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Hardship behind the Browns’ songs

Maxine Brown’s memoir recalls how the trio overcame bad fortune to become among the best of country music’s groups.

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LOOKING BACK Maxine Brown's music.
  • LOOKING BACK Maxine Brown's music.
Looking Back to See: A Country Music Memoir By Maxine Brown, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, hardcover, $24.95. Maxine Brown is no great literatus and her memoir has little of the requisite show-biz juiciness to attract the tabs, but it’s a sweet, likeable and oddly compelling tale, like the music that the Browns (Maxine, her brother Jim Ed, her sister Bonnie) brought up out of Pine Bluff and gave to the world 50 years ago. It might have been the epic version of one of their songs. Her narrative is one of hardship, and a recurring theme is that overcoming hardship -– perhaps just enduring it, keeping on keeping on -– is what produces worthwhile art, and, she would add, the art itself is about all you can expect in the way of a reward for your longsuffering. You might win fame and glory, you might make money to rival sheiks and discount merchandisers –- it happened to the Browns’ early-on warm-up act at Shreveport and elsewhere, namely, Elvis Presley –- or you might not. Fortune smiles on who she will, indifferent to merit. She seldom smiled in the Browns’ direction. Rather, they were dogged by obscurity, bad luck, crooked promoters and music-industry executives who didn’t know squat and didn’t give a rat. More than anything else, “Looking Back to See” is a tale of woe. It’s doubtful –- no, it’s a virtual certainty -– that the trio didn’t make enough money over a 20-year performing career to cover their expenses. Even when their momma was making their outfits. They were swindled out of every nickel of their first two smash hits, and flimflammed out of most of the twilight proceeds. J.E. had to take regular sabbaticals working in the woods with his daddy to make meal money for the next tour. Maxine laments that playing the grueling honky-tonk circuit made her a sorry excuse for a mom. There were ups as well as downs, of course — small ups, big downs — and the trio in spite of all did manage to produce a body of work that won them an impressive array of industry-insider admirers, from Chet Atkins to the Beatles. One year they battled Elvis, Sinatra and Bobby Darin for entertainer of the year honors, and it took the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in full throat to edge them out for vocal group of the year. But they got more recognition out of it than dough. Long-term about all they got out of it was precious memories. They lost many of their snapshots, awards and mementos, and their home base -– the old Trio Club in Pine Bluff -– in a gaggle of fires. Their star rose quickly and while it was a long time setting it hung mostly mighty low on the horizon. They grew up and grew old and went their separate ways, and though they remained familially close-knit, and reunited musically on special occasions, they seemed to have no individual artistic ambition. J.E. did a little later-on solo work, but nothing much came of it. The most moving part of Maxine Brown’s hardship story is the first part — when she was the oldest of five children growing up in the direst poverty in the piney woods of rural south-central Arkansas during the Great Depression. Lord God, they had a time of it, as did so many of our families. Theirs was a grinding, miserable poverty with nothing good to be said for it except that it was the crucible from which the best of American country music emerged, in the South, the Southwest, the Midwest, in California, including the distinctive music of the Brown kids from down around Sparkman, who brought it forth from hard experience, and from their hearts. Maxine credits the late Arkansas novelist B.C. Hall with having helped her find the “voice” to write this book -– a beguiling voice with a down-home accent -– and it’s probably no coincidence that Professor Hall knew the same kind of want and squalor and hardship growing up over in Mississippi County. Through her voice you can still hear echoes of his. Searching for Oliver K. Woodman By Darcy Pattison, Harcourt, New York, hardcover, $16. This is a follow-up to “The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman,” a successful children’s book published last year by the same author, who lives in North Little Rock and teaches writing at UCA in Conway. The first book was hailed as a painless way to teach youngsters some important first lessons about geography, and the new one is receiving the same sort of critical welcome. The title character is a stick man, made of wood, but his friends and well-wishers are flesh-and-blood humans, and it’s the real North American landscape that he observes in his travels. For ages 5-8. When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder and the New Madrid Earthquakes By Jay Feldman, Free Press, Simon & Schuster, New York, hardcover, $27. There’s a pretty good account here of the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 that caused such havoc in these parts. Trouble is, that account doesn’t start until you’ve read more than half the book. The first half of it is a leisurely recounting of several unrelated events that were occurring in frontier America during the same period, most notably Andrew Jackson’s Indian wars, especially the one against the Creeks, and if that topic interests you, you’d do well to look elsewhere, starting perhaps with “Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars,” a vastly superior treatment by the great Jackson scholar of our era, Robert V. Remini, published by Viking three or four years ago. When author Jay Feldman does finally get around to the great quakes that made the Old Man run backwards, there turns out to be such a paucity of material, historical and scientific, that he needs only 50 pages to exhaust it, whereupon he is obliged to return to his anecdotes to fill out the book. A disappointment, “When the Mississippi Ran Backwards” has nonetheless been critically well received and chosen as a main selection of the History Book Club, which usually exercises better judgment.

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