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Bill Browning

By Paul Gartner

Publicity photo of Bill Browning from the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Doris Browning.

Bill Browning, the writer of “Dark Hollow”—a beloved song among bluegrass and Grateful Dead fans around the world—is largely unknown.

Though other musicians who shared a stage with Bill went on to greater acclaim, his professional career lasted only five years before he quit to help raise his family. He did, however, know the satisfaction of watching one of his songs climb the record charts. With two verses and a chorus, “Dark Hollow” is concise, and tells of longing for a lost or distant love.

Dark Hollow” is now a standard in the bluegrass songbook. “It is one of those songs that took on with the people, and they just love it,’ said John “Buckwheat” Green, a Putnam County native and professional bluegrass musician. “There’s been a 1,000 bluegrass bands do it, and they still do it.”

Bill’s approach to songwriting and performing was straightforward. “When there’s national sadness, country-and-western music comes to the top,” said Bill. “People don’t want to hear no put-on.”

His original recordings are still in demand. “I don’t know how many countries I get royalties from,” says Doris Browning, his widow. Original copies of the 45 record—released by a small, independent, country label in Cleveland—can be found for sale on eBay.

 Ironically, one of the great bluegrass songs ever didn’t start out as a bluegrass song. “Rockabilly was really his thing,” Doris remembers. “‘Dark Hollow’ has kind of a bluegrass sound. He didn’t mean for it to be bluegrass, but it turned out that way. It’s now like a bluegrass national anthem.”

Doris Johnson Browning was raised in Hurricane, on a farm that’s buried under Interstate 64 today. “I worked with my dad out in the fields, every day,” Doris says. “I worked all day baling straw, carrying bales, and stacking them. I was strong, I’ll tell you.”

She still lives in the brick home she shared with Bill, on a busy highway near Hurricane. It’s just up the road from the building that used to house the recording studio they operated. Family photos and a wedding picture grace the living room walls. Bill’s guitar is in a back room. Plastic-wrapped vinyl gospel records from their music labels line a bookshelf.

Bill Browning was born May 16, 1931, in Wayne County, to Haskell and Elsie Browning. His father was a coal miner. Bill was raised in Kanawha County, on Dry Ridge, outside St. Albans. There was music at home, and his dad bought him a guitar when he was 13.  He played music with neighbors. Doris recollects, “Then he got with an older man, Lou West, and they had a little country band.” Bill’s brother Carlos (1933-2011) was also in this band, The Kanawha Valley Boys, which performed from late 1947 until sometime in 1950.

The band had a show on WTIP radio in Charleston. The station, which went on the air in 1946, broadcast from a studio over Scott’s Drug Store at the corner of Capitol and Fife (now Brawley Walkway) streets. At that time, WTIP was perhaps best known for its early morning country music show, “The Kanawha Valley Jamboree,” hosted by Sleepy Jeffers. [For more about Jeffers, see “The Buddy Starcher & Sleepy Jeffers Shows” by Ivan M. Tribe (Spring, 2013)].

“He was playing in a little schoolhouse over at Scott Depot when I met him” Doris said. She can still recite the exact date: Friday, January 13, 1950. Doris and Bill were wed two months later, March 12, 1950.

After Bill’s military service was over in 1955, he and Doris moved to Cleveland. While working as a truck driver there, he formed The Echo Valley Boys and was emcee at The Circle Theater at 10208 Euclid Avenue. The theater frequently featured black musicians as well as “The Hillbilly Jamboree” with established and up-and-coming country acts. Elvis Presley played there in 1955, along with Roy Acuff, Johnny & Jack, and Dottie West, among many others.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.