What Happened to OCs Queen of Country?
What the hell happened to OC's Queen of Country? Jann Browne isn't surrendering many gory details—not in our conversation, anyway. But there's plenty of explanation in her new CD, Missed Me By a Mile, her first release since 1995.
Browne's exquisite songwriting and tobacco-stained voice drag listeners on a soul-searching journey through one of the most agonizing periods of her life. By album's end, however, Browne seems to have gotten beyond heartache and regret to perseverance and hope.
"It's funny," Browne says with a chuckle. "I've had people ask me, 'Why don't you make up your mind—are you heartbroken or are you happy?' I was going through a lot of turmoil at the time I wrote these songs, so the subject matter is genuine. . . . They're pretty naked, vulnerable songs."
At the heart of the upheaval in Browne's life were two tumultuous events: the breakup with Roger Stebner, her former husband and band member, and the end of a song publishing deal in Nashville, which had served as her primary source of income.
At age 47, Browne is also coming to terms with her place in country music, which she has decided will be her own. "The first album I made was really just for fun," Browne says. "It turned out that a couple of songs appealed to country radio, and they became Top 20 hits ("Tell Me Why," "You Ain't Down Home"). But all that did was create this demand for more hits, so then you have to play this little game. I got boxed in, and Nashville became a ball and chain."
Tellingly, the splendid Missed Me By a Mile was self-released two months ago on Plan B Records (www.planbrecords.net) and has received little fanfare.
"I don't know, maybe I'm just too jaded," suggests Browne, who cites the Louvin Brothers, Lucinda Williams, and Buddy & Julie Miller as big musical influences. "If my new CD takes off, that'd be real cool. But if it doesn't, I still have a strong fan base here and particularly in Europe and Australia. Either way, my life goes on. When you're younger, you have certain expectations. But my big dreams of being a star have longfaded. You have to decide if you want to be famous or be an artist."
Feelings of sadness and anger permeate many songs on the title track to Missed Me By a Mile, as well as such songs as "The Lonesome Mile" and "Cold Here in London." The latter finds Browne in a dark, pissy mood as she sings, "I've got a real bad attitude/Thought I'd carry it along/It's cold here in London."
"These songs were a part of the purging process for me," Browne says. "But you know what? You get over the bitterness. I mean, you have to lick your wounds and find a place where you feel whole again."
It has been six years since Browne released Count Me In, one of the best local albums of the 1990s. The Laguna Hills resident still bends genres with ease, roaming freely among country, rock, roots rock, folk and bluegrass. Her lyrics still roll off her tongue and head straight into your gut.
Several cuts on Missed Me By a Mile explore what Browne refers to as the "what ifs." The bittersweet "Change Your Mind" and "Can't Build a Better Love" dredge up insight into how we must live with our decisions, whether right, wrong or simply ill-timed.
It took time to reach those places—in herself and in her music. Browne took a hiatus from songwriting for a while and didn't rebound from her despair until getting some encouragement—okay, a good kick in the ass—from her guitarist and writing partner, Matt Barnes, who is also Browne's next-door neighbor. Meanwhile, Brown has also rediscovered kinship with other like-minded, homegrown musicians, including Patty Booker, Chris Gaffney and Rick Shea. She found further comfort from performing again at her usual haunts, like the Old Towne Brewing Company in Orange, Newport Landing in Newport Beach and the Swallow's Inn in San Juan Capistrano.
Regaining her confidence, Browne teamed up with Barnes to write a batch of new songs, retooled a few older ones, and gathered together some of the best musicians in OC to record Missed Me By a Mile at an Anaheim studio. The result is an album—a demo, really—that's rough around the edges. Not surprisingly, its lo-fi production values are in sync with the material's raw emotional core.
But is this a good time to present such music, considering all the polished product out there to choose from? "It's never a good time!" insists Browne. "I've worked and lived here for more than 20 years, and all I can do is keep making music that rings true to me. This is my back yard, and the only difference between me and the people at the Swallow's Inn is that they dance and I sing. We all have to get up and go to work the next day."
Work for Browne—at least the bill-paying kind—means Barking Slippers Pet Sitting Services, the small business she owns and runs. But rather than complain about her day job, Browne embraces it. And why not? "I love animals, and I spend more time with them than I do with people," she says. "It sure beats the hell out of sitting behind a desk. And my furry friends don't care if my teeth or hair is brushed or if I've had a bath. They're just happy to see me."
That kind of self-affirmation finally unfolds in Missed Me By a Mile, particularly in the folksy, acoustic-powered "Heart You Can't Ignore," an anthem proclaiming, "I'll be your strength/I'll be the rhythm for your blues/When you need me darling."
Browne has reconciled herself to this crazy roller-coaster ride. She now pursues her art on her terms. "It's a fun place to be because I'm not writing for anyone but myself," she says. "To be able to write outside Nashville's lines is a great feeling for me. I still love country music, particularly honky-tonkers like Merle [Haggard]. But I like variety, and you won't find a fiddle and pedal steel guitar on all of my songs, that's for sure."
Jann Browne & the Dangerous Neighbors at the Swallow's Inn, 31786 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 493-3188. Sun., 3-7 p.m. Free. 21+.
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