Dave Martin, Nashville bassist and producer serves up a tasty treat with “Carolyn Martin, A Platter of Brownies”, an award-winning tribute to the music of the late Milton Brown, the acknowledged “Father of Western Swing”. The album features the voice of Dave’s amazing wife and musical partner, Carolyn, who brings her best to this sweet historical journey back to the beginnings of Western Swing.
By: Jack Beal
Dave and Carolyn love Western Swing music….and they are masters of the genre. Their recordings have won accolades including Western Swing Album of the Year and Western Swing Song of the Year. Each of their last four CDs spent months at the top of Western Way Magazine’s Western Swing Chart. Texas born Carolyn is a member of the Texas Western Swing Hall Of Fame. She was also inducted into the Northwest Western Swing Music Society’s Hall of Fame in 2014 and the Western Swing Society of the Southwest’s Hall of Fame in 2015. In 2014, the Cowtown Society of Western Music named Carolyn a “Hero of Western Swing”, and Carolyn was the recipient of the Academy of Western Artists’ Will Rogers award as the Western Swing Female Vocalist of the Year in 2008, 2010 and 2014.
The idea for this album, “A Platter of Brownies”, was hatched while Dave and Carolyn were on tour in Canada. Carolyn had given Dave “The Complete Recordings of Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies” as a birthday present. While driving around during a tour in Ontario, Dave and Carolyn along with bandmates Rory Hoffman and the late great drummer Tommy Wells listened to the collection and decided then and there that the world would appreciate an album showcasing these marvelous old tunes. Carolyn and her band mates were just the folks to do it justice.
A bit of a history lesson at this point will help in understanding the influence of Milton Brown on American music. Dave is an excellent musical historian and shared his research in the album’s liner notes. With his kind permission, I share his findings here:
“On the evening of September 19, 1932, Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies broadcast their first show on Fort Worth’s KTAT radio. Brown had played his last show as a member of Fort Worth’s Light Crust Doughboys only two days earlier. Over the next four years, this group would create the style of music we now know as western swing.
In 1932, the Light Crust Doughboys were Texas’ best known string band. Their daily noontime broadcast on Fort Worth’s WBAP radio and their numerous personal appearances throughout the state as representatives of the Burrus Mills and Elevator Company’s Light Crust Flour brand had made them, in less than two years, a household name throughout the state. The Doughboys brought an exciting new sound to Texas combining Bob Wills’ breakdown fiddle style with the beat of New Orleans style “hot bands” with its heavier rhythm and more contemporary sound. Most Texas string bands of the time were instrumental groups, so Brown’s smooth, sophisticated vocals were a major departure from both the string band tradition and the “dry and dusty sound” of the original cowboy singers most often heard on local radio programs.
Despite the presence of Milton Brown and Bob Wills, there are a couple of reasons that the original Light Crust Doughboys should not be considered the first western swing band: a defining element of Western Swing is improvisation – and while Bob Wills was a fine breakdown fiddler who loved jazz, he could not improvise. (The Doughboys later developed into a fine western swing band, of course, and Wills’ later groups invariably included fiddle players who were adept improvisers). The other reason is that western swing is dance music, and the Light Crust Doughboys did not perform in bars or dance halls. Their employer, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel felt that it would give Light Crust Flour a bad name if the group was associated with those types of places. (This doesn’t mean that the members of the Doughboys didn’t play dances- it simply meant that they didn’t play dances as the “Light Crust Doughboys”). O’Daniels stricture against playing for dances was a bone of contention between the musicians and their employer, and O’Daniels edict played a role in both Brown’s decision to leave and, some time later, in Bob Wills’ departure.
The Musical Brownies built on the Doughboys’ string band tradition but added a number of seemingly disparate elements-old fiddle tunes, the popular music of the day, ethnic music from Texas’ German, Czech and Hispanic communities, blues and jazz from the African-American tradition and above all, a strong dance beat- melding them into a unified whole. Above all, the Musical Brownies also added the element of improvisation, the lynchpin of western swing, to their performances.
The Musical Brownies developed not only the instrumentation that would characterize western swing as we know it, they developed the basic repertoire of the style. The Musical Brownies were the first string band to add a piano, (Fred “Papa” Calhoun in the fall of 1932), the first to use twin fiddles, (Jesse Ashlock and Cecil Brower by early 1933) and the first to use an electric steel guitar (Bob Dunn, in late 1934).
The songs the Musical Brownies performed at their dances became the standard repertoire for the western swing groups who followed (and in many cases, emulated) Brown’s band, including “Right Or Wrong”, “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”, “Some Of These Days” and “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)”. According to Milton’s brother Roy Lee Brown, Milton and His Musical Brownies were the first western swing group to record these songs and dozens more. Even songs that folks today think of as “Bob Wills songs like, “Nancy Jane”, “Bring It On Down To My House”, “Corrina Corrina” and “Yes Sir” were recorded by the Musical Brownies before they were recorded by Wills and the Texas Playboys or by any of the other western swing groups that appeared in the 1930’s.
As western swing matured in the 1940s and 1950s other musical genres- the music of the big bands, western music as popularized by Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and groups like the Sons of the Pioneers, pop music of the day and even the birth of rock and roll-had an influence on western swing, and western swing has in turn had an impact on those genres. While western swing groups recorded big band and pop songs like “How High The Moon” and “Across The Alley From The Alamo”, artists as disparate as Bing Crosby, Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley have recorded Bob Wills songs. Without the seminal contributions of Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, western swing (or something much like it) would still have developed, but it would certainly have developed along other paths.
At the time of Milton Brown’s death after an April 1936 automobile accident, the Musical Brownies were Texas’ preeminent western swing band, and Brown was making plans to expand the group’s reach beyond its Fort Worth base. He had been working on a deal to make a number of short films (similar to today’s music videos) with the Brownies, and perhaps most important, he had been in negotiation with Republic Pictures about appearing in the upcoming Gene Autry movie, “Oh Susannah!” (After Milton Brown’s death, the Light Crust Doughboys were hired for the movie). Though the Musical Brownies continued to perform and even recorded after Milton’s death, the group disbanded within a year. The loss of Milton Brown’s voice, stage presence and business acumen were too much for the group to overcome. Had Brown lived, its likely that the history of Western Swing would have been much different. Brown richly deserves recognition as the “Father of Western Swing”.”
Milton Brown recorded over 200 songs during his lifetime, so when Dave, Carolyn and the band decided to make the Platter of Brownies record, they discovered that the job was not so much finding sufficient Brownies material for an album, (there was indeed plenty of great songs to choose from), but rather deciding upon which songs to discard….not an easy task. In the end, the 16 songs on the album represent the Brownies varied repertoire and do honor to the man and his music. These gems include, “Right or Wrong”, Sittin’ On Top Of The World”, Who’s Sorry Now”, Sweet Georgia Brown”, I’m Confessin’” along with a host of other great dance tunes.
These old classics are lovingly recreated with care and outstanding musicianship. Carolyn explained, “Our goal was not to duplicate the sound of the original recordings; our arrangements, which were group efforts done in the studio immediately prior to recording, were fashioned to suit our inclinations and musical tastes while trying to retain the energy and spirit of the Brownies’ wonderful versions.” Dave says, “These are upbeat happy songs meant for dance halls….. and they are fun to play!”
Dave gives much of the credit for this successful project to the musicians who contributed to the album. “As a producer, I try to surround myself with the best players…..and then listen to them!”..… certainly great advice for any producer. The stellar cast of western swing pros included the incomparable drummer Tommy Wells, whose smooth brush work may be heard throughout. (Dave and Carolyn dedicated the album to his memory, a beautiful and altogether fitting gesture). Other instrumentalists and vocalists included Rory Hoffman, Johnny Cox, Ranger Doug, Billy Contreras, Hoot Hester, Aaron Till, Chris Scruggs, John England, Jerry Krahn, Joey Miskulin, Eric Lewis, Gail Davies and of course Dave Martin himself swinging hard on every track with his big ole upright bass!
Dave recorded the album at his purpose-built studio, Java Jive, located on some peaceful acreage just northwest of Nashville. Dave built the 2000 square-foot facility with ensemble recording in mind. “Music is a conversation between musicians, and I wanted rooms large enough for musicians to gather comfortably and have such conversations”. The result is a state-of-the-art recording studio where over a dozen musicians can record at the same time. Dave does it all…..recording, editing, mixing, tuning and mastering. Basic tracking for A Platter of Brownies was recorded during four sessions over a period of just two days, with overdubs spread out over the following week or two.
Dave records with an early 1960’s Juzek upright strung with D’Addario Helicores. For road gigs, he plays a Chadwick Folding Bass – also with Helicores – plugged into a Fishman Full Circle pickup , then a Baggs Paracoustic DI and finally into a Fender Bassman TV Twelve Amplifier. “I’m not sure what I’ll do whenever I blow this amp up”, Dave says, “It’s the perfect amp for what I do on upright gigs. The tone works great and its retro look is perfect for Carolyn’s gig and the theatrical shows I do, and even though it’s only 150 watts, that’s more than enough for those situations.” In making the Platter of Brownies album, Dave recorded the Juzek with a U47 and an AEA R84, into two channels of Great River NV preamps and finally, a pair of Tube Tech CL-1B’s.
A Platter of Brownies has become one of the favorite albums in my collection. If someone wants to hear what pure western swing sounds like…..play this record for them. This album defines the genre. Carolyn and Dave Martin are justifiably proud of this album and we are sure glad they made it! (By the way, Carolyn really did bake the brownies depicted on the album cover……all that talent and she can cook too! Quite a catch, Dave!)
Learn more about Carolyn at www.carolynmartinmusic.com.
Dave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.