by Len Lear
Acoustic Guitar magazine calls Rolly Brown’s guitar sound “an exceptionally melodic, articulate playing style that takes full advantage of the acoustic guitar’s beautiful tone.” Guitar expert Bennett Hammond has written, “He’s the real deal, the gen-you-wine article, the guitar picker’s guitar picker.” And blues master Andy Cohen (who is prone to hyperbole) told Brown, “Dammit, you are the best that ever was. You may quote me.”
Brown is a National Fingerpicking Champion and former Philadelphia Music Award nominee who will be performing at a house concert in the Wellesley Road home of Ann Mintz in West Mt. Airy on Saturday, June 22, 8 p.m.
Brown, 70, grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Sellersville, but he has lived in the Greater Philadelphia area for 43 years.
Brown started playing the guitar at age 15, but he is no one-trick pony, since he has also been an acupuncturist for 30 years and a Tai Chi Ch’uan practitioner and teacher for 43 years.
“I was at Kent State when the National Guard murdered four students in 1970,” he said. “I left after that and returned to school much later.”
Brown earned a professional degree in acupuncture in 1989, a B.A. in Eastern Studies from Skidmore College in 1997 and a Master of Acupuncture from the Tri-State College of Acupuncture (NYC) in 2004.
But one moment Brown will definitely never forget was in 1980, when he won the National Fingerpicking Championship over 30 other contestants at The Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield KS, considered the elite national competition in acoustic music, boasting past winners like Chris Thile, Allison Krauss and Mark O’Connor
“I haven’t modeled myself after any other single guitarist,” he said last week. “Many of my favorites are not well known to the greater public. These include the Rev. Gary Davis, George Van Eps, Lenny Breau, Bert Jansch, Steve Mann, Pierre Bensusan and Pat Martino. The list could go on and on. If you want to hear some great music, try ‘YouTubing’ them.”
Brown was also a Philadelphia Music Award nominee in the late 1980s. The winner was not Brown but Ken Ulansey, a great saxophone player and former Chestnut Hill resident who now lives in Elkins Park. He has also been a sideman over the years for almost every well known musician in the Greater Philadelphia area folk/acoustic community.
Many of his gigs these days combine teaching and performing during music seminar “camps.” Over the past two decades he has done these in New Hampshire, Colorado, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maine, Massachusetts and Canada.
What was the hardest thing Brown ever had to do?
“This doesn’t get talked about much, but as we musicians age, our physical skills degrade. While I’ve been fairly lucky in that department, I’ve still had to adjust to the changes required in order to keep making good music.
“Because I started with a very wide variety of skills and have tried to maintain the attitude of a student, the whittling down is not usually noticeable to audiences, but it’s there. On the other hand, with access to less speed and flash, I’ve had to try and excel at playing with great taste … Also very hard was the putting down of several beloved dogs over the years.”
What is the best advice Brown ever received?
“Strive to do your very best, with no expectation. This is the hallmark of learning any art; the guitar, Tai Chi Ch’uan, acupuncture, whatever.”
If he could live at any other period in history, what period would Brown choose and why?
“I came of age after McCarthyism and lived most of my adult life in the progressive bubble that seems to be ending with the current Fascist regime. What could be better? I was at Woodstock, I met many of my guitar idols, we have air conditioning and so much more…”
If Brown could meet and spend time with anyone on earth, living or dead, who would it be?
“I did get to spend a couple days with Rev. Gary Davis, one of the two greatest ragtime blues guitarists ever, but I wouldn’t have minded spending a couple more years hanging out with him.”
Reservations are needed for Saturday’s concert at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more about Brown, visit RollyBrown.com. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com