10/14/19 // By: Lisa O'Donnell // Courtesy of Winston-Salem Journal
Tony Brown liked the applause.
As a pint-sized boy in his family’s Southern gospel band, The Brown Family Singers, young Tony learned to play exactly one song on piano during his family’s act.
“The response was so amazing,” Brown recalled, “that I learned two songs. That’s when I got the show biz bug.”
The Walkertown native would continue to hear applause throughout his 50-plus year career in showbiz, but most of it was not showered upon him.
Brown became a kingmaker who turned other people into stars.
People like Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Patty Loveless and Nanci Griffith.
Plucking these musicians from obscurity to the top of the charts while an executive with MCA Nashville is only half of Brown’s story.
He also produced records for George Strait, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Lionel Richie and a stable of musical elite, resulting in more than 100 No. 1 records.
He played piano with the Oak Ridge Boys, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris and Elvis.
Yes, that Elvis.
This weekend, Brown will be the honored guest at a series of events organized by Eddy McGee, the executive director of the Stokes County Arts Council.
The Tony Brown Homecoming is a four-day celebration that will include a reception, stories from Brown about his career, a book signing and a concert featuring local acts covering songs that Brown helped make famous.
Brown wondered recently whether anyone from Walkertown would remember him.
McGee certainly does.
For years, he has wanted to honor Brown and his impact on the music business.
“I vividly remember my Grandpa bragging on how little Tony was playing for Elvis and that he was from Walkertown,” McGee said. “That was huge for me. I put that in my memory bank and then saw how he became president of MCA Nashville, and in the ’90s, he’s producing George Strait and Reba McEntire and Marty Stuart. That’s when it was like, ‘My God. This guy is at the pinnacle of the record industry, and he’s from around here.’ “
Brown, 72, grew up poor in Walkertown, an upright piano being among the family’s few possessions. His father, Floyd, was an evangelist who formed a family gospel group with Tony, his two brothers and sister.
“I lived a sheltered life. It was all about church. We were never even allowed to go to sports games,” Brown recalled recently in a telephone interview from his home in Nashville.
Fortunately, his father did like music, playing piano and guitar in the Navy. But gospel was the only music the family was allowed to hear.
One day, a woman at church heard Brown messing around the piano.
“I believe you have an ear,” she said.
Brown developed that ear, and eventually he began to play piano for J.D. Sumner & the Stamps Quartet.
Along with the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen Quartet, J.D. Sumner & the Stamps Quartet were at the top of the Southern gospel genre.
“They were my Beatles. My Adele. My Rolling Stones,” Brown said. “If I could get with them, I could have it made.”
But there was someone even bigger waiting in the wings.
Elvis Presley loved Southern gospel so much that he hired a band, The Voice, to sing around his houses in California and Memphis, Tenn.
In the early 1970s, Brown got the call to join The Voice, and off he went, filling the King’s mansions with hymns.
Brown often credits his success with being at the right place at the right time.
The old cliche took on a literal meaning in 1975.
The Voice used to open up for Elvis in concert. Once Elvis took the stage with his musicians, the TCB Band, Brown would sit behind pianist Glen D. Hardin, studying him and convincing himself that he was good enough to play at that level. When Hardin left Elvis to join Emmylou Harris’ legendary Hot Band, Brown begged Hardin to put in a good word for him with the King.
“I can do it,” he told Hardin. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
Elvis rarely interacted with the band off stage. As his limo pulled into an arena, the band would break into the theme song from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and at the end of each show it would play “See See Rider” as Elvis was whisked to the airport.
Brown was on stage for Elvis’ last performance in Indianapolis in June, 1977. Two months later, Elvis died.
He looks back on those years with fondness and incredulity.
“He was the epitome of humility. He really was humble,” Brown said. “The spiritual part of him was really legitimate. He really was a Christian.”
Though his work with Elvis was a career highlight, the ever-industrious Brown used it as a steppingstone to bigger things. He eventually replaced Hardin in Harris’ band, and she schooled him in country music, much as Gram Parsons did for her, teaching him all about George Jones and Buck Owens. He likened those history lessons on the tour bus to a college education.
That time with Harris was a gateway into country. Brown would go on to play with Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill in The Cherry Bombs and move into the studio as a producer and executive, first with RCA and then with MCA Nashville, which, under his guidance, became the hippest label in Music City, the country music version of Motown or Stax Records.
“My eyes were wide open. I’d get a gig and think, ‘This is a really (crappy) gig. But I know there’s opportunities here,’” Brown said.
At MCA Nashville, he was charged with finding new talent. He got off to a good start, signing Steve Earle and producing his album, “Guitar Town” in 1986. It was a landmark album that was praised for its authenticity at a time when country music was losing its soul.
Brown also signed Griffith and Lovett, acts who contributed to what Earle has called Nashville’s “Credibility Scare.”
Brown also helped launch the career of Americana musician Todd Snider, who performs regularly in Winston-Salem. Brown produced Snider’s 1994 MCA debut, “Songs for the Daily Planet.”
“He gave me a career,” Snider wrote in an email. “He really took me into his life and tried to show me what he knew, and I learned as much as I could, a ton of stuff. It’s still, for the most part, the circle I live in or run in, the Americana world. He kind of invented that or at least carried it through a couple decades. Or you could say he was Americana when Americana wasn’t cool.”
So golden was Brown’s touch that the Los Angeles Times Magazine dubbed him the “The King of Nashville” in a 1996 story from veteran music writer Robert Hilburn.
Brown is soft-spoken but gregarious over the course of a one-hour interview, and when he casually drops such names as “Dolly” and “Reba,” he does so without a touch of bravado.
“Reba used to cuss at me. She'd said, ‘Well, thunder, Tony!' ” Brown recalled, cracking up at the memory.
Though he is no longer with a label, Brown stays active in music while relishing his role as a member of the Old Guard, the memory keepers who recall how records were made and sold in the old days. He’s also tuned in to what is happening today in country music and called Kacey Musgrave’s “Golden Hour,” one of the greatest records ever made.
Last year, he published a coffee table book of stories and photos, “Elvis, Strait to Jesus,” which traces Brown’s ride from Walkertown to Nashville.
Now that his parents have died, Brown rarely visits Walkertown. The last time he was in the area, he tried, but couldn’t find, his old house on Camp Betty Hastings Road.
“I can’t remember how to get anywhere. I knew all the shortcuts to Pilot Mountain, Rural Hall and Walkertown,” Brown said.
If he needs a guide, McGee will be happy to show him around. He’s giddy about finally pulling off an event that he’s wanted to do since becoming executive director of the Stokes County Arts Council in 2004.
“This man changed the course of country music in the ’80s and ’90s. He pushed Nashville to go in a different way,” McGee said. “And he was one of us.”