The Browns perform "The Three Bells"
Maxine Brown and younger siblings Jim Ed and Bonnie—The Browns--“will forever be celebrated as one of country music’s most beloved trios,” noted the Country Music Association’s CEO Sarah Trahern in a statement following Maxine’s death Monday at 87.
Sure enough, The Browns was maybe the most important vocal group of the “Nashville Sound” era. Indeed, their 1959 hit “The Three Bells,” as Robert K. Oermann noted in his Music Row obituary, was the first true Nashville Sound record to reach No. 1 on the pop charts. Adapted from Edith Piaf’s French language song "Les trois cloches" and produced by Chet Atkins, “The Three Bells” also topped the country charts for 10 weeks and even crossed over to the R&B charts.
Other hits highlighting what Oermann called their “flawless, echoey harmony vocals” include “Scarlet Ribbons,” “The Old Lamplighter” and “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On.”
“They helped write the book on trio harmony singing in country music,” says Nashville country station WSM’s award-winning air personality Eddie Stubbs. “They called it ‘tempered’ harmony.”
Stubbs is also a longtime Grand Ole Opry announcer. The Browns joined the Opry in 1963 and disbanded in 1967 when the sisters retired to raise families. They reunited occasionally at the Opry, and in 2015, were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Jim Ed Brown, who died in 2015 (Bonnie died the following year), went on to a successful solo country music career. But Maxine stood out in her own right for an outsized personality that equaled her talent.
“I remember meeting Maxine on a few occasions at the Opry and she was always very warm and gracious,” recalls music historian John Alexander. “I was a huge fan of The Browns and always held that they were one of the most underrated groups for all that they accomplished. They were able to easily blend country, pop, folk and bluegrass, and their family harmonies were unmatched.”
“Maxine was a force to be reckoned with, and I'll always remember her sense of humor,” noted Trahern, while music historian Edward Morris more pointedly hailed his “salty friend” as “the oldest and by far the prickliest” of the fabled trio.
Morris, with “paralyzing sadness,” recalled in a Facebook post how Maxine had given him the manuscript of her memoir, which he edited (The University of Arkansas Press published Looking Back to See in 2005, and it has remained one of its bestsellers).
“That’s when I really came to know and cherish her,” wrote Morris. “Maxine was the best storyteller I ever met. I grieve that there’ll be no more emails and phone calls from her. I was not there when it happened, but I console myself by imagining her exiting this world with her fist thrust in the air.”
The Browns perform "Looking Back to See" during a Grand Ole Opry reunion
Looking Back to See, which took its title from a 1954 hit she wrote for the then duo of her and Jim Ed, “is a well-written account of the Browns’ impoverished Arkansas upbringing and their ultimate struggles and triumphs within the music industry of the ‘50s and ‘60s,” says Alexander.
“She was a fine songwriter and wrote several hits including ‘Here Today and Gone Tomorrow’—the first Browns trio hit  that they recorded with Bonnie,” adds Stubbs. “It was about a fling she had with a baseball player in the Pine Bluff Chiefs and had the line ‘hit-and-run affair’ playing on it. ‘Looking Back to See‘ was covered by a lot of people—and her wonderful autobiography named after it is a must for anyone who’s a fan of country music of The Browns’ era. Triumph and tragedy—it’s all in there.”
Stubbs recalls the times she appeared on his radio show.
“You never had to wonder where you stood with her,” he says. “She let you know—with no filters and with her salty personality. And even if she was on the radio or on stage, occasionally an obscenity would slip through—much to the chagrin of her brother and sister. I well remember the first time she uttered one over the airwaves on a show I was hosting--and it happened several times on this radio station. But Maxine was one of those people who say things without really offending people.”
Stubbs notes that the last four years had been very hard on her, what with the deaths of Jim Ed, Bonnie, Bonnie’s husband, “and probably worst of all, her eldest son Tommy last year, of cancer. But she knew the Lord and knew something better awaited her.”
And for Maxine and The Browns’ surviving fans, Stubbs relates what Bill Monroe once told him: “A record is forever.”