By Steve Romanoski
Skaggs convinced the mainstream country music community that it
would be possible to market a style of music, which contained elements
of bluegrass and traditional country styles, to a commercial country
market, he took the final step in a journey that had existed throughout
the life span of Bill Monroe's musical child. Monroe envisioned
bluegrass as a family in which each of its primary instruments were
children. However, bluegrass grew from Monroe's radical artistic
seed and blossomed into a tree with many branches stretching free
toward the sky.
community saw the music's expansion into the mainstream as an offshoot
of the music's progressive wing. Much of this philosophy is true
although there were artists prior to Skaggs who developed the art
of bluegrass into a viable country music alternative. Perhaps the
original was Hylo Brown.
It was generally
accepted that Brown possessed the ability to sing both bluegrass
and country music with equal ability. And his early recordings highlighted
that ability. His first session for Capitol Records produced the
song "Lost To A Stranger," which did well enough
to be included on a few pop radio play lists, Brown recalled, in
an interview with Barry Willis in 1997, "that was really
somethin' to have a record a bluegrass record - played on a pop
station. Of course, I had some fine bluegrass musicians and they
did a wonderful job." However, the opinion of the era leaned
more toward a performer holding to one particular style and not
blend the two sounds together. Thus, Brown may have never reached
his potential as a performer and the fusion between country and
bluegrass was left dormant until the 1980s.
Born in Johnson
County, Kentucky on April 20, 1922, Frank "Hylo" Brown
was rapidly immersed in the Appalachian music that existed in his
community prior to his family's relocation to Springfield, Ohio.
Hylo's professional career in music began when he was 17 years old
on a radio program in Ashland, Kentucky. The Asa Martin Jamboree
was an hour long, weekly, radio program that aired on WCMI in Ashland,
Kentucky. "That was the first radio show that I ever played
on" he recalled in the Willis interview.
He later brought
his talents to WLOG in Logan, West Virginia the following year for
his own thirty-minute program. Brown remembers that "it was
sort of a jamboree-like thing. There was a lot of people on it."
Brown and Doug Saddler, however, held down a regular fifteen-minute
segment of each show for which he was paid fifteen dollars per show.
initial riches of show business were interrupted when the radio
show was canceled as World War II began.
The Brown family
relocated to Springfield, Ohio in 1949. Hylo honed his skills by
working on the local music scene in Ohio while holding a day job
in a local factory. It was during this period when Brown started
to write songs and went on to secured a job singing tenor with country
artist Bradley Kincaid. The job lasted for the next five years,
in which time Kincaid and his band recorded sides for Capitol Records.
It was during his stint with Kincaid that Brown penned the "Grand
Ol Opry" song which was later brought to prominence in
the bluegrass genre' by Jimmy Martin.
Hylo moved on to the prestigious WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, West
Virginia. This was a rather big step for the budding country singer
as WWVA beamed into the New England states and Canada. New England,
itself had a budding traditional music scene, which would come to
full blossom during the 1960s. However, during the 1950s the region
hosted The Lilly Brothers radio show and found an audience for the
WWVA Jamboree. Brown commented that there was always a large amount
of people coming down from New England to watch the jamboree on
It was around
this time that Frank Brown acquired his nickname. The story goes
that a disc jockey, named Smoky Ward, had a radio show out of Middleton,
Ohio on WPFB. Ward had quite a reputation in the Ohio Valley from
his days with the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Brown worked the early
morning shift with Ward, And, after Brown set down a falsetto version
of "The Prisoner's Song" at about five O'Clock
in the morning Ward came up the mic and said "from now on it
will be High-Low as your nickname." Brown thought the name
was something that he could promote and altered it slightly to Hylo
before he used it on his original recording sessions for Capitol
Records. From that point on, Frank Brown became Hylo Brown.
The sides that
Brown recorded for Capitol did well and gained airplay in areas
that were not associated with the music. Hylo remembered that "I
did get a lot of work off of that station up through those states
(New England) and Canada. And it was wonderful." Then he
noted that "those New England states are still good for
me. I guess I had a pretty good draw from that World's Original
bluegrass bands look at the arrival of Elvis Presley on the music
scene as the point where bluegrass became a less popular musical
style for the mainstream, Brown found that his popularity remained
at full throttle. During this period Brown had good response from
"The Prisoner's Song," "Stonewall"
and "Shufflin' My Feet." Brown commented that "I
worked a lot off of those songs and they did good for me. I was
proud of those; well, I'm proud of everything that I've done over
the years. I've got some twenty-six or twenty-seven albums to my
credit altogether." Hylo's popularity gave him the opportunity
to work more time on WWVA. "After my record ("Lost
To A Stranger") came out they (WWVA) gave me two thirty-minute
slots there on Saturday nights" and remembered that, "the
record was pretty hot. It didn't sell no million record but it certainly
got the airplay."
Wheeling in 1958. However, before he departed he had spoken to Lester
Flatt and Earl Scruggs who had been listening to his records. They
called and met him in Huntington, West Virginia where they were
playing on a local television show and hired him to work with their
band. Hylo worked as a featured guest act on their shows. He remembers
that, "they'd bring me on between sets and I'd do a couple
of numbers with the rest of the band." And those appearances
resulted in another milestone. "Later on, why. (Martha White
Flour, their sponsor) wanted to take out a second unit so I organized
The Timberliners. Martha White added five television shows for my
unit and we were still working under Flatt and Scruggs, you know."
shows were not filmed in what we now consider to be an average television
studio. "We used to do those (shows) live back then because
video (wasn't used back then)" Thus each unit had to travel
throughout the south to film each show. Hylo and the Timberliners
worked through Mississippi and Tennessee while Flatt and Scruggs
did the tour between West Virginia and Virginia. "We did
that every week," however, Hylo also noted that, "we
alternated a couple times," but it was the regular rigorous
routine for each ensemble.
It was several
years before the use of video came into play. "We used to
have to make every show live, you know. All the shows were six o'clock
in the evening and we had to make them all live. And boy, that was
a lot of work." In addition, "each town, where
we was playin' the television show in, we tried to work a date within
fifty or sixty miles -- as far as we could get out to the date after
our show." Hylo remembered that the weekly grind would
end up in Crouchberg, West Virginia and then they'd drive straight
to Nashville and the Grand Ol' Opry on Saturday night.
with the Flatt and Scruggs organization arrive just as an urban
folk music revival was taking hold on northern urban centers. Young
college students were reaching out for true American folk music
and discovered bluegrass along the way. In 1959, Hylo Brown's band
accompanied Earl Scruggs to the initial Newport Folk Festival. Sharing
the stage at this monumental event with Scruggs and Brown were popular
folk musicians like The Kingston Trio and Odetta. The mountain music
side was covered by the Stanley Brothers and Scruggs.
Brown and the
Timberliners were in attendance because the festival promoter's
invitation was to Scruggs. Neil Rosenberg commented in his exceptional
volume, Bluegrass, A History (University Of Illinois Press)
that "Flatt, always sensitive about matters of billing refused
to come under such circumstances." The audiences at Newport
by the dazzling banjoistics of Scruggs as experienced in a festival
review by Robert Shelton for The New York Times. He described Scruggs
as a banjoist rarely seen north of Nashville, Tennessee and later
commented that Earl "bears about the same relationship to
the five string banjo that Paganini does to the violin."
urban folk audience was somewhat less enthusiastic to Earl when
accompanied by the Timberliners, Israel Young wrote, in the Caravan
(a New York Folk Music Magazine) that "Scruggs wasn't helped
by Hylo Brown whose countrified presentation (was) phony and cheap...
Let us hope that next year Earl Scruggs returns with Lester Flatt
or Bill Monroe, the people with whom he made his name."
these observations illustrate the stuffy nature of the folk revivalists
and lack both credibility and research. Obviously both Scruggs and
Brown were often found performing north of Nashville and Young's
condemnation of the ensemble's performance was probably more of
a purist reaction to the presence of Scruggs without the Foggy Mountain
Boys. And, if Young had done his homework for this review he would
have known that the feud between Scruggs and Monroe was still active
The folk music
revival that engulfed music at this time was a combination of elements.
Many lamented the modernization of folk traditions. However, this
purist philosophy was often contradicted to suit the popularity
of an ensemble that achieved acceptance in this circle. The 1959
Newport Folk Festival illustrated this contradiction. Robert Cantwell
described Earl Scruggs presence at the festival in his work When
We Were Good (Harvard University Press); "Earl Scruggs,
the bluegrass ban joist admired for his highly technical three-finger
style, closed the program, assuring a place in the folk revival
for what had been a commercial derivative of hillbilly music."
However, in a commentary of the same festival Rosenberg the Kingston
Trio, a popular and certainly not traditionally oriented folk unit,
received "with such enthusiasm" that the audience
had to be promised an encore after Scruggs finale in order for the
audience to calm down enough to continue the program. Obviously
the Kingston Trio were by no means authentic in their performance,
yet they were revered by the trendy folk purists. Interesting to
note is a similar shocking reaction this crowd had when they witnessed
Bob Dylan revolutionize the folk music world in 1965.
the performance at the initial Newport Folk Festival was a gamble
at best. Rosenberg noted that "for most revival listeners,
Scruggs, without Flatt -- was too ethnic" and that "it
was up to members of the avant-garde to spread the word (about bluegrass)."
Scruggs later appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966. This
time with Lester Flatt.
stint with Lester and Earl, Hylo Brown continued to record for Capitol.
However, in 1961 his contract expired and he began to record for
Starday Records. It was Starday that labeled Brown as "The
Bluegrass Balladeer." Hylo left the Flatt and Scruggs umbrella
to embark on a solo career, which included recording more sides
for Rural Rhythm Records. His recordings of the 1960s include, "Bluegrass
Balladeer," "Bluegrass Goes To College"
and "Hylo Brown Meets The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers."
went on to perform and record infrequently throughout the 1970s.
He retired from the road in 1991 and settled in Mechanicsberg, Ohio.
In March of 2002 Hylo Brown was honored in his new hometown by a
crowd of 400 people. Included in the ceremony were greetings from
Ricky Skaggs, Doyle Lawson, Larry Sparks, James Alan Shelton, and
Over the years
Hylo Brown performed with many notable artists. Among those who
performed with Hylo Brown in addition to the various members of
the Foggy Mountain Boys were mandolinist Red Rector, fiddler Tater
Tate, multi-instrumentalist Norman Blake and banjoist Jim Smoak.
to bluegrass and country music are many although seldom celebrated.
Bill Malone commented in Country Music USA (University of
Texas Press) while discussing the country music atmosphere of the
1950s that "often a great country singer was considered
to be the one who sold the greatest volume of records and gained
the greatest recognition from people outside the normal country
music audience. He was not necessarily that person who had a strong
sense of tradition and who had a good country voice filled with
emotion and understanding. In fact, and old time singer like Hylo
Brown,who sang the high lonesome mountain manner, found it increasingly
difficult to compete against the smooth, slick, singers of the modern
period." Malone could easily been describing the
situation in country music today. However, Hylo Brown has made an
indelible mark upon the world of bluegrass and country music. As
alt/country performer Robbie Fulks wrote in a commentary concerning
his collection of country covers, "13 Hillbilly Giants"
(Bloodshot Records), "those represented here created a body
or recorded performances distinguished by consistent craftsmanship
and shocking intensity. Their songs don't flinch before despair,
self-loathing. God, sex and its discontents, insane happiness or
plain insanity." It is fitting that one of the artists
that he covered in this collection was Hylo Brown.
On Sunday February
2, 2003 at the Nashville SPBGMA Awards ceremonies, Hylo Brown will
become the fifty-second member of SPBGMA's Preservation Hall of