A while back the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition spotlighted the history of Bluegrass in Cincinnati and Southwest Ohio. Industrial Strength Bluegrass, the book and the recording, situates the rise of Bluegrass squarely with the urban Appalachian heritage of greater Cincinnati. A subset, if you will, of this musical legacy is that wild child of hillbilly music we know as Rockabilly. There is plenty to talk about on this topic, but the Godfather of local Rockabilly is David Rhodes Brown and the Warsaw Falcons. I had the pleasure of talking to David Rhodes Brown to get some of his story and a sense of what he is doing these days.
David Rhodes Brown is the grandson of a Kentucky tenant farmer. He was born here in Cincinnati, but only after his father did some wandering– from Kentucky, to the military, and finally to Cincinnati. Brown explained that his heart was always with Rockabilly. This was the musical style that spoke to him even as his earliest forays into music were some adolescent attempts at singing Rolling Stones covers. “I was singing ‘Satisfaction’ when I didn’t even know what that meant,” Brown remembered. He explained that he didn’t really have any formal training: “My sister had a guitar, and I mostly just beat the strings off it. I picked up a 12-string in the Navy, but I didn’t know how to tune it.” By the end of the early 1970s he had begun to pick up on the guitar simply by learning things by ear. He explained that he “learned to play along with Rockabilly songs without actually learning the songs.” This led to a unique and original style. His unmistakable smokey voice was just in the genes.
Brown played with a few bands through the 70s. Punk and New Wave were beginning to dominate things, but by the early 80s, David Rhodes Brown decided he was ready to play music his way. In 1982 he formed the Warsaw Falcons, and this would prove to be a decisive moment. The Warsaw Falcons blew everyone away. “We had a regular round of gigs at Cory’s [now the Mad Frog in Coryville], and I told the owner to take out all the tables and chairs. At one point we were exceeding capacity with another 30-40 people waiting outside,” remembers Brown.
I can remember this time clearly. I was packing in with dozens of people to see the Warsaw Falcons at the old Dollar Bill’s on Short Vine. David Rhodes Brown said he negotiated that arrangement with the owner of Dollar Bill’s one night on bar napkins. At their peak, the Warsaw Falcons were playing all over Cincinnati to packed houses. Brown remembers this time fondly: “We were living good during that time, but I told the guys in the band, don’t get used to this.” The music business is fickle, and Brown knew this well.
What is most significant to UACC about the rise of the Warsaw Falcons, and the continued presence of David Rhodes Brown in local music, is they are part of the long history of urban Appalachian music in greater Cincinnati. Going back to the days of King Records in Cincinnati, the trajectory of American music was being partially guided by musicians from our area. When King Records were at their height their advertising line was “If it’s a King, It’s a Hillbilly – If it’s a Hillbilly, it’s a King.” We should also consider people like the Delmore Brothers who recorded at Cincinnati’s Herzog Studios. Some credit the Delmore Brothers with the first rock and roll recording ever and as the pioneers of what would become Rockabilly. The Warsaw Falcons grew out this stream and made it flow like few before them. That hillbilly line that gave rise to Industrial Strength Bluegrass also fueled those who gave the world Rockabilly and rock and roll. While Rockabilly is most often associated with the early rock and roll of the 1950s. David Rhodes Brown and the Warsaw Falcons made it clear it is a timeless feature of the musical palette and they are still churning it out to this day.
David Rhodes Brown is still hard at it playing steel guitar with the Country-Rock Band 500 Miles to Memphis. The Warsaw Falcons have had something of a rebirth in the last few years. When I spoke to Dave, he was recovering from some health issues, but he could not conceal his enthusiasm for what he does. “Things depend on my health, but I am still playing guitar and steel and sitting in on recordings with the folks who want me to play,” said Brown. “Covid-19 has shut everything down more than anything else,” he continued. Brown came to 500 Miles to Memphis in his trademark style. After trying to get in touch with the guys in the band and not getting anywhere, he showed up at a gig with his lap steel and amp and told them he was there to play with them. Brown explained: “There was a show to celebrate the birthday of Hank Williams Sr. I showed up and told everyone they needed a steel guitar to play Hank Sr.” After the show, Ryan Mallott from 500 Miles to Memphis asked Brown if he’d play with them again. Brown replied: “Hell, boy, I’ll join your band!”
If you have not listened to 500 Miles to Memphis, you are missing out. This is some blistering hot rockin’ country music, and David Rhodes Brown’s steel guitar soars.
In writing for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, I am fortunate to get the chance to talk to some of the finest artists, writers, and musicians in Greater Cincinnati. This time, I got to have a pure fan moment. David Rhodes Brown sets the bar high for musicians of all kinds. Singer, guitar player, songwriter—his longevity is due to his dedication to the art of music. From the Warsaw Falcons to 500 Mile to Memphis, and just about anything else he wants to do, David Rhodes Brown is truly one of the greats. Below are links to David Rhodes Brown’s website and Facebook. I also included a link to 500 Miles to Memphis.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.