Personalities | Milton Brown | Cowboys & Playboys | Country
There was a time during the western-swing revival of the 1970s when it looked as if the pioneering legacy of Milton Brown (1903–36) And His Musical Brownies would be entirely subsumed amid the accolades given to the music’s most popular, enduring figure, Bob Wills.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen, though Wills continues to reign supreme in the popular imagination. But it was under the guidance of Milton Brown that the music first gelled into a recognizable, influential and popular regional style. Brown didn’t pull western swing, fully formed, like a rabbit out of a hat, in his home base of Fort Worth, Texas, in the 1930s – others were easing towards it, too – but it was in the orientation, instrumentation and repertoire of The Musical Brownies that the music fully coalesced into a distinctive style.
Milton Brown was born at Stephenville, Texas, in 1903. His father was a fiddler and younger brother Derwood (1915–78) learned to second his father on guitar. The personable Milton sang, but it was not until early in the Depression that he began seriously to pursue a musical career. Like so many who came of age in the increasingly urbanized America of the 1920s, Milton’s musical loyalties were split between rural and city sensibilities. He was, like his friend Bob Wills, a child of the Jazz Age, who loved hot jazz, blues and pop music.
Brown teamed with Wills in 1930 in a band that soon evolved into The Light Crust Doughboys. The group quickly gained a loyal regional following. The presence of pop-tinged vocalist Brown marked the band as different, as did an eclectic repertoire, but it was when Brown departed in 1932 to form his own group that the scene was set for Texas string dance bands to develop into something quite different from the traditional fiddle bands. The Musical Brownies embraced a new ethos. Brown began to hire musicians who could do more than play basic rhythm and melody. He added to Derwood’s rhythm guitar the Dixieland-tinged tenor banjo of Ocie Stockard, the energetic bass of Wanna Coffman and the jazzy fiddle of Jesse Ashlock. Soon after, he added the trained swing violinist Cecil Brower and the jazz pianist Fred Calhoun.
From this point – but even more so after the hiring of the exciting and pioneering electric steel guitarist Bob Dunn at the end of 1934 – the Brownies defined the basic style and instrumentation of what would eventually become known as western swing. Brown mostly eschewed things overtly ‘western’, however, dressed his band like a pop band and played a similar repertoire, though fiddle and old-time tunes remained in the mix.
The band began recording for Bluebird in 1934 and switched to the upstart Decca the following year. The recordings spread their influence beyond the territory they carved out via their radio show and dances. The Brownies were the most important and popular string band in the south-west, and their...
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