Sounds of Home
by Barney Quick
Brown County is a songster’s dream. In today’s world, such a small locale having its own rich culture is so rare as to be improbable. Still, it’s here, and the rest of the country continues to be charmed. The area’s gatherings, coffee houses, and wineries ring out with musical depictions of its lore, heroes, scoundrels, and characters.
Nobody exemplifies the Brown County songster more thoroughly than Robbie Bowden. His roots are supremely genuine. His great-grandfather, George Bowden, came from England and settled here in the 1850s.
The Brown County love of music runs deep in his family. His father was a singer. While he wasn’t professional (he was a housepainter), he sang at church and in barbershop groups.
Bowden got music in his blood from both the family environment and the times in which he grew up. He’d been playing clarinet in the school band since sixth grade. By his senior year of high school, however, even though he’d been advanced to first chair, he cast it aside when the folk boom and the British Invasion came along. He got a guitar and started learning Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary tunes. In the spring of 1964, a trumpet player from the school band switched to bass, and he and Bowden started a rock band. They played school dances and political-campaign events. He also kept his folk chops in shape with a vocal harmony group.
In 1972, he and some musical friends started The String Bean String Band, playing mostly for themselves behind the Grasshopper Flats store in Nashville on Sunday evenings.
“We eventually auditioned at The Old Hickory, where The Ordinary is located now, for free beer,” recalls Bowden. They had a residency there from September of that year to January 1973.
“Stu Fleitz, a Carmel dentist, became our mentor and bought us a PA system,” Bowden says. Then another benefactor entered the picture. “Allen Deck, an Indianapolis booking agent, put us on the supper-club circuit. Then he became our road manager and we toured nationwide.”
In 1977, the group recorded extensively in California. That material has never been released.
That year, he appeared on an album that is something of a legend in central Indiana music. He contributed a searing harmonica to “Donkey Blues” on Caroline Peyton’s “Intuition” on the old Bloomington-based Bar-B-Q label. Several people associated with that record have gone on to accomplish much on the area’s music scene.
Bowden spent the years 1979 to 1989 in Arizona, playing in bands that usually included Liza Martin, a vocalist of whom he still speaks highly. He returned because, “it was just time to come back to Brown County.”
In 1997, his boyhood friend, the architect and storyteller nonpareil Steve Miller, told him about a new friend he’d made. Slats Klug had come to the area after a West Virginia upbringing and time in New York City. Klug had diverse musical interests. At the time, he and his wife Lauren Robert were fronting a swamp-boogie band called Mojo Hand.
Klug felt that Miller’s yarns about Brown County should be recorded, and thus was the Liars’ Bench project born. It became an album that involved many of the area’s finest roots musicians, including Bowden. It also marked a continuing partnership for Klug and Bowden. They frequently perform together in various settings and configurations.
Bowden’s sixteen-year-old daughter Erin is carrying the family musicality into the next generation. She writes songs (as well as short stories and a novel) and sometimes joins him on gigs.
Bowden has two projects in the works that fire his passion. One is a book, a collection of reminiscences and short pieces in a variety of literary forms. The other is an album on which he plays most of the instruments. He will be joined by some friends where the arrangements warrant it. He has written several tunes. An old Arizona friend, Tom McCormick, is contributing some numbers, as is Bloomington’s Roger Scales. Bowden is particularly excited about including a particular work by Brown County songwriter Dickie Jones. “It’s called ‘Down Home Folks,’” says Bowden. “Dickie wrote it years ago, when he was still in high school. It’s about coming back to the hills from the city.”
Bowden feels that these are good times for a musical artist to make a viable career out of establishing himself with a regional following. “I don’t miss the days of getting in at five in the morning from a faraway gig,” he says. “I have the best possible place I can imagine to play my music. This is where I used to fish and ride my bike. I’d sit at the counter at Miller’s Drug Store with people who are still my friends and sip cherry Cokes. This place is magic.”
You can usually find Robbie playing his down home music at one of our local venues (Brown County Inn, Chateau Thomas Winery, Franco Marie’s, FigTree) or at special events. Check our activities calendar for upcoming gigs.