It's late afternoon at the Palomino, the North Hollywood cowboy bar that has played host to everyone from Waylon Jennings and Marty Robbins to an early-model Linda Ronstadt, and Jann Browne is waiting for Rosie Flores to finish her sound-check. Waiting is something the country singer from Mission Viejo is good at because it's something she's been doing for the last 15 years. But now Browne is about to get her shot at the big time.
After being around the Orange County club scene and having sung with Asleep at the Wheel for almost 2 years, Browne finally has a record contract. She has signed with Curb Records, a Santa Monica-based affiliate of MCA Records that is home to such talent as the Judds, the Desert Rose Band and Lyle Lovett.
Daylight doesn't become the Palomino. The giant pictures on the wall seem harsh; the performers they show look anything but happy. But Browne is smiling, swinging her feet in time to Flores' music and making small talk about her grandparents, who introduced her to country music when she was a child in Indiana.
"They used to clog and square dance on the Opry, and I remember standing in the wings watching them. It was so amazing to me, the music and the way they moved around," Browne recalls. "In fact, it's always been one of my regrets that I never learned to dance like they did."
Still, hanging around the honky tonks, one can't help but pick up a few steps--like the sidestep, which has proven especially useful to Browne in deflecting record biz requests for slick country-pop tunes. Browne has nothing in common with, say, fellow Hoosier Janie Fricke, the former jingle singer whose brand of country is slicker than a duck tail on Saturday night.
"I mean, I've got nothing against (that type of singer)," Browne said, "but what they're doing really isn't country. . . ."
Browne is country. She can discuss Wynn Stewart, Rose Maddox and just about any other old-line country singer at length--and she often draws from their catalogues when fleshing out her own set list. To this 34-year old, keeping country's classics alive is as important as getting her own songs to the public.
"I'd pretty much resigned myself to playing the bars around Orange County, where people still appreciate the hard stuff, because I just could never bring myself to singing a lot of the stuff I was hearing on the radio a few years ago," Browne said with a sigh. "And even when (more traditional country singers such as) Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam started happening, you didn't see a lot of women rushing out and doing that. Why, even Emmylou Harris seemed to be having a hard time with radio."
It's no surprise that Harris is a big Jann Browne fan. "There's something about the way she sings that is so pure and so honest," Harris said last year when Browne opened for her at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano. "And her writing is wonderful. 'Mexican Wind' is a No. 1 song if I've ever heard one."
A low, longing ballad about love and betrayal on the border, "Mexican Wind" is the kind of song that could bring the Western back to C&W.; "Louisville," another Browne original (featured on Enigma Records' "Town South of Bakersfield Two" compilation album) was named Country Song of the Year by the California Country Music Assn.--which also named Browne Female Entertainer of the Year.
Browne's first Curb single, "You Ain't Down Home," written by Jamie O'Hara of the O'Kanes, is scheduled for a February release. Produced by Steve Fishell, the steel player in Harris' Hot Band, it's about a woman who isn't afraid to stand up for herself as she tells a would-be suitor that his money's all well and good, but it's not what matters to her.
"It's the kind of song I can relate to," Browne said, "not only on the obvious level of money not making the man, but because it's got a lot to do with my whole attitude about country music and where it's at, what's going on with it."
Hopes are high for the record, but Browne's not buying her palatial Nashville estate just yet. "I don't know," she allowed, laughing. "This is such a risky business and you just never know. I mean, I always thought I'd get my shot but . . . who knows what'll happen?
"Besides, I don't think I'd ever want to leave California. This is my home, and with all the country music that's coming out of here, I think I'd just as soon buy some property on the ocean and stick around."