Sometimes one needs a reminder: country music, roots music, Americana: it doesn’t have to be rocket surgery. Sometimes you just want to cruise along to an album of good-time sounding music. Marty Brown’s new one would be a fine place to start!
The list of ‘next big things’ in country music is a long one.
For a short while in the early 90s, Marty Brown was at the head of the column. Signed to MCA—part of country music’s final credibility scare with Chely Wright, Mark Chesnutt, Rodney, Marty, and Wynonna—guided by label head Tony Brown, and with well-shot videos and a bit of a publicity push, Brown appeared to be on the right track.
Typically, ‘next big things’ aren’t.
Brown’s ascesion to the forefront of the country music hit parade stalled. A few singles, a handful of albums—each strong enough to become Fervor Coulee favourites—and a unique vocal approach were not enough to maintain a career in Nashville, and back to Maceo, Kentucky he went. There was the occasional story, rumours of unpredictability and alcohol difficulty, but Brown mostly disappeared for more than a decade. We kept going back to his cassettes, basking in the mastery of High & Dry (which he shrewdly quotes on “Umbrella Lovers” here) and Here’s To The Honky Tonks, occassinally googling his name to see if there was anything new.
That’s how I found out (much after-the-fact) about his multiple appearances on America’s Got Talent several years back, and that spurned renewed interest. A digital album (Country Strong) and singles followed—some fine music (“Whatever Makes You Smile,” “The Day the Bootlegger Died,” “She’s Beautiful Everywhere”) but overlooked in the press material for American Highway—and Brown returns with what is being touted as his first full-fledged effort in more than twenty years.
What set Marty Brown apart from most in 1991—his neotraditional approach, his high and hurtin’ voice, his genuine down-home, rural nature—is also what prevented him from breaking through: country has almost always liked the idea of ‘country’ more than it has embraced it. There can be no argument that Brown’s strongest material was self-written. Songs like “High & Dry,” “Every Now and Then,” “It Must Be The Rain,” “Wild Kentucky Skies,” “Love Comes Easy,” and several others should be—in a just world—sitting alongside Harlan Howard classics in Country Songwriting 101.
Enough about the past: Marty Brown is the present.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that Marty Brown, 2019 Edition is going to set the country music landscape aflame. But, if there still exists folk who are looking for true, mostly-unadulterated country music—the George Strait/Mel McDaniel kinds of country music—they would be wise to search out American Highway.
American Highway is an album that doesn’t let up. Only ten songs, but what a set of nine songs!
Brown stumbles out of the gate. The title track is a prototypical ‘Merica song; the narrator visits small-town America, itemizing a checklist of the expected tropes (“the good ol’ USA;” “finger-licking good;”) viewed through a windshield; the only thing missing is Jack and Diane. The album’s weakest song, one imagines it will resonate with folks who appreciate such things: from a songwriting standpoint, “American Highway” seems lazy.
Stronger is “Kentucky Blues,” a powerful, heartfelt, and lonesome song that namechecks Bill Monroe (never a bad idea); this is the song that most accurately recaptures the Marty Brown sound we embraced, circa 1991-1996. Even “I’m On A Roll (Better That It’s Ever Been)” is successful—a song-by-the-numbers, perhaps, but one that may just be (truck) ballsy enough to slip onto Bro-Country playlists.
“Casino Winnebago” collects a couple cruising the ‘blue ridge highway’ searching for the next retirement payout. Co-producer and co-writer Jon Tiven lets go on a keen guitar solo befitting this loose, good-time jam. Brown pulls things to the serious side elsewhere. “When the Blues Come Around” and “Velvet Chains”—likely the album’s strongest song and most complete performance—take dissimilar approaches to challenges, while “Umbrella Lovers” steps out of Brown’s ‘good ol’ boy’ wheelhouse, a soulful ramble that is more Van Morrison than anything previously encountered. That’s a good song.
“Shaking All Over the World” and “Right Out of Left Field” are well-constructed numbers, neither of which we can imagine Brown attempting the first time around. “Shaking All Around the World” is a bit of a foot-stomper, “Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na’s” to the end—can’t blame a guy for trying to write another commercial jingle. Utilizing baseball terminology and imagery, “Right Out of Left Field” is a harmless ditty, much like “American Highway,” but with a more engaging theme and propulsive backbeat.
By the time we reach “Mona Lisa Smiles” we are well aware that we’re well-primed for another Marty Party, this one courtesy of a wiser and reay-for-prime time Marty Brown. His voice is rich and mature, a touch deeper than previously, or perhaps simply more finely tuned. Either way, he has earned a second chance at the country music spotlight.
Give American Highway a chance to become a favourite.