HARRY BROWNING is a white boy from Arkansas who's learnt to sing with soul and live a life of prayer. He talked to Tony Cummings.
Harry Browning from Hot Springs, Arkansas, USA played the Cross Rhythms festival this year. It was unplanned (he'd unexpectedly arrived on site the day before with fellow American Kevin Prosch) and he could only be designated three songs -just him and an acoustic - while Kevin Prosch's band was setting up. Yet Harry's mini-set made a devastating impact. In the Christian Music And Artists magazine 'Encore' Ian Traynar wrote that Harry "acoustically played the most anointed fill I have ever heard. It was worth being there (at Cross Rhythms festival) for that 15 minutes."
Harry Browning has a new album out, 'Prayers And Promises: For The Building Of The Wall', through Kingsway. But far from being some fresh faced newcomer, Harry is a veteran of the Christian music scene who, back in the 70s with wife Laury Boone (daughter to Pat Boone), enjoyed big selling albums but has now come to a place where he's less inclined to jump through the hoops of big buck CCM marketing. "Back then it was not so much that I didn't like what I did but when you spend X dollars on a project your goal is to follow the Lord but also, if you want to continue, you have to make some money somewhere. In the early years I felt that pressure. I had to do whatever the market wanted me to do, had to get whoever the hottest producer was. So we made records and did okay. But I was never satisfied."
With 'Prayers And Promises: For The Building Of The Wall' Harry has at last achieved creative and spiritual satisfaction, making a stunning album devoted to the topic of prayer with Harry's soaked-in-the-blues voice passionately rasping prayers from the heart over deftly textured rhythm tracks. Startlingly, the album started off with no thought of wide commercial distribution.
"In 1986 Laury and I moved to Kansas City. At that point we were just going to raise the kids and not be involved in music. I started building furniture, which was always a pretty hidden secret desire of mine. Anyway, I did that and at the same time I started attending our church's intercessory prayer meetings and was really moved by different people, people on staff, just everyday people, working, blue collar people, old women, old men, young kids. Just praying what was in their heart, in intercession for lonely people, for Israel, for the nation, for the people down the block. 'Lord, make me a good mother', you know, 'Make me a good husband or wife', praying all sorts of prayers. I was so moved by the poetic nature of many of the prayers that I started writing them down just to remember. I would read them and try to recall the passion that those prayers were prayed with and I would ask the Lord, 'Would you give me that passion like you prayed through Bob or through Miss Smith.' At the time I didn't even have a guitar. I had gotten that far away from music. I had to borrow a guitar because I wanted to recreate to some degree the passion that I felt in the prayers as they were prayed. I started writing music to go with these prayers. Before I knew it I had about thirty songs which were prayers. Laury and I still had, although we'd been putting it off and putting it off, one more record to do with Lamb & Lion. The only songs I had were these prayers, and I really didn't think they would be interested. I really didn't think that it would have any commercial value that they'd be interested in. I told them, but also said, 'we'd be glad to let you off the hook. You don't have to do a record with us.' They said, 'Well, let's hear the songs', and so we played them for them and they said, 'Let's do it!' So I did the first prayers album which is called 'Prayers and Promises', with my wife. The album didn't do that good. I don't know if they caught the vision for it or it just wasn't meant to be. Then later the church that we were attending wanted me to record the other songs. And that is now 'Prayers And Promises: For The Building Of The Wall'." Now the privately recorded 'Prayers And Promises: For The Building Of The Wall' finds itself released in the UK where it's already drawn forth a rave review in Cross Rhythms.
Harry's early home life was far from happy. "My family was not churched. My mother died when I was young and my dad, he was a rounder... you know, alcoholic, drugs, strung out on morphine. Then he took his life. During those really hard years I just left home. It was during the counterculture sixties. So I was a hippy, a country hippy. We'd drop acid and go, 'Dang! I see paisleys everywhere'. We'd get it second, third, fourth hand. Guys from California would come in. It's quite an unusual thing to see a hick on acid, I can tell you. So through those years I just experimented with everything that came down. I was a jock. I was a baseball player. But it's kinda' hard to play baseball and trip. I ended up in a mental institution after suicide attempts and just messed up. Then brilliant deduction! They said 'You're a paranoid schizophrenic, my friend,' like, isn't everybody? It was like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. We had a lot of catatonics in there, but it was interesting. One of the men, he was in for his seventh nervous breakdown, was a Baptist preacher. He handed me my first Christian tract, explaining the Gospel. I read it, thought about it. After I'd done my time in there they said, 'We'll let you out but hey, if you do any more drugs we can't guarantee you won't go catatonic' So I get out and the first thing I did was try to score some stuff; I went to my old buddy who's always dealing some good stuff. But he says, 'I don't have any. I got saved!' I said, 'You got what?', and he tells me his testimony. He suggests that I go to church with him. I do, and that evening I got saved. The Lord actually appeared to me. It was pretty terrifying. I didn't know it at the time but it was similar to the account in Revelation where it's like looking into the noonday sun. I couldn't see His face but I saw a white gown with a girdle... So anyway, I had a dramatic conversion."
It was in 1970 that Harry became a Christian. After going to Bible School he began working as a youth pastor. This in turn led to music. God was doing some amazing things musically in Harry's church for also on the pastoral staff were today's CCM luminary Russ Taff and Bobby Mason, who went on to form the pioneering choral group Living Praise.
"We had a band called Sounds Of Joy around the mid 70s and I was just kind of a guitar player in and out of that group for a while. That's how I got involved in Christian music. Then I joined Youth With A Mission and I was real impressed with Laurie Cunningham. I heard him speaking on the Great Commission and he says, 'Go means a change of location. So go!' So I joined up with Youth With A Mission. For several years I played in a bluegrass group called Zion Mountain, we recorded with Light Records and we spearheaded outreaches like the Montreal Olympics and stuff like that. So once again I'm involved in music. It was there that I met Laury, who was to become my wife. Her father is Pat Boone. When Zion Mountain recorded our album in Los Angeles, through her older sister we stayed at her folk's house. She was off to college, and they were in South Africa at the time, so the house was empty. So we stayed in it while we did our record, and she came home to get some stuff for school, and I met her then. I remembered her and felt, actually, one of those prophetic things, and I wrote it in my journal because I knew if it ever happened no one would ever believe me. But the Lord told me in three and a half years we would be married. But then I never saw her again until she came to visit in Hawaii which is where we were based with Youth With A Mission. She came for a season, to work on the team, and that's where we developed a relationship. Then after three and a half years we were married. At first it was rough waters. Pat wasn't sure if I was the kind of son-in-law he had in mind for Laury... I'm a little emotional and Laury is too. He thought it might not be a strong combination. But I've levelled out a little bit in my old age. So we were married, and we moved to Nashville."
Harry and Laury began to sing together and were soon signed to Lamb And Lion Records, the company owned by Laury's superstar dad. The debut album, a country-rock item 'Sweet Harmony', produced by popular engineer Jonathan David Brown, was a Christian radio success. "We did pretty good with 'Sweet Harmony," remembers Harry. "My wife and I toured around the States and eventually after three or four years in Nashville we moved to California to be closer to her folks and a dear friend of mine Roby Duke."
Engineer, producer and blue-eyed soul man Duke produced Harry and Laury's next album 'Push Back The Darkness'. Then, when Laury was with child Harry did a solo album 'No Alibis', the music of which was used in a 'No Alibis' movie. A couple of years later with Harry acting as Mister Mom Laury did a solo album, Thursday's Child'. But gradually raising a family took priority for the talented duo and music began to be pushed to the background until the unexpected emergence of the 'Prayers And Promises' albums.
Today this consummate singer, guitarist and composer radiates a deep love of God. He loves his Lord, his wife, his children (son nine and twin girls seven) and feels privileged to be playing music he loves.
"To me, music is a reflection of spiritual things. Like, what we call 'the groove' in rock and roll and R&B music which has become so powerful in the world. If you think about how it's taken off, it really hasn't changed. If you go back to the twenties and thirties to find out where the groove really came from, it came from the Lord. For years I never knew what the groove was. I'm just a white boy from Arkansas, you know, and Roby, the 'funky friend' of mine, when he was producing our records would go, 'Man, can't you sing in the pocket?'. I didn't know what 'in the pocket' was. I was too embarrassed to say, 'Roby. I don't know what the pocket is!' Finally, one day it clicked. The pocket is the time between one and two. In drumming the drummer kicks one and the snare is two. If you stretch that, and make a lot of space between one and two... You still have to be within your metre but basically there's a front part of the beat, you can be right on the beat, or you can lay back on the beat. So if like you kind of rush one and lay back two you got more space. Well, to me that's how I look at 'the groove'. It hadn't broken the law of music, but it just stretched it as far as you could. I call that grace. And it feels good, the groove feels good. Black musicians just seem to do it the best. I think that means something spiritually. I think God is trying to say, 'Get a hold of My grace, and it'll be a lot better. You'll feel a lot better about yourself, about life and other people.' So I'm trying to stretch the groove as much as I can, without breaking it."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.