Ask a man about his politics, you might learn what his parents were like. Ask about his religion, you'll probably discover what church he grew up in. But if you want to ascertain the very essence of a man--that unique thing that sets him apart--try asking about his hat.
"I bought that when I was 16 years old, working in a grocery store and making $90 a week," recalled country-music newcomer Marty Brown, talking about the crumpled, camel-colored cowboy hat that seems as integral to his persona as his earnest honky-tonk yodel and gee-whiz humility.
"I was entering a talent show. I went to the Western wear store and found this one, but it cost $80. Well, I bought it anyway and took it home . . . but I didn't like how (the man at the store) shaped it.
"I got out the teakettle, put some water in it, got the steam going real good and held the hat over the kettle," Brown continued in the sweet Kentucky drawl he developed growing up in Maceo, a tiny town in the northwest section of the Bluegrass State. "I tied it up with my work tie to keep it bent, then I sprayed it with hair spray to keep it that way.
"I was in Nashville (recently) and a hat maker offered to make me another one just like it for $500, but he just couldn't catch it right."
Brown's approach to music--he's a honky-tonk singer in the classic Hank Williams mold--is a lot like his approach to hats: it may not be the most efficient or the most glamorous, but as long as it makes him happy, that's the way he'll do it.
Just 26, Brown, who plays the Coach House tonight with maverick Jimmie Dale Gilmore (see accompanying story), was the toast of Nashville for a time in 1991. CBS-TV's "48 Hours" featured him prominently in a segment on the country-music explosion, and record labels were bidding anxiously against one another to sign this unknown farm boy who had slept in the back alleys of Music City before the words "Trust Jesus," scrawled on a sidewalk, led to his discovery.
He'd been making trips to Nashville since he was a teen-ager, whenever he had enough time and money from jobs that included harvesting tobacco--"that's hot, sweaty work."
"I'd go to bed at night, crying myself to sleep," he remembers. "I'd ask the Lord why he gave me this talent to write these songs just to have them sit in a drawer."
He said he was on the verge of throwing in the towel--he'd just spent the night sleeping on an air-conditioning grate--when he saw that sidewalk with "Trust Jesus" on it. He looked up and noticed he was standing outside the offices of Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), a performance rights agency.
He'd been there once before, years earlier, and he'd met an executive who encouraged him to write from the heart. Asking for the same man, he was welcomed in, given an audition and within two days he found himself singing for officials at several major labels.
He signed with MCA, and his debut album, "High and Dry," has earned some strong critical notices. It hasn't caught fire with radio programmers, but that hasn't dampened his spirits.
"It's just a matter of time," Brown said from a Pizza Hut in Nashville. "George Jones gave me some good advice one time, and that's what's kept me staying at it so long, and kept me true to country music. He said it's his fans that make him, and that once you develop those die-hard fans, they'll stay with you forever. I want longevity. I'm gonna be around a long time."
Actually, Brown's most obvious influences predate Jones and Merle Haggard--the most imitated singers around Nashville these days--stretching all the way back to the two most towering figures in all of country music: Hank Williams Sr. and Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman.
In terms of both material and execution, many of Brown's songs sound as if they could have been lifted straight off a honky-tonk jukebox from the first half of this century. The title tune of his album is about a forlorn man who gets dumped and juiced up and is so devastated he can't summon even a single tear. "Nobody Knows" closes the album on a note of the utter loneliness that lies at the bottom of depression.
Radio and nightclubs seem to be emphasizing songs that are "upbeat and positive," but Brown rejects the suggestion that his music is a throwback to a time, and an audience, that have passed.
"Country music that's good country music--it don't never die," he said. "That's what I chose to listen to: early Johnny Cash, early Elvis Presley, Hank Sr., George Jones, Merle Haggard, and my biggest influence, the Everly Brothers."
Brown had an older brother who drove him to school and made him listen to such rock groups as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger and Foreigner in the car. But as Brown tells it, his mother had laid the foundation for his musical tastes years earlier.
"They tell me I was listening to Hank Sr. when I was in my momma's womb," he said. "She loved Hank Sr. and Jimmie Rodgers. She remembers where she was at the day (Williams) died. . . . She was bawling all day long. She remembers her father came out and said, 'There she goes, crying over that Williams boy again.'
"My music is real," he continued, after pausing to apologize to another Pizza Hut customer for having hogged the pay phone for some 45 minutes. "I'm not trying to be something that I'm not, and there's a lot of that around--people throwing on a cowboy hat and boots as soon as they get a record deal. My heart and soul is in country. If I have to come through the back door, I will."
He's not kidding. Last summer, he did a six-week, 12-state tour--of Wal-Mart stores.
"Every Wal-Mart I'd go to, I wondered, 'What if I go and there's nobody there?' But every one there were a couple hundred people there, in with the cameras and the VCRs and they seemed to know everything about me, and knew all the words to my songs. They'd say, 'We saw your momma on the Ralph Emery' " show on the Nashville Network, one media outlet that has been hospitable toward Brown and his music.
"I'd never been nowhere--except across the Ohio River to Indiana. . . . I caught the biggest bass I ever caught, got to see the ocean for the first time (on that tour). I got out there on a jet ski and was chasing sea gulls. Now I get to go to California. It's a dream come true for me."
Helping to keep Brown on an even keel through the ups and downs of the music biz is his family: two children from a previous marriage he doesn't talk about much, and a fiancee who will become his wife this fall.
"I'm thankful I come from the background I come from," he said. "I'm gonna get married, I've got my two children. I could be playing anywhere, I've always got my kids and fiancee in the back of my head."