In the earliest days of bluegrass music it was the product of an authentically rural culture. The only artists making this new music in the 1940s were country and mountain folks whose lives revolved around the land from whence they took their living. It was a simple format where unambiguous stories were told with clarity and sincerity, driven by the newfound power of the bluegrass band.
As bluegrass reached further from its roots on radio and television over the next 20 years, more city folks took to the music and learned to play it to the point where these days it is as urban a style as it is rural. So much so that when a bluegrass artist today retains that uncomplicated, original bluegrass sound, it is worthy of special mention.
Which brings us to Tommy Brown and his County Line Grass. A fine singer and banjo picker in the Ralph Stanley mold, Brown blends the essential Kentucky bluegrass of Bill Monroe with the soulfulness of the Stanley Brothers, and performs it as though he had just hopped out of a time capsule prepared in the 1960s. He has kept this sound alive the past 25 years by carefully teaching its crucial elements to his band members as they’ve come and gone.
Family has always been an important part of the band. Tommy’s song Jereme plays lead guitar and sings harmonies, and his daughter Rachel handles the bass. They’ve been with their dad since they were old enough to hold their instruments on their own. The family has pictures of Rachel as a wee girl playing “second bass” in the band before she was able to hold the rhythm herself. Both she and Jereme still count as youngsters, but now they tour as professional grassers.
Rachel shared a few words about working with her father.
“Being able share in his creative endeavors is not near as memorable to me as doing so beside the man I get to call Dad. I couldn’t imagine growing up any other way, and wouldn’t have wanted too. I’m thankful everyday to be apart of his love and passion for this music and share in his talent. In my book, he is the greatest entertainer in the business. I will stand behind him however long he decides to pick and sing. He is forever my favorite banjo player, singer, and most importantly Dad.
Love that bluegrass!”
Paul Priest is a former member of the group, whose dad, Bobby, did time with CLG as well. He recalls it as a formative time for him as a performer.
“My time with Tommy Brown and The County Line Grass was one of the most precious times of my life. Tommy took the time to show me the style of bluegrass he plays (my favorite style!) with the patience of a best friend and big brother. I got to meet wonderful folks, cut a great record that I’m still proud of, and share the stage with many of my heroes during that time. Tommy’s still my favorite traditional banjo player and singer on earth.
More importantly, Tommy Brown is my friend…and I’m a very fortunate man to have him in my life.”
Here’s a static video of a song from Brown’s last album, I’m Leaving This Town Little Darlin’.
Short of stature but long on country soul, Tommy Brown is the real deal, at least for lovers of the old school grass. Many casual followers of the music miss the tremendous difficulty of performing this mildly anachronistic style authentically, often leading to embarrassingly poor attempts to reproduce it. A musician must push aside any modern elements of the music they will have experienced, and rely solely on idioms and techniques employed during an earlier time. It’s not as easy as it looks!
The last weekend of May found Tommy and his band holed up in Tom Feller’s Indiana studio to cut a pair of singles for Randm Records. Rhythm guitarist and vocalist Josh Rinkel shared some photos from the sessions
Look for the singles from Randm later this summer, and appearing on their next full-length album as well. It will be his 13th.