Jim Ed Brown,
In Style Again
(Plowboy, 2015)

Today, virtually all of the music that spills out of the Nashville mainstream is country-pop, "pop" defined in the current instance as stadium rock. When country-pop (sometimes called "countrypolitan") first emerged in the latter 1950s, the "pop" part meant something else: pre-rock 'n' roll popular music, specifically the sort associated with saloon (as opposed to honkytonk) singers. Dean Martin, who in due course cut some country-pop hits of his own, was a particular influence.

Jim Ed Brown, who grew up in rural Arkansas, played a significant role in the creation of the smooth country-pop sound. From the early days touring and recording with his sisters Maxine and Bonnie as the Browns (their "The Three Bells," translated from a French pop song, was a crossover smash in 1959) through performances on his own or with Helen Cornelius, he charted hits for a quarter century. That's a pretty remarkable feat for anyone in either country or pop. These days, he hosts the nationally syndicated Country Music Greats Radio Show. In Style Again is his first solo album in three decades.

It is, no surprise, not an attempt at radical reinvention. He plays to his strengths, which begin with an easy baritone, perhaps not quite so smooth as it once was but still perfectly serviceable, and an approach that over 13 tracks varies from country to pop to split difference. Two or three of the pure pop songs strike my ears -- yours may differ -- as bland and unmemorable, but others, such as the wry, jazz-inflected "Older Guy" (written by producer Don Cusic), let us know that Brown still has it.

He reunites with his sisters on the lovely opener, Harry Pease and Larry Vincent's "When the Sun Says Hello to the Mountain," with echoes of the parlor ballads of long ago. It seems perfectly suited to Mac Wiseman. This cut also highlights Daryl Hornburger's lyrical steel guitar, which appears sporadically, and always happily, throughout the album. Vince Gill joins Brown on the melodic love song "Tried and True" (Cusic), and the Whites, who do this sort of thing as well as anybody, supply harmonies on "You Again" (Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz). Helen Cornelius brings her impressive vocal powers to a duet on the hard-country "Don't Let Me Cross Over," the classic cheatin' song associated with Carl & Pearl Butler.

The show closes with "Am I Still Country?," another Cusic composition, which pokes fun at country singers' way of hyping their rural roots, real or imagined, ad nauseam. The singer, presumably giving voice to Brown's sentiments, confesses that he likes jazz, reads books and doesn't hunt or hang out in bars. Besides being an artist it is hard to dislike, Brown is shrewd enough to know exactly who he is: a grown-up without pretenses or insecurities. It's a pleasure to have him back doing what he does so assuredly.

music review by
Jerome Clark

28 February 2015

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