The unsinkable Marty Brown -- Too country for Nashville, the singer goes to the back roads of the South to find his audience

We’re rolling north on I-75 toward Atlanta in a ’69 Cadillac convertible, top down, a rangy country singer and his road manager smoking cigars up front and two dignified members of the press scarfing Moon Pies in the back. The sun’s a hazy fireball, turning the long ribbon of asphalt, the tall Georgia pines, and the hot, heavy air itself a delirious, misty pink; the only thing missing is a soundtrack. Suddenly, though, there is one, a rockabilly howl so frisky and sly you’d think there was a baby bobcat in this car: ”I’m a ca-a-a-lm, c-o-o- o-l DADDY!/ In a lo-o-o-ng, re-e-ed CADDY!/ Cadillac Man!/ (Cadillac Man!)/ I’m a Cadillac Man!/ (Cadillac Man!)”

Marty Brown’s feeling fine, and no wonder. Only a year or so ago he was cutting tobacco and working as a plumber to make the trailer payments and support a wife and two kids in his hometown of Maceo, Ky. (population 400), driving down to Nashville every chance he got with his guitar and a pillowcase full of songs and getting the doors of Music Row slammed in his face. Then, in an apotheosis so dramatic, so Nashville, that it was documented on 48 Hours last spring, he got his big break: After spending the night in a Nashville alley — and not for the first time, either — he came across the words ”Trust Jesus” scrawled on a sidewalk — not just any sidewalk but the one outside the BMI building. He went straight upstairs to the office of mover-and-shaker Kurt Denny (then associate director of writer-publisher relations), blew him away with his songs, and lo, the doors of Music Row did open.

Now his debut album, High and Dry, has been released on MCA, and critics are comparing his ”choke-and-moan” vocal technique to the hallowed Hank Williams Sr. and his low-down country-blues style to the young Elvis Presley. With a musical sensibility rooted in the deeply rural traditions of ’50s country music, Brown’s being touted as the real deal, and boy is he ever. Until this year he’d never been more than a couple hundred miles away from blink-and-you-miss-it Maceo. Now, at age 26, he’s not only played at the Grand Ole Opry, he’s also seen the Atlantic Ocean for the first time (he liked it), eaten his first Chinese food (didn’t like it), and taken his first plane ride (hated it).

But not everybody is rushing to hail Marty Brown as the man who’s putting the country back into country music. To be sure, Brown’s two singles, ”Every Now and Then” and ”High and Dry,” have been getting played on smaller radio stations, and TNN and CMT have been airing the videos. But the major country radio stations — who are doing just fine with the traditional but incomparably slicker ”hat acts” like Garth Brooks, Clint Black, and Alan Jackson — have yet to play his music.

All of which explains what Marty Brown is doing out here in this Cadillac on the back side of nowhere. In search of the ultimate down-home audience, he’s doing the ultimate down-home tour, performing at small-town Wal-Mart stores from the Carolinas to Texas, 44 Wal-Marts in 42 days, just him and road manager Raymond Hicks, a sharp Nashville cat who also road-manages for Hank Williams Jr.

They’ve been having some thrills on this trip, but not even the 5,000th performance of their epic cocomposition ”Cadillac Man” can beat what happened to Marty this September afternoon somewhere outside Forsyth, Ga.: He caught a fish, a great big old slimy 31/2-pound bass that he pulled out of the most pitiful puddle you ever saw, even though he was only supposed to be posing with his fishing pole for a picture. As he hauls the thing back to the car I observe to him — not yet realizing that eerie stuff like this has a way of happening around Marty Brown — that he’d really had some luck.

”Well, I really don’t believe it was luck,” he objects in his genial Kentucky twang, sorry to contradict a lady and all, but facts are facts. ”I knew if I got down farther into that deep water I’d catch somethin’.”

Beaming over his fish, he announces he wants to get the damn thing mounted. Sure, Marty, no problem, we’re only in the middle of the Georgia boonies, with 45 minutes to find the Forsyth Wal-Mart. There must be tons of places to get a fish petrified. Maybe a 7-Eleven? We pile into the car, and five minutes later we’re pulling into the dusty parking lot of the only establishment for miles, nothing special, just your typical combination grocery store, tackle shop…and taxidermist.

Inside, there are five or six locals lounging around, staring at us with pretty much the same warmth as the stuffed lynxes and deer heads and 40-pound catfish on the wall and the (live) rattlesnake over by the snack rack. I’m beginning to get that Deliverance feeling, especially when one of the women frowns and starts studying Marty, who’s all covered with sweat and slime and carrying his big fish in a ratty paper bag. (I mean, what’s the problem, is there a dress code or something for this place?) ”Hey,” she finally says, the universal gaga of recognition slowly dawning in her face, ”aren’t you supposed to be over’t the Wal-Mart?”

”Attention Wal-Mart shoppers! Marty Brown has arrived and will be singing selections from his album high and dry near the electronics department!”

The folks at the Forsyth Wal-Mart have really made an effort, furnishing Marty with an attractive 3-foot-high backdrop of American flags halfway between the Emerson Hi-Speed Dubbing Dual Cassette AM/ FM Stereos ($59.84) and the Toy-Time Savings display of SCAMPS, the Little Walk and Cuddle Puppy, a steal at $19.86. With no backup band, or even a microphone, Marty Brown sits down on a stool with his guitar, introduces himself, closes his eyes, and starts to wail ”High and Dry” like he was either center stage at Carnegie Hall or off on a rock someplace going through the blackest moment of his life. There are young mothers loaded down with babies and clutches of teenagers and matrons in curlers and guys in tractor hats standing in the aisles, and they’re digging him. ”Even the men like him,” a woman informs me at a show the next day, a Marty Brown authority who has driven three hours from Arab (rhymes with Ahab), Ala., to see him. As the show goes on Marty shoots the breeze with the crowd, and it’s clear his strongest suit with these folks is that he’s recognized as one of their own.

”My kids are hillbilly-born!” whoops one woman.

Then Marty turns to a tiny blond girl shyly clutching her mama’s thigh. ”I got a little girl at home just about your age,” he says kindly. ”Her name’s Krystal, what’s yours?”

She stares at him a second — Is this a trick question? — then summons up her courage to speak. ”Krystal,” she whispers.

Marty Brown may well be your basic ultrapolite, hardworking, God-fearing country boy who attributes his good fortune to the Lord and his musical abilities to his dad and his mama, both of whom he says are talented singers. (”Oh, but not original like Marty,” says Mrs. Barbara Brown. ”I think maybe the best thing I did for him was to have him hearing Hank Williams Sr. from the time I was carrying him in my womb.”)

But spend any time around him and you realize he’s not just a good musician, he’s musically pixilated, one of those people who seems literally to have music in his bones, who can translate whatever he’s feeling directly into a song and do it all day long. ”I just write about what I know,” he shrugs, his face, as always, possessing a peculiar transparency in which you can see both the big-eyed little boy he once was and the wizened old coot he’ll be someday. ”I write about what I long for, what I dream for, or what I’m hurt about, being hurt, ’cause I have been.”

Now divorced, Brown’s back living in the house he grew up in in Maceo with his folks and his two children, ages 4 and 3, and his marriage is the one subject he refuses to discuss. (”It still kinda hurts to talk about.”) What he does like to talk about is his still-fresh amazement at having been courted by Nashville bigwigs — ”They were buyin’ me shish ke bobs!” — and his gratitude to the people who’ve changed his life: Kurt Denny; his manager, Mike Robertson; and MCA Nashville executive VP and head of A&R Tony Brown, who signed him.

Brown, who produces heavy hitters like Reba McEntire but also has a reputation for seeking out less mainstream new talent, says that neither he nor High and Dry coproducer Richard Bennett had any inclination to tart up Marty’s songs. ”I think country music needs someone like him right now,” he says. ”Marty’s so traditional he’s on the edge, he’s rock & roll, which is why so many of his fans are young. He’s like a folk hero to them, and I could honestly see some network offering him a TV show one of these days.”

Could be, but on the last day of the Georgia tour Raymond Hicks has got his hands full just getting Marty into the La Grange Wal-Mart on time. We’ve been fishing again, this time at West Point Lake on the Alabama line. We’re late, it’s hot, and we’re hustling to pack the car. Suddenly we hear music, live music, coming from a nearby campsite. Everybody ignores it except Marty, who’s listing toward the sound, pulled by invisible strings like a deer picking up the scent of somebody’s prize lilacs. Next thing we know he’s gone, and by the time we run over to drag him back, he’s already in a full-out jam session with the Mull family — Chuck Mull and Sandy Mull and daughter Karen and various little Mulls. And before long Marty and the gray-haired Mrs. Mull are getting up a harmony on what Marty calls ”that Amazing Grace song” — you know, the one his grandma loved so much? — singing all the verses and then making up more, singing to the Lord, singing just to be singing. He’s five minutes late for the Wal-Mart, but nobody minds, nobody at all.