Texas Johnny Brown, a mainstay on the Houston blues circuit, is a patient man. A masterfully fluent guitarist whose work backing major stars began in 1946, he first recorded original material under his own name some 50 years ago. Because of a variety of circumstances, he didn't get many other chances to sing and play on his own record until 1998. However, that lengthy wait was worth it. This time around he's gaining some serious acclaim. And at an age when many men are ready for the rest home, Brown is full of verve and experiencing a thoroughly satisfying artistic renaissance.
Following last year's independent release of Nothin' But the Truth, Brown has seen his reputation for graceful instrumental execution and soulful vocalizing spread rapidly beyond Houston, his adopted hometown. Actually, the momentum first started building in 1996 and 1997 with a series of impressive performances at big blues festivals in Chicago, Long Beach and the Poconos, as well as on tour in Europe. But until the CD was completed, Brown's accessibility to fans beyond Texas remained severely limited. Now, all that's starting to change.
In the past few months Brown's comeback recording effort has received two significant commendations and is currently in the running for a very prestigious third. It started in February when Canada's Real Blues magazine (billed as "North America's Guide for the Connoisseur of Blues Music") announced the winners of its fifth annual Real Blues awards. Competing against better-known performers from major labels, Brown and Nothin' But the Truth nonetheless took honors for Best Texas Blues CD of 1998. Given such recognition, it's no surprise that it also copped the Real Blues prize for Best Independently Released Blues CD, proof of how diligently Brown and his manager, Paula Gingrich, have labored to distribute the self-produced recording.
Closer to home, Nothin' But the Truth is also up for a W.C. Handy Blues Award (the genre's equivalent to a Grammy), to be presented in late May by The Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tennessee. A finalist in the category of Comeback Album of the Year, Brown's disc is the only independent production among the other contenders (which include a CD by fellow Houston bluesman Pete Mayes). And whether he takes home the top honor or not, Brown is thrilled that folks in the know are acknowledging his good work.
"Aw, man, that's one of the greatest feelings," he says. "It's really satisfying to get to that point. And it's an independent release, not on a major label, so to get this recognition is a big thing for me."
Nothin' But the Truth is a 12-song package showcasing Brown's mature skills as songwriter and singer, in addition to his long-noted prowess on guitar. All but one of the cuts are originals, the exception being a beautiful instrumental reinvention of Aretha Franklin's classic "Ain't No Way." Nine of the Brown-penned compositions are new, mainly written since he resumed his music career in 1991 (following a 20-year hiatus driving trucks and forklifts for an industrial corporation). But the other two are classics from his salad days as a songwriting musician.
The oldest track is "There Goes the Blues," a brilliant remake of a number he first cut in New York City in April 1949. Issued then as a 78 single on the Atlantic label, it marked his recording debut as a front man. The session took place during a stint when Brown was playing the Apollo Theatre as lead guitarist for the Aladdin Chicken Shackers backing Amos Milburn, one of the hottest R&B sensations of the era. "That was the first time my voice was on record," Brown says, "until now."
The refined version on Nothin' But the Truth, however, aptly demonstrates how that voice has aged like vintage wine. ("There's quite a difference," Brown says.) The vocals are richer and warmer, and the song has ripened from a young man's anguished cry into a poignantly mellow meditation on that state of mind called blues.
The evolution of instrumentation on this seminal tune is equally impressive. Whereas the original recording features Milburn's tasteful work on piano, the reinterpretation highlights Brown's stinging but mellifluous guitar lines. Late band member Charles Rhinehart's organ accompaniment is also inspired, especially his softly contained, whirling improvisation in a midsong solo, a virtuoso display that triggers an impeccably clean fretwork romp by Brown, who lingers over notes and bends strings long for wider range.
The other oldie resurrected on Nothin' But the Truth is arguably his most well known composition, though many people have no idea Brown wrote it. "Two Steps from the Blues" is the title track on perhaps the best album Bobby Bland ever recorded for Houston's legendary Duke-Peacock records. (British rock star Elvis Costello reportedly once asserted that it was the best album ever made, period.) Brown, a supporting player for the label throughout the 1950s and 1960s, penned the tune, but Bland made it world-famous in the early 1960s.
However, on his comeback CD, Brown masterfully reclaims this heartbreaking ballad as his own. Displacing the horns used on Bland's recording, synthesized strings now complement Brown's silky-smooth vocalizing. And, in pronounced contrast to Bland's version, hypnotically vibrating notes flow forth from Brown's guitar. They confirm his status as a six-string magician.
"That was one of the things I'd wanted to do," says the 71-year-old Brown, of reinterpreting the song. "I think the time I spent away from music did something good for me. It gave me the chance to kind of stand back and listen to what was going on, you know. And to paint another picture of the music and how I wanted to go with it, what I wanted to do with it."
That impulse informs the other carefully crafted and stylistically diverse originals that debut on Nothin' But the Truth. The opener, "Cheatin' and Stealin'," is an up-tempo shuffle with crisp horns and tight rhythm work that evokes jazz. "Tender Age, Gentle Woman" recalls the best of Motown pop, as Brown's guitar articulates the dominant melodic hook with crystal clarity while a series of bass lines (by longtime sideman Don Owens) works a groove. "No Part-Time Lover" is pure funk, with a supercool bass riff dancing underneath clean blasts of brass while Brown sets a woman straight about the nature of their relationship: "I'll be your friendly big brother / Your bread and butter / But I sure ain't going to be no part-time lover."
"Strange Situation" is gospel-flavored blues, thanks in no small part to contributions on Hammond B-3 organ by the late Teddy Reynolds, with whom Brown first collaborated in 1945. Here especially, Brown's singing is full of passion as he lyrically indicts a mutually two-timing relationship. Not only does his baritone voice rise to a growl at key moments, but he punctuates the guitar solo with subtle moans and sighs, revealing heavy emotion. This track, like the two others on which Reynolds appears, was produced in 1995, prior to the heart attack that rendered Brown unable to continue (and which delayed his CD project for several years).
But of all the fine numbers on this award-winning disc, the key is the closer, "Nothin' But the Truth, So Help Me John," which is essentially the story of Brown's upbringing, the bedrock experience of his blues. The song opens with a bass riff and spoken words: "Deep roots. Big Tree. Strong enough for my family and me." Then the band kicks in, strutting at medium tempo as Brown relates the stark autobiographical facts: "My mama died when I was the age of nine / Did street singing with my daddy and he was blind / Walked down dusty roads, dark alleys and detour streets / Went to bed sometimes without a damn thing to eat."
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Other stanzas develop this theme of self-reliance and survival, what Brown learned busking with his handicapped father and beyond. The music is highlighted by an amazingly bluesy flute solo that imbues an I-know-why-the-caged-bird-sings feel to the song, a genuine happiness at making art out of memories of innocence and harsh experience.
Brown testifies in the catchy refrain: "And that's the true thing, yeah, to tell you where I'm coming from / Well I'm telling you the truth, nothing but the truth / So help me John." Unlike many blues poseurs, Brown is the real deal. But he's not complaining. Instead, he transcends bitterness by creating poetic, sophisticated music, as evidenced throughout his justifiably acclaimed CD as well as in his special chemistry with bandmates in live performances.
As such, Brown is a genuine local treasure, both as a professional musician whose discography spans half a century and as a historical link to a bygone era in American culture. And whether he brings home that trophy from the W.C. Handy Awards or not, his comeback as a recording artist is cause for blues fans everywhere to celebrate.
Texas Johnny Brown and the Quality Blues Band will perform on the American Music Stage at the Houston International Festival on Saturday, April 24, at 5 p.m.