Everyone loves a good comeback story, especially as they continue being written before our eyes.
In just under a two-year span at the close of the 1980s, Jann Browne was dominating country airwaves with her two top twenty singles “You Ain’t Down Home” and “Tell Me Why.” Though her flame was burning bright after the release of her debut album, named after the latter single, success was harder to come by with its follow up. Left without a record deal, Browne didn’t sit idly for long, and to date, has released four albums since her second and final major label album, including 2020’s Arrow, her first in nearly thirteen years.
However, before her artistic journey began, Browne was drawing influence from a myriad of artists, ranging from Carole King to Gram Parsons to The Beatles and Motown and beyond, all the while, fantasizing about making a career in music a reality.
“It was my fantasy growing up, and the closer I got to graduating high school, the stronger the dream and intent became,” says Browne. “I didn’t want to go to college, but I didn’t know where to start to make a music career a reality. And besides that, I was very shy and timid singing in front of people.”
Eventually, Browne found her start by packing up and moving from her native Indiana to California, as she began connecting with the artists and scene in The Golden State.
“My mom lived in California and kept encouraging me to move west because there were a lot of places to play. My first band and I played in the midwest and deep south. I wasn’t so sure I was a country singer, and Nashville scared me, so we moved west,” says Browne. “Because of my mom’s record collection, I was more in tune with west coast country artists while growing up. When I latched onto Emmylou, she was living in L.A. and I was so intrigued by the whole Gram Parsons era, Ronstadt, the Eagles and then Elite Hotel. And then I became familiar with the Bakersfield Sound, which is what I listened to before it had a name, so I felt like I fit and belonged in the wild west.”
Three years after making her move, after opening a show for Asleep at the Wheel at a club in California, a dash of courage from Browne led to landing a slot performing with the group for two years.
“I was a huge fan of Asleep at the Wheel back in the late 70s. My then steel player owned a record store and was continually turning me on to new bands. I opened for The Wheel at the Palomino Club in Hollywood. When their female singer, Chris, didn’t show back on stage for the encore, my friends encouraged me to jump up and sing her part,” says Browne. “To this day, I can’t believe I did without an invitation. The following morning I got a call from their road manager asking if I could fly to Santa Barbara because Chris had quit and they wanted me to finish out the tour. That turned into two years (1981-1983) worth of 340 days on the road per year. It gave a whole new meaning to road chops. I was the only female on the bus with eleven dudes.”
After leaving Asleep at the Wheel to be home in California and focus on getting a record deal, Curb Records caught wind of Browne through mutual connections and made her dream come true.
“I was playing in a honky tonk called Swallows Inn with a band called the Gizzard Brothers. Steve Fishell, Emmylou’s steel player, would occasionally come play steel for us,” says Browne. “He and his wife, Tracy Gershon, approached me about managing and producing me. Curb Records gave us a few bucks for demos and the rest is history.”
Prior to the release of her debut album on Curb Records, the label release two singles, “You Ain’t Down Home” and “Tell Me Why,” both of which earned top twenty status, earning Browne the “Female Entertainer of the Year” award from the California Country Music Association.
“Seeing my songs chart and receiving those awards gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment,” says Browne. “I worked hard for those things to happen. It wasn’t just me, it really does take a village.”
Though she already had a great deal of success under her belt, Browne says she feels that the label’s release strategy had a negative effect on her career, and by single number three, “Mexican Wind,” she wasn’t feeling the same support that she had previously felt, though the accompanying music video peaked at number one on CMT and featured background vocals from the great Emmylou Harris.
“I had already had two successful hits on the radio before they even allowed me to do an album, which really hurt my career,” says Browne. “By the third single, they didn’t seem too interested in what I was doing.”
When she released her sophomore album for Curb, It Only Hurts When I Laugh, just over a year later, Browne says the support was almost non-existent.
“I like that album much more than the first. I was much more comfortable in the studio by then,” says Browne. “By the second album release, no one did much of anything to keep it alive. It barely existed in the music world. My label was yawning; I felt like a tax write off.”
With that change in support, Browne’s feelings towards radio shifted as well, feeling as if she wanted to take back the reins on her music and creativity.
“I was growing ever so uncomfortable with being a radio artist that sang what program directors wanted to hear and as a songwriter that was expected to write hits as opposed to what or how I felt,” says Browne. “I felt a lot of the reasons they signed me were being stripped away.”
In an interview with the LA Times in 1989, Browne mentions that record executive had tried to steer her more towards a polished, pop-country sound. She says it was that, as well as the lack of support from her record label and the formulaic musical whirlwind she was thrust in to that led her to ask to be released from Curb Records, with whom Browne admits to feeling no ill-will.
“A more polished, pop-country sound meant more money to the label and everyone else that was putting me on the white horse to ride. They felt I had a radio friendly sound, so that’s what we pursued. But I grew tired of doing songs I didn’t want to do and a label thinking I should’ve been more Tanya Tucker-ish. I didn’t see myself as that at all; I wanted more of my songwriting to appear on my albums,” says Browne. “I just felt like I became ‘another chick singer’ when I moved to Nashville. I was signed with Sony Tree Publishing as a songwriter, and then with Barbara Orbison’s Still Working music publishing company as a writer. I disliked co-writing in a cubicle with people I didn’t know and I just grew tired of the whole Nashville scene. I truly missed the west coast, so I asked to be released from my record deal and I was told I would never worked Nashville again. They pretty much got that right.”
After taking a two-year hiatus, Browne received interest from a European promoter, which culminated in the release of her third album, Count Me In, and allowed her to extensively tour Europe.
“After I left Nashville, I sat on my couch for two years wondering what was next. I ended up getting a call from a promoter in Switzerland that wanted to resurrect my career. They gave me a bit of money to record Count Me In, and I then began to tour quite a bit in Europe, which I loved! I made it a point to tour there as much as I could to establish a name for myself,” says Browne. “I loved the Europeans and how open they were to keeping traditional country music alive, as well as what it morphed into. One minute, I’d hear Ella Fitzgerald on a radio station, then a Beatles song, then a Swiss song and then me. What a remarkably refreshing change from American stock stations.”
Browne took those various sounds and turned them in to her next album, Missed Me By a Mile, released in 2001. Browne says the album, a sonic blend between country, alternative, roots and rock music, along with its predecessor, were the truest representations of herself as an artist at that time.
“Count Me In and Missed Be By a Mile are who I was trying to become while in Nashville. The Count Me In album was one of my assurances that leaving Nashville was the right thing to do. It was voted by the L.A. Times as album of the year, tied with Neil Young and Johnny Cash. That was my kind of musical company,” says Browne. “I love traditional country music. I love its honesty and integrity, and I will never lose sight of my bluegrass and real country roots. But I also loved the Beatles and the Supremes and 60’s and 70’s pop, so why not integrate it all?”
Browne says she also takes pride in is the fact that she was a writer on each of the ten songs on Missed Me By a Mile.
“My dream all along was to write or co-write all of the songs on my albums,” says Browne. “I’m not saying I’m a great writer, I am saying that I continue to get better and IF it is my album, shouldn’t I say what goes on there?”
Never leaving her traditional country roots behind, 2007 brought the release of Buckin’ Around, Browne’s tribute to the influence Buck Owens had on her music.
“My mother was a huge Buck fan, so I cut my teeth on his music from her stockpile of music. I met Buck a couple of times. Once at his radio station and once at the ACM award show. We kind of became buds. He laughed when I told him my mom was a stalker and once hid behind a bush in Lexington, Kentucky waiting for Don Rich to walk out from their show so she could jump out and lip lock him, (yes,that’s a true story),” Browne says with a laugh. “It was on the way home from Buck’s funeral in Bakersfield that my guitar player at the time, Matt and I decided to do a tribute album to honor Buck and his music from a female perspective.”
After Buckin’ Around, it was more than a decade before Browne released its follow up album. As February of 2020 came to a close, Browne opened the next chapter of her musical career with her new album, Arrow, which features songs both new and old that she has anxiously anticipated releasing.
“I am very happy to have released Arrow,” says Browne. “Some of the songs were written many years ago. I am grateful to finally put them up for adoption.”
Once again present on Arrow are Browne’s diverse influences and staying true to her artistic identity.
“I have always listened to all kinds for music, so why put myself in musical prison? I’m not comparing myself, but the Beatles did just that, as did many artists I love, such as Carole King. They’re not always types of music, but they are always songs,” says Browne. “I was sitting one day at a breakfast table with Ray Benson from The Wheel discussing songwriting. He said, ‘Write what ya know, JB.’ So I did and I do. And to paraphrase Haggard, ‘If you don’t like what you’re writing or singing, good chance no one else will either.’”
With 31 years elapsed since the release of Tell Me Why, Browne says she has to stay true to herself and perseverance.
“I have learned that I am like Cher and cockroaches. Long after music has mutated itself into something new, I will still be here doing it, Good Lord willin’,” says Browne. “I have also learned to persevere and to be careful what I wish for.”
With Arrow under her belt, Browne hopes that the album establishes her as a songwriter, and has hopes to bring more music, live and studio, in the future.
“As a friend said, the worst thing we could have gotten for Christmas in 2019 is a 2020 calendar planner. I have a new ranch and a barn in the high desert of Southern California that we have converted into a recording studio and Soundstage,” says Browne. “When things open up after COVID, we hope to have a lot more hillbilly, bluegrass, rock and pop dust as well as talented musicians and music from all walks of life permeating those walls and penetrating hearts.”
And over those 31 years since Tell Me Why, Browne has developed a loyal following that proves that her music has penetrated their hearts. And Arrow proves she has the longevity that so many artists crave.
“All I can say about people that have followed me for all these years is I owe them so much,” says Browne. “They never know what they’re going to end up with when they buy my music. I’d like to think they’re as musically adventurous as I am.”
*Jann’s music is featured on The Best of Pro Country playlist!*