More People Really Should Know About: Rachel Brown and the Beatnik Playboys

If you clicked arbitrarily to play a Rachel Brown track, you might think she is too country; if you clicked on another, you might think she is too jazz. The fact is Rachel Brown covers all the bases, from Patsy Cline-style country to rockabilly roots, to honky-tonk or southern blues (in the style of Maria Muldaur), some Western swing, a bit of Latin or gospel, and on to plaintiff ballads. Her major influences are the country stars of the 50s and 60s but she and the band and guests add an extra dimension. It’s amazing that very few people have heard of her, but that may be because there are a number of musicians named Rachel Brown and her profile is not as high as others, or it may be a symptom of having played local clubs around NorthEast Ohio for many years, and that she is constrained by a full-time teaching job and bringing up her boys. Nevertheless, she has released a sole album in her own name, the captivating ‘Just Look My Way’ (2012) and now four with her band, the rather curiously-named Beatnik Playboys (though they did play, uncredited, on her debut).

Brown was born in Cleveland, Ohio, probably in the mid-70s, as in the 90s she was performing with a band called Hillbilly Idol, adding her expressive Floyd Cramer-meets-Jerry Lee Lewis style of piano playing to the mix of acoustic, steel and Resophonic guitars, bass and drums, with occasional accordion and fiddle. She played live with them but had not appeared on any of the three Hillbilly Idol albums that were released between 2002 and 2005. She left regular performing for some time to concentrate on parenting and teaching.

My first introduction to her music was via an Amazon link in 2014 – ‘Just Look My Way’ is a really splendid mixture of styles, the band is a superb mix of the best local players – Dave Huddlestone on guitars, Roy King on drums and Bill Watson on bass, who are members of her backing band (Huddlestone came from the afore-mentioned Hillbilly Idol), and including guest appearances by players like ace steel guitarist Al Moss and fiddler Denny Jones – and the songs, all but one written by Brown are uniformly excellent. Her voice is very powerful but lends itself easily to the various styles, as she can whisper a ballad or sing gospel with ease.

2014’s ‘Once Again’ is a similarly varied offering, largely piano-driven, with the highlight the quite gorgeous ballad ‘My Best Friend is my Song’, sung to mainly piano accompaniment with a lovely bass line. Or there is the jazz-tinged ‘Pretty Damn Damaged’ or the Latin-flavoured ‘Mary Lynd’.

Look Who’s back’  from 2017 kicks off with the title track, with Brown channelling her inner Wanda Jackson. Another potpourri of styles, some great songwriting and Brown scores top marks again. You would swear you had heard some of the songs before, so clever is the retro styling (on all her albums). Standouts are ‘This Old Place’ and the slow gospel tune ‘Acceptance’.

And aside from the Patsy Cline live tribute album (only seemingly available from her website), we come to this year’s post-Covid ‘comeback’ album ‘Full Moon Rendezvous’,  yet another sophisticated panoply of tracks where Brown has a variety of special guests, friends from the local Cleveland music scene. The duet with local poet Robert Kidney, half talking in the background, on the ballad ‘It’s been a While’ is a fascinating and worthwhile listen. There is Cajun Creole-style on the title track, pounding gospel on closer ’Southern Preacher Man’ and a straight-up country rocker to open proceedings ‘Bridge of Love’.

Rachel Brown is clearly a local Cleveland treasure, and her full-time job and parenting duties have limited wider exposure. I think she deserves some. Take a listen to these examples of her wonderful talent.

About FredArnold 60 Articles
Lifelong fan of predominantly US (and Canadian) country roots music. Previously an avid concert-goer before wives, kids and dogs got in the way- and although I still try to get to several, my preference for small independent venues often means standing, and that ain't too good for my ancient bones!! Still, a healthy and catholic music collection helps ease the pain
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Alan Peatfield

Thanks Fred. A new name to me; but one I will definitely explore. I agree “My Best Friend is a Song” is simply enchanting.