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Big Music Feature

Hillbilly Deluxe

Lonesome Blue Yodeler Mark Brine Looks for a Hit in Contemporary Country's Wide Open Spaces

Sam Holden

Big Music Issue 2003

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By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 7/16/2003

The Full Moon Saloon advertises itself, on its T-shirts and posters, as "Baltimore's Home of the Blues," but several times a month it's also the home of Mark Brine, a hillbilly singer so traditional that he once won the Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Concert Talent Contest with a yodeling imitation of Rodgers himself.

Brine seems a bit out of place at the Full Moon, but he seems out of place everywhere. He felt out of place during his 11 years in Nashville, Tenn., where the pop-oriented country-music industry had little use for a die-hard Hank Williams fan. He feels out of place in Baltimore, his home for the past 18 years, where he gets less radio airplay than he does in Europe. He feels out of place on the New England folk circuit, which he regularly plays, because his strange scramble of left-wing and right-wing onstage observations are rarely in tune with the audience.

But it's that very refusal to fit in that makes Brine such a fascinating character. Some of his songs are sentimental; some of them are preachy, but the best of them quickly get to the heart of the matter like those old 78s from the 1920s and '30s that he loves so much. And all of them are delivered in an utterly distinctive voice--a twangy, crusty tenor full of yearning, laughter, and unexpected power. He even looks different, as if he stepped out of a sepia photograph found buried in a trunk.

On the first Friday in June, Brine wedged himself between the scarred wood of the Full Moon bar and the big plate-glass window facing the street. He strapped his big acoustic guitar over a brown plaid vest that was buttoned tight over a white shirt. His brown bangs and long sideburns spilled out from under an old brown hat with its crown so high and its flat brim so broad that it looked more appropriate to the 19th century than the 21st. Stuffed in the hatband were an American flag on a cocktail toothpick and a turquoise fishing lure.

"I bought this hat at Schwab's on Beale Street in Memphis," he told the drinkers perched on stools along the bar. This was the early set, and at 6:30 p.m. the crowd was still dribbling in. "When I lived in Nashville, I used to take the bus down to Memphis to get away from the country-music industry. I would walk up and down Beale Street, because that was a real center of blues and country music in the 1930s. But when I went in the '70s, it wasn't all fixed up the way it is today. It was a lot of boarded-up buildings, and Schwab's was about the only store still open.

"But their hats were real cheap, and I still wear this one, even though my wife keeps telling me to throw it out," he continued. "It reminds me of the corner of Beale Street and Main, which Jimmie Rodgers mentions in this song. It's called 'Blue Yodel No. 9,' and the original version features Jimmie playing with Louis Armstrong."

Brine twisted a quarter way around as if his shoulders were facing 10 o'clock and his mouth were facing 12, and he hit his guitar strings with a pounding chord progression that evoked Armstrong's gutbucket blues. "Listen, all you rounders, you better leave my woman alone," he hollered, "because I'll take my special and run all you rounders home." And then like Armstrong's trumpet, his voice rose into a sweet falsetto and put a hillbilly exclamation on the warning, "Yo-de-lay-eee-yay-eee-oh-de-lay-eee."

Within a few songs, Brine transformed himself from Rodgers' gun-waving, yodeling braggart into the junior-high wallflower in his own song, "8th Grade Romance," from his recent album For Karrie. The new song describes an eighth-grader watching all his buddies boogaloo at the school dance with the girl he's too shy to ask. It's a familiar, even melodramatic tale, but Brine delivers it with such telling details that you can imagine the gymnasium, with such bashfulness that you can imagine the boy's reticence, and with such sweetness that you can imagine his ultimate triumph.

It's the kind of parlor song the Carter Family might have recorded. The Carters, who auditioned for Brunswick Records in Bristol, Va., the same week in 1927 as Rodgers, represent the other aspect of country music, the songs of home and church rather than highways and barrooms, and Brine can work either side of the street. But unlike Rodgers and the Carters, Brine did not grow up in the rural South. He was born and raised in Cambridge, Mass., the home of Harvard University and of all things Yankee and urbane.

"The whole idea that you have to be born in Mississippi or Alabama to sing country music or even to understand what it's all about is a myth," Brine insists. "I've lived in the South, and, believe me, 99 percent of them don't know anything about country music. It's sad but it's true. It's not where you're born, it's what you learn. It's like that line I wrote in the song 'New Blue Yodel'--'It don't matter where you're from/ It's only where you're going to.'"

Brine's family wasn't connected to Harvard or any other form of post-war affluence. His dad scraped by as a commercial artist, earning as little as $40 a week in the 1950s, and Brine often shared a single bedroom with his seven siblings. But the Boston area proved a great environment for a budding musician.

"My Uncle Dickey was an avid Hank Williams fan," Brine remembers, "and he used to give me some of his old records. As a little kid, I wanted to be Hank Williams and, in a way, I guess I still do. My Aunt Helene was into Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, and she got me interested in rock 'n' roll.

"But my father wouldn't let me bring those records into the house--he was very religious and he thought rock 'n' roll was evil. Finally, when Ricky Nelson recorded Hank Williams' 'My Bucket's Got a Hole in It,' I showed the 45 to my dad and said, 'Look, it's Hank Williams. How can it be evil?' That opened the door for rock 'n' roll, and soon I became a Rolling Stones fan."

As a teenager he became lead guitarist for a '60s rock band called Trans-Atlantic Subway. Over a six-year career, they only recorded one 45, but the A-side, a Kinks-like song called "Servant of the People," wound up on a Pebbles garage-rock compilation in 1984, and the B-side, "Winter Snow," was re-recorded by Brine for his 1993 album, Songs From the Carol. Brine played electric guitar for several more Boston bands but gradually tired of the rock 'n' roll life.

All the while, though, he had been listening to a lot of blues and country. He had a membership card to Harvard Square's legendary basement venue, Club 47, where he heard and met Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jim Kweskin, and the Charles River Boys. At one point, around 1970, when he quit one more rock band, he decided not to join another. Instead, he jumped into the folk-music scene.

"Giving up rock for folk was terrifying because I was a shy kid and I was scared to be up there by myself," he admits. "I must have loved something about it because I kept going back to it. But the more I played folk music, the more I realized it was just country music by a different name. You listen to those Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie records, and they're just Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Bill Monroe songs with new words. You listen to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and it's all old country and blues numbers. So I added a steel player to my band and started playing country bars."

Soon Brine was opening up for the likes of Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow, and everyone was telling him he should move to Nashville. So in the winter of 1974-'75, he did. It was a rude awakening. The charts were full of country-pop crossover acts like Ronnie Milsap, Mickey Gilley, John Denver, and Billy "Crash" Craddock, and no one was interested in someone from Boston who was writing new songs in the old style of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams.

"I saw an ad for a club that mentioned the word 'hillbilly,'" Brine recalls. "I called them up and asked when the hillbilly music started. They said, 'Are you crazy? We serve hillbilly food. The only music we have is country music.' I was trying to find someone who remembered the past. I visited Minnie Pearl's house. I sent tapes to Hank Snow. I had this dream of bringing the old style back, but after 11 years I had to admit it wasn't going to happen."

He did get to sing three songs with Roy Acuff and the Smokey Mountain Boys on Ernest Tubb's Midnight Jamboree radio show. He did get to sing with Hank Snow at the Grand Ole Opry. He did land a regular gig at the legendary Tootsie's Orchard Lounge. He did sign a publishing and recording deal with Doorknob Records, which released three 45s and got his songs recorded by Peggy Sue and Sonny Wright and others. Roxy Records released another 45. But nothing came close to being a hit.

In the meantime, his first marriage had fallen apart in Nashville, but it was there that he met and married his second wife, Karen (or just "Karrie," the namesake of his new album). By 1985, he was burned out on Nashville and couldn't resist the offer of a free apartment above his in-laws' house in Parkville, just northeast of Baltimore City.

"Baltimore is a nice town," Brine acknowledges. "The rents are cheap, the seafood is good, and the trees are pretty. But let's face it--it's not a music-industry town. There aren't a lot of places to play, and there aren't publishing companies or record labels willing to hand out advance money. So I've used it as a base to work in New York, New England, and Europe."

Brine has actually had more luck on the East Coast than he ever had in Nashville. New York producer Tom Pomposello financed a 1996 album, New Blue Yodel, on re:signed> Records and placed the title track on 1992's Rig Rock Jukebox, the prestigious Diesel Only label's compilation of northern alt-country acts such as Tim Carroll, Jeremy Tepper, Joe Flood, Gwil Owen, Go to Blazes, and 5 Chinese Brothers.

The rest of the Brine catalogue includes 1985's Return to Americana (KJK), 1989's American Pieces (KJK), 1993's Songs From the Carol (KJK), 1994's Blue Sides (KJK), 1999's American Bleak House (KJK), 1999's Real Special Feelin' (Wild Oats), 2001's Back in the Country (Sound Asleep), and 2003's For Karrie (Wild Oats). The highlights are New Blue Yodel, Blue Sides, and For Karrie.

The new disc covers the full spectrum of Brine's music. The title track, a slow waltz, is an old-fashioned valentine to his wife. "Mae West Momma," by contrast, is a rocking blues tribute to a woman with "a front side that don't quit and a backside that don't fit." He revisits his Nashville years on the pun-titled and fiddle-laced two-step, "You Ain't Feelin' With a Full Deck." He evokes nostalgic visions of Mark Twain on "Riverboat" and confronts a teasing woman with the pop-rock challenge of "Even Blind Faith Has to See." Best of all is "Stephen," a folkie elegy for a childhood friend who recently died.

But Brine is under no illusion that these songs will suddenly show up on the WPOC playlist or the Billboard charts. He knows these stripped-down, anachronistic songs are doomed to hang around the margins of the industry, attracting just enough listeners to just keep him and his family barely afloat. Nonetheless, he refuses to give up and get a "normal" job.

"I saw what happened to my father," he explains. "He wanted to be a true artist, but he made the mistake of becoming a commercial artist, drawing little pictures for the Yellow Pages. I watched him when he was drawing little gas pumps for a job, and his face would get all screwed up with frustration, but when he drew what he wanted his face just lit up with happiness. It just ate him up until he gave up art altogether.

"The one thing I learned from him was to never let commercial interests determine what I do. I've had Nashville producers tell me I'm 'uncompromiseable.' They meant it as an insult, but I took it as a compliment. I believe that if I keep putting my best work out there, someone somewhere sometime will recognize it for what it is."

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