“Well, there’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville” sang the Lovin’ Spoonful in their 1966 Top-10 hit, “Nashville Cats.”
That same year a new kid turned up on the block of Music City guitarists, one Bob Browning. He would make his musical mark playing with the likes of Stonewall Jackson, rockabilly-country artist Bob Luman, the bluegrass duo of Jim & Jesse and Lone Star State warbler Ernest Tubb.
“I liked all of ’em, and I really liked Ernest Tubb,” recollected Browning, 85, who has hung his hat in Wilson County since 1967. “When I was a kid, I had a dream one night that I was on the stage of the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ with Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours, and several years later that dream came true. I walked onstage of the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ and performed right alongside the Texas Troubadour himself, and they don’t get no better than that.”
Born in a log house in Middlesboro, Ky., about a mile from Cumberland Gap, the youngster listened to the “Opry” with his family over a Majestic radio that he cherishes.
“I thought, ‘Boy, if I could ever get me a guitar and play on the “Grand Ole Opry” I would have fame and fortune.’ My parents bought my oldest sister a guitar, and she wouldn’t let me play it. My parents gave my next oldest sister a piano, and the third sister got a violin, and I didn’t get nothing. So, when I was 17, I bought my own guitar, paid $8 for it. The first time I played on the ‘Grand Ole Opry,’ I got a check and it was for $18.50, and I looked at that check, and I thought, ‘Well, so much for the fame and the fortune.’
“If you’re a musician, chances are you’re gonna be a bus driver too. I made more money driving buses than playing music,” said Browning, whose second career was driving passenger buses as well as buses for touring country and pop stars.
Discovering life in Nashville
His initial venture in Nashville came courtesy of Uncle Sam after he finished a tour of duty in Guam. When asked where he might like to go next, Sewart Air Force Base in Smyrna proved to be an option.
“I asked, ‘How far is that from Nashville?’ They said, ‘About 15 miles.’ I wanted to be close to the ‘Opry,’ so that was where I went in 1958.”
Browning began playing in a few local bands and after being discharged from the Air Force in 1960, he started picking with country singer Billy Walker. Unfortunately, one night while he boarded at the downtown YMCA, two men broke into his car and stole everything he had except his guitar, which he had taken to his room.
“I had nothing else to do but go back home,” said the musician. “I stayed for six years working at Sterchi Brothers Department Store. One day a guy came in the store and started talking to me, and said, ‘I would like to have a young guy like you in my Nashville store. Would you be interested in coming to Nashville?’ I said, ‘Yes.’
“He told me, ‘I want you to work at my Broadway store. I knew where Broadway was — close to the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ and that was my destination. I soon got to meet some of the country music guys including Stonewall Jackson’s steel guitar player.”
The steel guitar player told him that Jackson needed a front man and guitarist for a three-day gig in Texas, and the Kentucky picker filled the vacant spot. An hour after Jackson’s bus pulled out of Nashville, the driver asked Browning if could drive a bus. After he told him that he never had, the bus driver told him, “It’s your turn.” Thus began his career behind the wheel.
“When we got back to Nashville, I decided to get myself a commercial driving license. Stonewall liked me to drive so good, he almost wore me out driving,” said Browning. “So, I started playing with Stonewall, making $35 a day. One time when we were coming back off a tour, Stonewall was sitting on the armrest of the driver’s seat, and he said, ‘You’re doing such a good job, I’m gonna give you a raise.’ He gave me a $5 raise.”
After touring with Jackson for about a year, Browning left the singer’s band and played in local clubs where he made the acquaintance of steel guitar master Jeff Newman and joined his band.
Newman helped Browning get a day job at Sho-bud Music Store, one of the top music stores in the Southeast, where he worked five days a week for about a year while moonlighting as a guitarist at Mr. Ed’s Club. Then the Grammer Guitar Company, which later would be purchased by Ampeg Music, opened across the street.
“They made guitars and amps. I went over there one day, and Little Roy Wiggins, who played steel guitar on all the Eddy Arnold hits, said, ‘I’d like to have you come to work for me here.’ I worked for Ampeg about two years.”
There Browning designed a thinline guitar for himself, and Wiggins liked it so much that the Grammer Guitar Company produced the model.
“It was just a little fluke accident. I got the idea and asked Bobby Qujillia, ‘Can you take this guitar and cut this section half in two and put it back on?’ He went the extra mile and the guitar sounded terrific. I paid him $15 for it. It became a best-seller for them,” said Browning, who has the original.
In the meantime, he continued to play in Nashville clubs and one night in the early 1970s he performed at the Black Poodle in Printers Alley alongside country artist Bob Luman.
“He told me, ‘Hey, I’m playing the “Grand Ole Opry” Saturday night. Would you be interested in working with me?’ That was music to my ears. I worked with Luman that night on the show,” reminisced Browning.
As for the experience of playing for the first time on the Ryman stage, he says, “It was awesome. When I was a kid, a National Life Insurance salesman came around to our house, and he was giving fans away. This one fan had a picture from the Confederate’s Gallery looking down on the ‘Opry’ stage, and I spent hours and hours looking at who all was on the stage, and that first time I looked into the Confederate’s Gallery, I knew I had made it.”
Later, bluegrass greats Jim and Jesse McReynolds observed Browning singing and playing his guitar in a club, and they invited him to join their Virginia Boys just as they were starting a syndicated TV show. For the next three to four years he not only played guitar with the duo but also was featured singer on their show.
Next up for the guitar man was fronting for Tubb, one of his country music heroes, in 1973. Although the gig lasted less than a year, he says, “It was a dream come true.”
Browning also recorded an album, “Good Ole Country Music and Western Swing,” produced by his pal Newman in the early 1970s.
The album drew attention from Chet Atkins, one of Browning’s guitar heroes and vice president of RCA Records’ country division.
“Chet listened to it and wrote me a real nice letter saying, ‘Sorry, I can’t offer anything for this album, however, if you’ll get together some more new material, I’ll be happy to listen again. I think you can have a hit with the right material.’ ’’
Unfortunately, the guitarist-vocalist’s marriage broke up. Taking custody of his young son, Browning dropped out of the music business to raise his child.
“I put my son first, and it was the right thing to do,” said the music man, who switched to driving buses for a profession. “I put my son, Rob, through the University of Tennessee. He is a card-carrying Professional Golf Association pro. He was a club pro at Windtree Golf Course in Mt. Juliet for years and also at a club in Lewisburg for three or four years, and he has held a charity golf tournament to benefit the Alzheimer’s Association for years.”
(The Rob Browning Invitational just completed its 25th annual event last month at Champions Run Golf Club in Rockvale.)
“Rob is an excellent golfer. He knows the game better than I know music, and I lived and breathed country music all my life,” said Browning, adding that his granddaughters, Sara and Maggie, are topnotch golfers (Maggie plays on the Forrest High School golf team in Chapel Hill, and Sara, a college freshman, earned a golf scholarship to Freed-Hardeman University).
As for Browning’s second career, he said, “Having the experience of driving buses, I worked with Gray Line Tours 12 to 14 years and with Anchor Tours for 17 years, and then I started driving for entertainers. I drove for Reba McEntire, Wade Hayes, Joe Diffie, the Steve Miller Band, Tina Turner and Dan Seals.”
The octogenarian still owns more than 20 guitars but truly regrets letting one get away.
“My dad bought me a ’53 Les Paul. Later I saw this guitar, an ES-175D Gibson, in the window at Hewgley’s Music Store. I traded the Les Paul for that, and I’ve kicked myself ever since. The Gibson had what I was looking for.”
Nowadays he plays gentleman farmer on a nine-acre farm on the outskirts of Lebanon.
“I’ve got a cabin, a place to hang out. At one time I had six horses, six mules and seven cows. Now I’ve got one horse, one donkey and one cow,” he said.
Asked if he still performed, the “Nashville cat,” who can still hit his licks, answered, “Yes and no. What demand is there for an 85-year-old, worn-out guitar player? I just play at home for the fun of it.”