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Brown had no pronounced passion for the guitar. It was merely an instrument that better facilitated his all-encompassing compulsion simply to sing. He enrolled for evening classes at the University of Memphis as a journalism major after high school and took classical guitar lessons for two semesters. He drew from those lessons exactly what he wanted: a basic understanding of chord structures and progressions -- knowledge he quickly applied to more vocal-oriented styles of music. "Once I learned how to play chords," he says, "I was gone. I mean I was gone, man. It was just amazing to me. All the songs on the radio with all this nice melody and everything, they were mostly just basic chords."
As discoveries go, Brown's wasn't exactly up there with the polio vaccine. But for a lonesome young man who loved to sing, the guitar opened up a world of previously unimagined possibilities. "When I heard a song I liked," he remembers, "I used to go to the music store and not buy the book, but I would stand there for about 15 minutes and memorize the chords to the song, and I'd go home and I'd play that baby. That made me happy. That still makes me happy."
The blues came by way of Jimi Hendrix. Brown was 22 years old. He was living in Milwaukee, where he had family, and had moved to continue his studies -- now as a history major -- at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "I got ahold of a couple records of [Hendrix's] and read his biography, and I just was intrigued by it," he says. "There was a lot of stuff like 'Burning [of] the Midnight Lamp' a lot of different types of songs. Even then I was intuitive enough to know that this was the blues. I didn't know much about the blues, but I could tell, just being musically inclined, that what he was playing was very much blues-based. So that was how the journey started. I just started trying to find books on this thing called the blues. I haunted libraries, rented videos, listened to cassettes . And that's what I did for years and years."
Brown first played the BamBoo Room in April, a month after the club opened in Lake Worth's historic Paradise Building. His brand of solo acoustic blues went over well with the BamBoo Room's generally thoughtful and gracious clientele. Brown had been playing Delta blues music professionally only since the summer of 1995. Nonetheless he had come a long way quick, highlighting the journey by winning the Beale Street Blues Society's 1997 National Talent Competition and placing second in the international competition. On his first of three tours of France, he recorded a fine 15-song live disc for Roadway Records called Walking on Muddy Waters: Mississippi Blues in the Garonne Country. Beyond that he had played a smattering of geographically far-flung blues festivals and a host of dates in and around Memphis. (Brown relocated to Memphis from Milwaukee more than a decade ago.) Disregarding Brown's relative lack of experience, BamBoo Room's husband-and-wife co-owners, Russell Hibbard and Karen McKinley, offered Brown a gig as their first artist in residence soon after Brown appeared at their club a second time in July.
A month later Brown and his two children packed up their belongings and moved from the great blues town of Memphis into a house in Lake Worth. Four nights a week, Brown sets up shop on the stage of the BamBoo Room. He's augmented his solo act lately with the addition of an acoustic bassist and a harmonica player. The trio plays a few of Brown's originals -- songs that range from standard blues shuffles to some of his newer folk-pop material -- but mostly they play the music of old Delta masters like Son House, Skip James, and Robert Johnson.
"I think the blues is still relevant," Brown says. "That's why so many people like it. It always sticks around; it never goes anywhere. People have the same problems on different levels that they had 50 and 100 years ago . The universality is the main deal about it. People can relate."
Contact David Pulizzi at his e-mail address: