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The Kingmaker Of Country Music

Tony Brown sang gospel and played with Elvis, so how'd he become the biggest doggone producer in the whole wide world of red-hot country music? Darlin', some things are just meant to be.

April 21, 1996|ROBERT HILBURN

You know Tony Brown is out for fun when he slips behind the wheel of his black Mercedes-Benz 600 SEC one recent Saturday night. After two decades of touring and working seven days a week in the recording studio, he now keeps his weekends free of business. So tonight, the president of MCA Records in Nashville--and maybe the most powerful man in country music--is headed for the Grand Ole Opry to hear Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, neither of whom records for MCA. The trip is only half an hour, tops, down Interstate 40E from his house in the old-money neighborhood of Belle Meade to the Opry, but Brown gives himself an hour.

When he arrives at the modern 45,000-square-foot auditorium where the Opry is broadcast to 3.3 million viewers every Saturday night, it's quickly apparent why he allowed the extra time. The backstage hall that leads to the stage is filled with fans and industry insiders, and all eyes are suddenly on Brown.

"Would you sign this, Tony?" one fan in his 20s asks, turning to a fresh page in an autograph book filled with the signatures of the country greats. "You're the best, Tony," says an aspiring songwriter, who tells him that he's got a bunch of new songs he thinks would be perfect for Trisha Yearwood, one of MCA's stars.

When Brown finally makes his way through the backstage crowd and takes a place in the stage wings, he looks around in the semi-darkness to see who's nearby--not like a businessman hoping to cement relations with a hot manager or performer but as a fan. He points to the colorful singer-banjo player who's been part of the Opry troupe for half a century--"It's Grandpa Jones." Brown's attention returns to the stage, however, when Harris takes her place at the microphone. He was raised on gospel music but first saw the light--musically speaking--playing piano for Harris' Hot Band in the late '70s. "God, listen to that voice," he says now, as Harris begins a song. "She still kills me . . . kills me."

Brown is equally engrossed when Harris turns the microphone over to Earle, one of the first artists he signed at MCA. "Guitar Town," the first album they did together in 1986, is still considered one of the best collections of blue-collar anthems ever to come out of Nashville. "Nobody writes like that," Brown says admiringly when Earle finishes a new tune about independence and wanderlust, two of his favorite themes.

Afterward, Brown and Harris huddle briefly; she is rushing off to dinner between shows, but Earle pauses for a minute. His career has rebounded strongly in recent months, following a serious drug problem. "I hear you've got a great new song in that new Tim Robbins movie," Brown says, referring to the stark "Ellis Unit One" from "Dead Man Walking."

"Yeah, it may be the best thing I've ever written, Tony," Earle responds excitedly.

"Really," Brown says, curious that Earle would think anything was better than the "Guitar Town" songs.

Brown was heading from the Opry to dinner at the Bound'ry, one of the music business' restaurants of choice these days. But he stops first at Tower Records to pick up the "Dead Man Walking" CD. While the restaurant's parking valet stands impatiently by the car door, Brown shoves the CD into a holder and leans his head against the steering wheel as Earle's song begins playing. There's nothing relaxed about him now. He listens hard to the downbeat tale about a death-row inmate, as if he was in a recording studio watching every guitar lick and lyric unfold. "Damn," he says admiringly. "You know, Steve might be right about that song."

When the song ends, Brown steps out of the car and hands the keys to the valet. He is greeted at the door by the restaurant owner, who takes him to a choice booth. A waitress hands him a menu, but he seems distracted. He's got Earle on his mind--the way conservative Nashville in the '80s resisted the singer for many of the same reasons he was embraced by the rock world: his long hair, defiant swagger and Spring-steenian tales of working-class alienation. "It's funny, I never [pictured] the rock world responding the way it did to Steve," he says. "I was just so confused over why the country world didn't respond more. I thought he was going to be the new Waylon Jennings.

"It just shows you can't control how the world reacts to an artist. You just have to concentrate on finding good ones and then hope for the best."

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