Interview: Jim Ed Brown Explains the Creative Process Behind New Album ‘In Style Again’
Brown first rose to prominence in country music in the mid-1950s as a member of the Browns, a trio with his sisters Bonnie and Maxine Brown. They earned success with hits such as 'Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,' 'The Three Bells' and 'I Heard the Bluebirds Sing.' The siblings disbanded the group in 1967.
In 1965, Brown began his solo career, producing popular songs like 'Pop a Top,' 'Morning' and 'Southern Loving.' He also recorded a string of duets with Helen Cornelius, including 'You Don't Bring Me Flowers,' 'I Don't Want to Have to Marry You' and 'Don't Bother to Knock,' in the late '70s and early '80s.
The 80-year-old Brown celebrated 50 years as a Grand Ole Opry member in 2013; he was made a member in 1963, along with his sisters.
'In Style Again,' set for release on Jan. 20 via Plowboy Records, features 13 new songs and multiple special guests, including Brown's sisters and Cornelius. The album was produced by author and songwriter Don Cusic -- except for the title track, which was produced by Bobby Bare -- and is available to pre-order on iTunes and Amazon.
The Boot spoke with Brown about the record's inception, the history of its songs -- some of which he's been holding on to for years -- his favorite Opry memories and, perhaps most importantly, how his cancer treatment is going.
First off, can you give us an update on your cancer treatment? How is it going?
They're aggressively attacking it, and so far, I think it's working ... I just told them, I said, "I've got me and the Lord and all of my prayer warriors and all of our friends out there. We're gonna beat it, so you just go on and do what you need to do and get it over with." I think I've got the best doctors in Nashville, anyway. There may be some greater ones somewhere else, but I don't know where they are.
That's great to hear! So, let's talk about 'In Style Again.' How did the album come about?
Have you got about 20 minutes? [Laughs] Let me start at the beginning: Eddy Arnold was a great friend of mine, and through the years, Eddy and I, we did a lot of shows together, and we even worked in some real estate transaction things together, and he helped me there. You know, he was a great real estate man ... but anyway, when he died, he left his estate to his grandson [Shannon Pollard], you know, as a trustee to take care of it. Well, I had the habit of going by his office every once in a while, so I just stopped in to say hello one day, and he was going through and showing me everything about Eddy ...
Anyway, he was talking about recording some of Eddy's songs, and I said, "You know, I'd love to do that." I said I loved all the old songs that Eddy did and all, so he said, "Well, why don't we do that?" Well, one thing led to another, and then, Don Cusic was also a friend of Eddy Arnold's ... and so [Pollard] just got in touch with Don, and we went from there. But Plowboy Records is the new entity, and it's going to be a great label here. He's really doing it right, and I'm happy to be a part of it. But that's how it started.
What made you select the songs that you did for this album?
If there's anything I can say to my fans at all ... Just let them know that I still love them.
Now, Don Cusic, he's a teacher out at Belmont [University, in Nashville], and he's a great book writer ... but he's also a songwriter -- I didn't know that. And I've known Don Cusic for years! ... Long story short, he had some songs, and I went through them -- and they must have sent me 30 or 40 songs at least ... and I said, "Don, you know, I kind of like these songs," and he said, "Well, let's do them." I had also had some songs from the past that I had been keeping and all ... I had some of these songs that I had kept for many years.
One of them, I had picked up over in Germany in about 1970 or '71. I was over there on a tour, and I heard this song, and I brought it home. The Browns retired in '67, but I said, you know, this would be a great song, and I called them. They said, "No, we're retired. We don't want to go back into the studio. We're enjoying everything." So they wouldn't come back, but push comes to shove, here we are now ... and this comes up, and I called them again, and I said, "Girls, I've got this song, why don't you all come in and do it with me?" Well, Maxine could not travel ... but my younger sister Bonnie, she said, "Well, I'll do it," so she came up, we went in the studio, and she sang Maxine's part, and you could not tell the difference ... and she also did her regular part that she always did. The song is called 'When the Sun Says Hello to the Morning,' and I think it's just a beautiful song. It was the prettiest song I may have ever recorded.
But anyway, that's just one of the songs. Don wrote a song called 'Tried and True.' Well, whenever we recorded it, he said, "I think I'm going to see if I can get Vince Gill to sing a harmony part." I said, "Well, if you want a harmony part, I'll be more than happy to put it on." But we didn't talk about it anymore, and one day, I was out at the Opry, and Vince Gill stuck his head out the door, and he said, "Hey, Jim Ed, I just did the harmony for your song!" I said, "You did?" [Laughs] I did not know that he was going to do it, but ... you know, he's such a gentlemen and such a good harmony singer. Oh, golly! I'm pretty good, but I'm not that good.
But then there's a song -- Helen Cornelius and I, you know, we still travel to do some things together every one in a while, and there's a song that we've been wanting to do for a long time ['Don't Let Me Cross Over'], so we got to do that in this album, and ... you know, I still love that sound that we get together. And then the Whites came in. Bless their hearts, they are beautiful, you know? ... That's a great family, and there was a song that went way back yonder called 'You Again,' and when I got the song, we were talking about it, and so we got the Whites to come in and sing harmony with me on that, and what a thrill that was ...
We had all these songs, and then we said, "Well, what are we going to call it and all?" And so they said, "Well, you had a good song last year, why don't we just call it 'In Style Again'?" And I said, "You know, what a great idea, that's not a bad idea." After all these years ...
Yeah, it's been 30-ish years since you've been in the studio for an album. How different was it to record something now versus then?
You know, through the years, I've loved to sing, and I'm always doing something or other, [so] I've kind of kept up with it and watched it, but these new engineers and the technology that they have today, it's unbelievable that all of this can happen. When I started in '54, it was only one track on a quarter-inch machine. We didn't have recording studios much around the country; we went into the radio stations and recorded our records. From there to this, it is unbelievable.
But isn't it great that we have all this technology? You know, I love the new technology, I love what they're doing. Although, you know, I still like that old, analog sound that we get. I like the technology of the new ... [but] there's a difference in the sound -- or at least there is to me.
You've been an Opry member for 50 years now. Is there any performance that's particularly memorable?
There's quite a few of them. I remember the first time I walked on that stage. Maxine and I were just a duet at the time, and we walked on that stage and did 'Looking Back to See.' Ernest Tubb introduced us at the time. I remember my knees were shaking. I don't remember what I said. I don't even remember if I sang the song, but I guess I did. You know, standing backstage and looking at all of these great entertainers ... Lord, I was only 19 years old; I was just a young kid, you know, but what a thrill that was.
But through the years, there's been so many. You know, I still remember ... one of the first times I sang 'Morning' -- I love that song -- on the Opry stage, and it was at the Ryman Auditorium where I introduced it. I said, "I'm introducing you to a new song, and I love the song. You may not like it, but I do." ... But to have been able to stay there and sing for 50 years at the Grand Ole Opry, it's a thrill in itself because ... it's quite an honor that you can stay 50 years anywhere ...
[The Grand Ole Opry]'s a second home. You know, I'm home here with my family and all that, but, boy, what a great thrill that is.[/pullquotes]
There's so many great things that happened at the Grand Ole Opry in 50 years. You get the chance to go out and visit with your peers. You get a chance to sing your song and say hello to so many friends and neighbors and all that you have. It's just -- well, it's a second home. You know, I'm home here with my family and all that, but, boy, what a great thrill that is, and I sure will be glad when I can get back out there, but right now, I'm too short of breath.
Anything else you want people to know about the album or your upcoming plans?
I hope that everybody is interested in the album and that they'll hear the songs and they'll love the songs and they'll want to buy the album because that's the reason we do that. It costs a lot of money to produce an album ... but other than that, it's just a great thrill for me to have the opportunity to record and get some songs out there that the radio stations can play and that people can listen to.
If there's anything I can say to my fans at all -- I've got a stack of get well cards at least a foot high here. It's terrible whenever you have to get sick to find out who all your friends are! I've got an awful lot of prayer warriors out there, and I know that God has got to be listening to them because He sure is helping me get through this, and if there was any way that I could thank them all, golly, I would, but I don't know how to do that. Just let them know that I still love them.