Bill Browning remembered

This contribution is the first from John “Buckwheat” Green, who we hope will be a regular contributor to Bluegrass Today. It serves as a quick introduction to his musical background, followed by his remembrance of an old friend. He is a former member of Lonesome River Band, currently playing bass with Jim & Valerie Gabehart.

My first recollection of music was from my father, John W. Green, Jr. As a young boy I would listen to my Dad and his friends that would come to our house play their guitars and sing in our kitchen. I remember just sitting on the floor listening to them and wondering how they made the sounds that would come out of those instruments. Mom always said that she knew I was going to become a singer because I would grab a hold of the rail on my crib and pull myself up to try to sing with the radio that would be playing country music.

My Dad must have thought the same thing because one Saturday night he took me to a show, and somehow got me up on stage with the band to sing my favorite Elvis Presley song, You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog. The very next morning (Sunday morning), my mother took me to church and the preacher asked me to sing Jesus Loves Me for the congregation. When I got through, the congregation stood to their feet and applauded (my 1st standing ovation), and the preacher asked me to sing another. I then promptly turned to the pianist and said “Do you know You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog?” My mother says if she could have crawled under the pew, she would have at that moment. I don’t recall getting punished for this, as I was innocent at the young age of 5 years old but I’m sure that  my Dad got an ear full in private.

My first recollection of bluegrass music was in the late 60’s or early 70’s, again with my father while watching the Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs Show on TV. While most people were watching the banjo playing of Earl, I distinctly remember how I was enthralled by the smooth, lonesome vocal delivery of Lester Flatt. Sometime in my earlier life I remember their big black car with great big speakers on the top coming down our street telling folks to come and enjoy the music show under the tent in a vacant lot that evening.

Back then, they would come to your town, set up a tent and have a show. I didn’t get to go to the show that evening but later in the early 70’s they came to our town in Hurricane, WV and put on a show in the high school gymnasium. They no longer had the big black car but were then traveling in a big shiny bus. I’ve since wondered what ever happened to the big black car with the speakers.

My Junior High School football coach, knowing that I liked the music let me help with the show. I got to meet Lester and Earl and was star struck, but they both put me at ease with their easy going mannerisms, and treated me with kindness and made me feel like I was actually part of the whole production. I will never forget this and when kids come up to me now and want to talk, I try and always give them my time and answer questions the best I can. I think this is just my way of emulating the treatment that I got from Lester and Earl.

It was about this time in the 70’s (I’m not a historian so I don’t recall specific dates), that a man by the name of Bill Browning moved to Hurricane and built a recording studio. I remember taking my guitar and walking through the front door and was greeted by this big giant tall man with a smile that I will never forget. He spoke to me and said, “How can I help you?” I said I wanted to be a singer and he said “Ok, come on in.” He said, “Get that guitar out and sing me something.”

I recall being nervous but I got the guitar out of the case and sang him the first song that I had ever written, about a Maytag washer. He stopped me right in the middle of it and said “Come on in here.”

He took me into the studio, set up a microphone, put a tape on the machine, and recorded the song right then and there. Now this man could have tried to charge me the recording rate, or could have simply said “I don’t have time for this,” but instead, he took the time to work with me. This was actually the beginning of a friendship that gave me what I needed at the time to continue and explore my God given abilities.

Little did I know that this man (Bill Browning) was the writer of the song Dark Hollow that has been recorded or played by virtually every bluegrass band, and even recorded and released by The Grateful Dead.

Through the years, Bill and I cultivated our friendship, and I listened and learned from him. He reminisced about his travels and recalled stories that have stuck with me today. One that I fondly recall is of when he and The Osborne Brothers were traveling the same show circuit. Bill had car trouble, and was sitting on the side of the road broken down when The Osbornes drove by. But instead of stopping to help, they just drove on by, blew their horn, flashed their lights, and hollered out the windows at him as they drove on by.

Bill recalled being a little angry at them for not stopping, but laughed uncontrollably when he said he got his car fixed and was driving on to the show so he could give them a piece of his mind. He felt better when he noticed that they had also broke down up ahead and he politely returned the favor by blowing his horn when he drove past them.

As the years went by, Bill recorded a single of 2 of my songs West Virginia Coal and I’m Doing Fine released on his Alta label, and performed by the bluegrass band I was in at the time, The West Virginia Gentlemen. They were also included later on an album by the same group, an all Gospel recording on his Marbone label. For this, I will be forever grateful. It helped me continue in bluegrass and opened many doors that otherwise would have remained closed.

Bill, around this time became ill and was slowing down. One day, I read where The Osborne Brothers were appearing at a local town fair. I promptly drove to the fair and walked up to Sonny Osborne. I introduced myself and asked “Do you know Bill Browning?” He said “Yes, is he here?” I told him, “No, but he is only 30 minutes from here and his health is not good. Would you like to see him?”

Sonny said he would, and he got in the car with me. We drove to the studio and for the next several hours, I listened to two old friends as they recalled and told stories, and got to see them laugh and cry about their times together on the road. Not long after, Bill Browning passed away, but those memories will always be with me and his spirit lives with me to this day in his song Dark Hollow.

I can never repay him for the lessons and knowledge he gave me about the music industry. I can only continue to sing and write songs, and hopefully, pass Bill’s example along to another young person that has dreams of becoming a musician.

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About the Author

Buck Green

Buck Green, or John "Buckwheat" Green as he is also known, has performed as a bluegrass musician most of his life. He worked with Lonesome River Band in the 1980s, and wrote one of their more popular songs of that era, The Old Man In The Shanty.