All Milton Brown did was invent a unique and popular style of music, then die before anybody congratulated him on his accomplishment.
Now older than 82, Brown's creation — the jazzy, poppy showcase for instrumental and vocal virtuosity known as "western swing" — has prospered, but Brown died in 1936, four years after he and his Musical Brownies band arrived at their pioneering, improvisational blend. Brown's old friend, Bob Wills, became the style's leading light, owning the title "King of Western Swing" to this day.
But in the new century, Nashville has become an eastern-ish hotbed of western swing, and one of the music's chief practitioners, Carolyn Martin, recently decided to shine a light on Milton Brown. Martin, who was inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame in 2011, is releasing a new album called "A Platter of Brownies: The Music of Milton Brown."
"It was really only recently that I learned about Milton Brown," says Martin, a native Texan who began focusing on western swing when she joined The Time Jumpers in 1999.
"But last year, (husband and bass player) Dave (Martin), (drummer) Tommy Wells and (multi-instrumentalist) Rory Hoffman were in Ontario, Canada, on an eight-hour drive, we were listening to 'The Complete Recordings of Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies,' which I'd bought for David for his birthday one year," she says. "Listening to those great songs, we all said, 'We ought to do an album of Milton Brown songs.' The trouble wasn't finding enough songs, it was weeding the songs down to only one album."
"A Platter of Brownies" holds 16 songs, some of them — such as "Right Or Wrong" — standards that Brown recorded before others' better-known versions.
"A lot of these are in the western swing canon now," says Dave Martin, who is nearly as committed a music historian as he is a musician. "So most every western swing band can do them, but Milton Brown recorded them before other bands did. If he'd died 20 years later, the history of the genre would have been really different."
'Hungry for this'
Brown didn't die 20 years later. He died in 1936, from injuries sustained in a car accident that may have been caused by his narcolepsy. And Wills overcame a challenge from Spade Cooley, a gifted band leader who murdered his wife and thus removed himself from the conversation, to become the acknowledged western swing figurehead.
Wills was great — "It don't matter who's in Texas, Bob Wills is still the king," Waylon Jennings once sang — but so was Milton Brown, and it's too bad we don't all know how great.
Brown and Wills were members of the Light Crust Doughboys in the early 1930s, but Brown left that band in 1932, forming a Musical Brownies band that featured electric guitar, improvisation and other elements that hadn't been heard from the Doughboys.
The Musical Brownies were also glad to play dance halls and bars that Doughboys leader W.O. Daniels felt besmirched the Doughboys' brand. The Brownies' sound was fun, beery, improvisational and plenty of other things that came to characterize western swing.
In Nashville, western swing was heard as an influence on contemporary country for years. But The Time Jumpers — a group that is now Grammy-nominated and includes Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill — revitalized the scene.
Martin joined the Jumpers in 1999, when the group was establishing a foothold at The Station Inn, and she stayed with the band until 2010, leaving to concentrate on her solo work. She is also a friend and collaborator of John England, who has fronted John England & The Western Swingers since 2001. The Time Jumpers, Martin and England have made Nashville a mini-mecca for western swing.
"The Time Jumpers, they made it hip," Martin says. "When I was singing with them at The Station Inn, Bonnie Raitt came in, and Robert Plant. People from all over the world started coming in, and The Time Jumpers now are filling up 3rd & Lindsley every time they play. It's wonderful, and good for all of us."
Martin's "A Platter of Brownies" album isn't in competition with The Time Jumpers or England, it's in conjunction with them. It's another shining take on western swing, with instrumental flights from Rory Hoffman, Tommy Wells, Billy Contreras, Chris Scruggs and others, and a killer vocal turn from Gail Davies. Martin's voice is lovely and soulful, whether singing ballads or delivering up-tempo swing tunes.
"The main comment I get from people is that they say, 'I've never heard this type of music before, but I love it,' " she says. "People are hungry for this, and it's gratifying."
Milton Brown would have enjoyed it, for sure.
Carolyn Martin: Press
Carolyn Martin reigns as queen of Western Swing
When it comes to Western swing music, it doesn't get any better than Carolyn Martin.
The west Texas native has been recognized as one of the top artists performing the genre. And she will be in Salinas Jan. 24 at the Monterey County Sheriff's Posse Grounds.
Martin will share the stage with another nationally recognized Western singer/songwriter, Juni Fisher. Both women have performed several times at the Monterey Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival.
The show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance and at the door. You can purchase them in advance by emailing email@example.com. There will be a no-host bar.
Martin, who grew up in Abilene, Texas, doesn't differentiate between swing music and Western swing, although the two are distinct versions of swing. She grew up listening to her father's records of Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson, two of his favorite artists.
When she was in junior high school, Martin said, she was a big fan of Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills and Nash and started taking guitar lessons.
"My parents didn't think I'd stick with it," she said. "I'd already been through some piano lessons."
But she did stick with it and the world is gifted because she did.
When she grew older and was able to go out to clubs, she discovered Western swing. That was at the Ponderosa Ballroom in Abilene, which offered swing and ballroom dancing and music seven nights a week. The house band was LC and the Dixie Playboys.
"That's the first time I heard Bob Wills music and classic Western swing," she said. "I've always been drawn to it."
Western swing is described as a subgenre of American country music. It originated in the late 1920s in the West and South among Western string bands.
It's considered dance music with an up-tempo beat. In the 1930s and 1940s, before World War II, Western swing bands drew huge crowds at dance halls in Texas, Oaklahoma and California.
The music is a mixture of rural, cowboy, polka, folk and Dixieland jazz and blues blended with swing. Besides Wills, the music was popularized by such groups as Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, The Light Crust Doughboys and Spade Cooley and His Orchestra. Today, Asleep at the Wheel and Hot Club of Cowtown keep the music alive, along with Martin. The steel guitar is a main instrument in Western swing bands, but not always included.
Guitarist Merle Travis described Western swing this way: "Western swing is nothing more than a group of talented country boys, unschooled in music, but playing the music they feel, beating a solid two-four rhythm to the harmonies that buzz around their brains. When it escapes in all its musical glory, my friend, you have Western swing."
Martin's initiation to Western swing evolved exponentially when she and her husband Dave moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1985. There she began singing with a Western swing group called the Time Jumpers, which remain a popular group there. While she was with the Time Jumpers, the group played the Grand Old Opry many times.
"What a thrill, there's just nothing like it," she said.
Martin left the group, wrote some of her own songs and had her own band. She still has her own band, but when on tour, it's just she and her husband, who plays bass.
She's made quite a name for herself in Western swing circles. In 2011, her CD "Cookin' With Carolyn" was named best Western swing album by the Western Music Association. Before that, her project, "Swing," was one of the top swing CDs in 2009.
Five years ago she was named western swing female vocalist of the year by the Academy of Western Artists. And in 2011 she was inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame.
Last year Martin was inducted into the Western Swing Music Society of Auburn, Washington, and was named as a hero of Western swing by the Cowtown Society of Western Swing.
Martin's favorite guitar is a 1930s Regal Bobcat archtop.
"A friend found it in a Memphis pawn shop," she said. "It's a great guitar. It's got a lot of character marks on it, but it's a great rhythm guitar. I can just really beat on it to do the chock rhythm."
Martin said she and Fisher will do separate sets at the Posse Grounds, but also will do some numbers together. She said she's looking forward to coming back to California to perform.
"I'm so fortunate in that I've been able to do this as a living …," she said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. … It's been a great life."
While the ghosts of Hank Williams Sr. and Patsy Cline may not have actually crooned into the microphones on stage, Jason Petty and Carolyn Martin, ably backed by the Country Royalty Band, did an amazing job bringing the music made famous by these luminaries to life once more.
WOW! You are one HECK of a fine western swing singer!
Maam, you are just flat-more good!
We cant wait for your visit to the show...
I received your 'Swing' CD yesterday and listened to it twice all the way through. I think it's terrific! AAA+++. Great songs, great production .....outstanding musicianship. You have a wonderful voice...crisp, clear, dynamic and sensual as well. I'm really impressed. Congratulations on a superb project. No one who hears it will be disappointed.
“…a winning throwback to the days where emotion was measured and artful…”
" She takes her time, smoothly caressing the melody like a gloved hand on glass. Martin has a powerful voice and is not afraid to pump pure emotion into her presentation."
"Carolyn Martin really stood out with a timeless voice adapted for both country and jazz standards. This collection of standards, including title track, The Very Thought of You, Mean to Me and Something is the Matter with The Moon is among my favorite finds this year. It's a distinct departure from my typical listening preferences, which is part of what makes the album great for me. The album is like capturing a vintage voice from a lost era with modern recording gear."
One of the best Western and Swing singers today and this album highlights this to the full
Carolyn Martin puts the swing in Western music
As perky and homespun as her songs, Western swing artist Carolyn Martin has been capturing a lot of attention from fans and fellow musicians over the last few years. She will make her first appearance at the Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena, where she promises to have the audience humming along.
The Nashville resident performs music in the style of classic western swing from the ‘30s-‘50s, with influences from the big band swing era as well. She plays cover tunes and original material, which she is most inspired to write during long drives in the car.
“Western swing is so amiable to that because it is meant to be fun music,” she said. “It was created as a distraction in the ‘30s; those were hard times, and it was created for people to go out on Saturday night and dance and forget about their troubles for a little while.”
Perhaps that is part of the reason for the current resurgence of interest in the genre. Western swing and related bands are appearing more often on the scene and their fans are the young crowd you would expect to see at a rock concert. Martin attributes part of this surge, as well as the music’s survival over time, to its pure joy and how it makes people want to tap their feet and move.
“It’s designed as dance music, and it naturally makes you feel better,” she said. “I couldn’t tell you exactly what swing means, but you can feel it. You know it when you hear it.”
Carolyn Martin puts the swing in western musicAs perky and homespun as her songs, Western swing artist Carolyn Martin has been capturing a lot of attention from fans and fellow musicians over the last few years.
In 2008 and 2010, she won the Academy of Western Artists' Will Rogers Award for Female Western Swing Vocalist of the Year and this year, Martin was inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame.
Her most recent effort, "Cookin' With Carolyn," was produced by Martin's husband, Dave Martin and self-released in February 2010.
Martin will be making her first appearance at the Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena on Thursday, where she promises to have the audience humming along.
The Nashville resident performs music in the style of classic western swing from the '30s-'50s, with influences from the big band swing era as well. She plays cover tunes and original material, which she is most inspired to write during long drives in the car.
"When I'm in the car, especially on an hour's long trip, I have time to just think," she said. "I turn off the radio and it's quiet and I wait until I am inspired by something that catches my ear. I have a notebook where I'll jot down ideas. Gosh, if I finished all the ideas in my notebook, I'd have hundreds of songs."
Just one listen to her tunes and you will realize Martin's strongest suit is her way with words. She loves playing with language, yet keeping her lyrics simple so they can be easily understood.
Perhaps that is part of the reason for the current resurgence of interest in the genre. Western swing and related bands are appearing more on the scene and their fans are the young crowd you would expect to see at a rock concert. Martin attributes part of this surge, as well as the music's survival over time, to its pure joy and how it makes people want to tap their feet and move.
"It's designed as dance music, and it naturally makes you feel better," she said. "It is infectious and it's absolutely as much fun or maybe more fun to play than it is to listen to.
"So much of it is improvisation on the spot. You say, `Steel player take solo' and the music just happens, it's not planned and that's when the magic happens for me.
"I couldn't tell you exactly what swing means, but you can feel it, and you know it when you hear it," Martin said.
The Coffee Gallery Backstage will be the first stop on a short tour of California for Martin, during which she will also spend some time visiting friends. The shows will feature Martin on guitar and her husband on acoustic bass and will include a repertoire of classic western swing, cowboy music and original material.
"It's going to be family- friendly fun music," she said of the concert. "We chose songs that lyrically, and musically, have integrity. Our mission is to spread the joy of swing music around.
"We try to have a lot of energy and I think it's something that's going to send people out the door smiling and humming a tune."
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I discovered lots of current musicians carrying on the style of old time music at this year's Folk Alliance conference. One find is Carolyn Martin. When I heard what sounded like Bob Wills' western swing band in the room across the hall from me, I had to investigate. This led me to Carolyn, who- with her husband Dave - lead a really hot band. Their CD Cookin' With Carolyn (Java Jive) swings from beginning to end. Not all the songs are about food, but there are enough, such as "Skillet Blues" and "That's what I call cookin'" to make you hungry. The Tennessee- based band wowed the professional musicians at FA and one listen to this disc will show you why.
Award-winning western swing singer Carolyn Martin and her Western Swing Band will play a benefit concert for the Canadian Cancer Society on Sunday, Aug. 25 at the Camlachie Community Centre.
All proceeds from the show, which starts at 6 p.m., will go to the Society's Lambton County Unit.
Martin is the 2010 and 2008 Academy of Western Artists' (AWA) Western Swing Female Vocalist of the Year and had a 2008 Grammy nomination with the Time Jumpers.
Western swing has been called “Big Band Jazz” with fiddle and steel of trumpets and saxes.
Western swing is a style of music that was born in Texas, matured in Oklahoma during the 1930s and California during the war years and became popular in the U.S. in the 1950s.
It's an amalgamation of the music of the big band era, blues, country, dixieland and the popular songs of the '20s, '30s and '40s; combined with the ethnic styles of Mexican, Czech, German and Appalachian music.
Martin's music draws inspiration not only from the legendary western swing groups of the past but also from the Big Band era, Broadway musicals and from the best of today's composers.
Martin has never performed in Canada before but Don and Jan Aikin of Camlachie saw her perform in Nashville seven or eight years ago and were wowed. They remembered and booked Martin and her six-member band to play Camlachie.
Texas born but now based in Nashville, Martin is a 2011 inductee into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame.
She plays cover tunes and original material, which she is most inspired to write during long drives in the car.
“Western swing is meant to be fun music,” she said. “It was created as a distraction in the '30s; those were hard times, and it was created for people to go out on Saturday night and dance and forget about their troubles for a little while.”
Perhaps that is part of the reason for the current resurgence of interest in the genre. Western swing and related bands are appearing more often and their fans are the young crowd you would expect to see at a rock concert. Martin attributes part of this surge, as well as the music’s survival over time, to its pure joy and how it makes people want to tap their feet and move.
“It’s designed as dance music, and it naturally makes you feel better,” she said. “I couldn’t tell you exactly what swing means, but you can feel it. You know it when you hear it.”
Martin's CD, "Cookin' With Carolyn," was produced by Martin's husband, Dave Martin, and self-released in 2010. The CD was named the 2011 Best Western Swing Album by the Western Music Association while her prior project, "Swing," was named as one of the top swing CDs of the year in 2009.
Her latest CD, "Tennessee Local," continues to stretch the bounds of traditional western swing - in addition to her original songs, the album includes songs from composers like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin as well as western swing composers like Cindy Walker and Fred Rose.
Martin has been described as “… a winning throwback to the days where emotion was measured and artful rather than loud and histrionic.” From European concert halls to intimate venues at home in Nashville, fans have come to know her as a vocalist with a unique sense of musical style, a charismatic stage presence and a voice that exudes passion and experience – the soulful elegance that is the very essence of music.