Authors: Rick Bass
Maxine and her friend walked on into town, and had to call Floyd to come get them at dawn. Floyd harangued her with vigor, accused her of going out to meet a boy, called her a tramp. Maxine cried and called him a sonofabitch. Floyd slapped her, and the strange fury between them got even worse. They raged at each other harder, over the smallest things, or were cold and indifferent, up or down, as if their relationship depended on nothing more than the variances of the moon. As if some larger force, far removed from their own influences, held governance over them all.
HE BROWNS HAD
moved in a little closer to town. Floyd had idled the mill, tired of the brutal labor and low profits, and opened a restaurant, where Birdie worked nonstop. People came from a long way off to eat her pies, made with her own pigs' lard, not storebought shortening that had been shipped great distances in the August heat. Musicians, in particular, drifted through on their way up to Nashville: that developing stream of young musicians in earnest hopeful exodus from the Deep South up to Nashville. Birdie's cooking reminded them of where they had come from, and what they had left behind in pursuit of glory.
Before and after meals, there would be jam sessions. Sometimes Bonnie and Maxine and Jim Ed would sit in the back of the restaurant and listen; other times they would shyly come forward and play and sing. One of the many elements of greatness is confidence, and they began to get just the faintest first hints of itâas if the breath of the god within them was choosing to blow gently on those embers. Dooming them. How might their lives have turned out if they had stayed there in townâhad never gone back to the woods, but had remained there, in the center-stream of the music that was flowing through on the way to Nashville? Birdie in particular, despite the long hours, was pleased to be in town.
Floyd, however, had more than a little of the Browns' swooping up-and-down fortune in him, glittering in his blood like gold and red leaves. He missed the woods, too, especially in the fall, and so after the restaurant burned down one night, he took the insurance money and his family back into the woods and started the mill up again. He hired a few of his old friends and family back on and resumed his old ways, pushing farther on into the forest.
By this timeâ1952âthere were little regional spinoffs of the Grand Ole Opry scattered all over the Southâthe Louisiana Hayride down in Shreveport, which was nurturing Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn, and Jim Reeves, and the Ozark Jubilee up in Missouri, which was developing Willie Nelson, Webb Pierce, and Porter Wagoner.
Just up the road from the Browns, another radio station, KLRA, had started a program called
The Barnyard Frolic,
which staged a local talent show before a live audience each week. Everyone in Poplar Creek listened to it religiously, and kept telling the Browns that they were better than anyone who went on the show. Jim Ed's imitation of Hank Snow sounded more like him than Snow himself.
Unbeknownst to Jim Ed, Maxine borrowed a tape recorder and made a copy of Jim Ed imitating one of Hank Snow's songs and sent it in to the radio station. No light, she told herself, can be kept beneath its bushel forever.
All that next week, the first week of June, Maxine insisted that Jim Ed and Bonnie accompany her when she walked up the long clay road to the mailbox. Bonnie and Jim Ed protested, but then one day there it was, the letter addressed to Jim Ed, the script of the typewriter skewed and weak, the two-cent stamp canceled by hand, and inside, the warm invitation to an opportunity he had never dreamed even existed.
Just for a moment, he grinned when he first read the envelope, but following that, he had a strange reaction.
"Don't control my life that way," he said. "You should have asked. I know you meant to surprise me, but you should have asked."
Maxine was incredulous. "Do you mean to tell me you don't want to do it?" she asked. The three of them were standing around in the yellow heat of summer, Maxine and Jim Ed arguing as if over the tally in a game of hopscotch, rather than inhabiting a moment that would change so much. As if their arguments or decisions had any bearing on the turning of the world anyway, now that it had begun.
"No," Jim Ed said, his anger fading, "that's not what I mean." He smiled again, uncertain as to what he was feeling and why he had experienced a moment of pique, and then they turned and went running back down to the house to tell the others the news.
He stole the first show he played, became the established favorite within a month, and after only two months brought Maxine and Bonnie onto the show. They decided to call their group the Browns, nothing fancy, and that evening they received their first standing ovation, more powerful than any drug. The strange pulse of satisfaction rippled through each of them, waves of applause that were indistinguishable from love. Jim Ed devoured it, and even Bonnie, already secure and level-headed for a beautiful young woman who had just been anointed a star, enjoyed it enormously, lark though it was for her.
It was Maxine who was most strongly affected, however. After that first show was over, she couldn't stop thinking about it, nor could she live without it. It was as if her soul had flown out of her body that night. When would it be back? Even now, she wonders.
HERE WAS A HUNTER
who was drawn to
The Barnyard Frolic,
and who sought to exploit the local talents that passed through there. His name was Fabor Robinson, and he had made a fair amount of money by signing the various starry-eyed backwoods country youth who played for the
The Browns should have known better, as should have the hundreds who preceded them, though none of the others possessed what the Browns held.
It was like a slaughterhouse. Fabor would greet the young artist backstage immediately following his or her performance, while the adrenaline was still shimmering so strongly in the blood that it was as if the singer or musician were in an altered state. He would congratulate her, would compare her favorably to whatever icon she had been imitating that night, and he would say that he had an association with whomever she most admired or revered; that he did business with that star, had connections and access; and that he could envision that star becoming a mentor to the young talent.
He would have papers at the ready, and because the singers were desperate and starving and in love with what they were doing, they always signed. He signed them under the age of eighteen, no matter, with or without parental consent or witness, and then he went to certain radio stations and bribed the disc jockeys to make a hit of this-or-that singleâone of the songs to which he now held all the titlesâand while a star might be born, a star would most assuredly not get paid.
It shames Maxine to remember how gullible they were. For a long time, things had been simple, and any hungers they ever had were physical, but once the world discovered their sound, they knew a different kind of hunger. The size and magnitude of it, she realizes now, was precisely the size of the world's hunger, though for what, even now, she cannot say for sure.
"Did you grow up raised by Hank?" Fabor had asked Jim Ed, that first night. "Are you his bastard son? You're better than Hank Snow," he said. And after Fabor came to understand that Maxine made the decisions for the Browns, he began working her, putting a hunger into herâor building a pathway by which the world's hunger could enter.
"Incomparable," he said, "a siren, a star. Enchanting." He didn't compare her to anyone, for there was no one to whom she compared; but neither did he dwell on the fact that some of the beauty of her sound came from being a part of the whole.
"I hope you're ready to become a star," he said, "because you already are one. Look at you," he said. "You're smart, you're beautiful, and you've got the voice of an angel. Look at you. Are you ready to be a star?" Gazing at Bonnie then, before turning to Jim Ed. "Young Mr. Snow," he said, and he was aware of Maxine's new-kindled ravening, the gust or gasp of it when he turned his attention to another.
It was like shooting fish in a barrel. He got the Browns, though they certainly didn't need him to bribe the radio station: once the station managers heard their harmony, they wanted to play them anyway.
And just like that, they were owned for life. He had taken their power, had stolen their magic as surely as if capturing three fireflies in a glass bottle. They were so naÃ¯ive, they didn't even recognize the wrongness of it: as if they were lambs looking up with twitching tails and stepping toward the approach of the lion.
Most of Fabor's stable of slaves for lifeâhis contracts, legal and binding, owned everything they would ever do; any disbursements by him to them were to be at his discretion, following adjustments for his overhead and administrationâwere non-talents, church choiristers and nickel-balladeers, barely worth the trouble of recording, much less promoting. But over the years he had managed to snare a few big fish, the largest of which was Gentleman Jim Reeves, who had already been enslaved by a personal services contract to Fabor for years, and who was utterly miserable, despite his success on the radio playlists and in the hearts of those who sat around their radios every weekend listening to his gentle, steady crooning. No one would ever have guessed at his anguish beneath the surface, or the drinking. His persona was that of Gentleman Jim, and he kept it up in public, no matter how awful his life was.
Reeves and his wife, Mary, were only about ten years older than the Browns, but were pretty hammered by the road when they met the Browns, playing with them at a show in Shreveport that Fabor had set up. It was in a high school auditorium, the most people they had ever played for before, and looked as glamorous to them as it did dispiriting and run down to Jim Reeves, who at that time was just beginning the downside of his careerâstill riding fairly high on old hits but not making many new ones.
Mary Reeves was elegant, thin to the point of a knifeblade, like Maxine herself, and a wearer of furs at even the least of opportunities: any faint breeze from the north that might drop the temperature below fifty. Jim was as carefree as Jim Ed, and they hit it off right from the start. "So you're the one Fabor's been talking about who's going to put me out of business," Jim Reeves said. "Do me a favor and do it quickly." He took out a flask and handed it to Jim Ed. "To the next Hank Snow," Jim said, "and to the Browns. Welcome," he said. "You're in the family now."
Jim went onstage first, then called the Browns up, introduced them on the heels and good tidings of his own performance. He handed his audience over to them, stepped back, and played backup the rest of the night, and laughed when he saw that the Browns did not really understand how good they were, and that for now at least they were just running on the power of youth, that they knew nothing, and that everything was new.
Jim remembered those days, and so did Mary. They had signed with Fabor ten years earlier, but it felt like a hundred. They had both long ago traveled beyond any notions of or hopes for newness; but when they were around the Browns, they could remember it; and when they heard them sing, they definitely remembered it.
They took the Browns under their wing and helped take care of them as best as they could. The venues were small and the paths leading to them roughshod; cars rode so much stiffer in those days, and the shows usually required the use of back roads, with the stars driving their own vehiclesâand while Fabor stayed in luxury hotels throughout the South, the Browns and Jim and Mary slept in their cars, huddled in blankets, when they slept at all. Usually, they were driving, pushing hard to arrive at the next gig just in time to take to the stage.
It was hard work, but it was no sacrifice; the Browns were in a groove, and despite the physical hardships and the emotional toil of being Fabor's slaves, it was for each of them the best time of their lives. They had found the steel rails laid out for them and were proceeding with great verve. None of the other mattered. They were fitting the world and yet also traveling just above it, creating a newer and alternative worldâmaking adventures each day that paralleled the world below, but which were brighter, sharper, more deeply felt.
Maxine was getting her nightly applause, the soon predictable standing ovations. Jim Ed was sleeping with different women every night, and Bonnie was content with the beauty of the sound.
None of them was in it for the money, and that was fortunate, for there was none. They had a song soar right to the top of the charts, number one on the country listâ"Looking Back to See"âand for this Fabor doled out a whopping $170 that year.
They were puzzled by the accounting, and Maxine called Fabor up in California and asked where the other checks were.
"That's it," he said, "but you should consider yourself lucky: it takes most artists two or three years before they earn back their expenses and even get their first check. You can ask Jim Reeves about that."
She did, and Jim grimaced and shook his head and said, "He's right; you're pretty much screwed."
On the surface, it looked glamorousâdriving all around Arkansas, when before they'd rarely been out of Poplar Creek, and receiving applause every evening, no matter where they played, and doing what they loved. It would have seemed glamorous, too, and perhaps it was.
But in between those two placesâthe glamorous surface and the beautiful core of the heartâthe miles were hard, maybe not as hard for young people as for those who'd been at it for years, like Jim and Mary, but tough nonetheless. It wasn't a life you would want for anyone you cared aboutâand if someone did get into such a life, you would want them to get back out as quickly as possible.
Fabor was a lecher. It was rare to find a young woman back then willing to tour. It's hard to imagine that only one lifetime separates the difficulties experienced by a handful of trailblazers like Maxine and Bonnie. Back then, it was so outrageous and outlandish for a woman to leave homeâmuch less to get up on a stage for the express purpose of entertaining a largely male audienceâthat the basic assumption was that that woman was cheap and easy and desperate. Even some of their male counterparts in other bands made that assumption and pressured them relentlessly, but always, the audiences and promoters did.