A couple of weeks out from Jim Ed Brown’s 50th anniversary on the Grand Ole Opry, the singer was almost totally in the dark about the festivities planned for the occasion. All he knew for sure, he joked on the phone, was that his sisters and former singing partners would be on hand. “I’m sending my bus down to pick Maxine up,” he explained. “So she’d better be there. She and Bonnie both are coming in for it.”
As it turned out, the Opry surprised the smooth, country-pop crooner with an antique pocket watch and treated him to performances by his hit-making duet partner Helen Cornelius and his old friend Bobby Bare, who happens to have produced Brown’s first new single in decades, “In Style Again.” It’s a prescient title. Even the Browns, the trio he had with his sisters all those years back, have a new greatest hits collection out.
CMT Edge: I understand congratulations are in order since you’re coming up on your 50th anniversary on the Opry. You were inducted with your sisters, as the Browns, weren’t you?
Brown: Right. We joined as the Browns, Maxine, Bonnie and I. They retired in ’67.
Do you happen to remember what you performed that night?
We performed “The Three Bells” and “Looking Back to See.”
I read that your family not only listened to the Opry on the radio when you were growing up but had mail-order songbooks to help you sing along.
We were in Arkansas, and if it was a clear night and everything was right, we could hear the Grand Ole Opry on our little ol’ battery-operated radio.
Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe and all of ‘em, they had little songbooks. They sold those songbooks for a quarter. Maxine and I, we would save up our money and we would order a songbook. We would have to write because we didn’t have a telephone back then. … We got those songbooks, and yes, we would sing along with them. Whenever they’d do a song on the Opry, they’d say, “You’ll find this in songbook number so-and-so on page … .”
I don’t know. I think everybody is destined to be certain things and have certain ways they do things. The only thing I can say to that is that I suppose that the good Lord destined me to be that way.
But I always have worked on my diction. I’ve always wanted to sing where everybody could understand what I’m saying. I’ve always thought that the song, if you couldn’t understand the words, then it wasn’t much of a song.
The Browns didn’t go straight to the Opry. You were on a few other barn dances — the Barnyard Frolic, the Louisiana Hayride, the Ozark Jubilee. Then you visited Hollywood after your pop success with “The Three Bells.” What were you looking to do out there?
RCA wanted us to go pop, wanted us to get with a gentleman and work up a show, do some dancing and all of this other stuff. We got arrangements for big orchestras and everything.
While we were out there, I met with Gene Autry. And he said, “Jim Ed, if you will stay out here and go to acting school, I’ll make sure that you get enough work around here to pay ya to live here, and then whenever you get through acting school, I’ll put you in the movies.”
Well, at that time, we were doing awfully well. We had the success of “The Three Bells” and “The Old Lamplighter” and “Scarlet Ribbons,” all of those things, and like a fool, I thought it would last forever. Well, it didn’t last forever, but I didn’t do what he said anyway. And I haven’t regretted that in any way.
You did a lot of sweet and sentimental songs with the Browns. Then in your solo work you did some drinking songs, like “Pop a Top.” And when you started working with Helen Cornelius as a duo, you recorded all these emotional dialogues between a man and a woman. How’d you find the right material in different seasons of your career?
Well, you just go to different writers and find songs that appeal to you.
I always had to laugh because whenever [the Browns] went into the studio, if it was kind of a pop-sounding song, a pop sound that we wanted, then we brought Bonnie out just a little bit more, but if it was a country sound, we brought Maxine out a little more.
The Browns had such a unique sound. But then when [my sisters] had to retire, and “Pop a Top” came along and “Morning” and some of those other things I did [solo], that was a whole different ballgame. Then with Helen Cornelius, it was a whole new thing that we were doing with “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You.”
Now, your new song was produced by Bobby Bare, right?
Yeah, I talked him into coming off the lake and coming into the studio. (laughs)
You are one of the rare country performers who’s reinvigorated your career many times over and gotten onto the charts during four different decades: the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. So it’s interesting to hear you do a song like “In Style Again,” about feeling out of style. What does the song mean to you?
I have to keep working. I can’t stop. In the first place, I just love to sing, and I love to get onstage. I’m a people person. I love people and I like to get out there with them, and I love to sing, which gives me the opportunity to meet a lot of folks. Well, back in the early days, it gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of girls.
I guess that’s basically the story of my life. I left the sawmill and all because I told my dad there’s an easier way to make a living. And I think I found it.