people were part of The Brown family in some way. They had specifically came to Eureka to see Don awarded and honored. A family reunion took place that night, and I was glad to be there to witness all the love. Don Brown was loved by all, but more so by his family. Nights like these make me love my family more and gives me hope that what we are doing with MBPA is worth it! I feel like my Bluegrass family has grown even larger since that night at The Six Flags Holiday Inn.
I couldnt have asked for a better way to start off 2018!
(photo credits from event: The Bluegrass Shack & Myra Litel)