I just got the news that my beloved Uncle Brownlee passed the bar yesterday. I don’t have the details yet, as I got the news on Facebook. This time, it was a family member who shared the news with me.
I’m not shocked or surprised that Brownlee passed away. I knew this was going to happen. I’m grateful that he made it to Father’s Day, even if he is going to miss his birthday on Friday. I didn’t see him in his last days, but I can imagine what they might have been like. I’m grateful that he was able to go home and be with his family, in the house he grew up in, and that he was very much loved by so many people. I am one of the many people who loved him dearly.
For a lot of reasons, I always kind of felt a special kinship with Brownlee. When I was a little kid, he was the fun uncle. I remember a bunch of us grandchildren would pile into the back of his pickup truck and he’d take us to one of the many swimming holes near the house, driving us through the old train tunnel near the Tolley homestead that you had to honk your horn in because it’s single lane. I remember he had a deep, booming voice and a thick Virginia accent. Now that I’ve been to Scotland a few times, I can hear where that accent comes from. I didn’t inherit it myself, but both of my parents were endowed with it, as were most of my aunts and uncles. I miss hearing it.
Brownlee was a self-taught musician who never could read music very well, but could play the organ by ear. His pride and joy was his Hammond organ, which, for years, he would transport to gigs all over the place, with his band, The Flames. I remember in 1987, my late Aunt Nancy filmed our annual Tolley Thanksgiving reunion for her sons, Bruce and Andy, who couldn’t be there. We had several days of footage from that epic gathering, which happened when most of my aunts and uncles and my beloved Granny were all alive and well.
Our family Thanksgivings are basically big parties. Every Friday after Thanksgiving, there’s a “hop”– a dance party, often with live music played by real musicians, some of which are relatives. In recent years, it’s been held in the old barn at the Tolley homestead in Natural Bridge, Virginia. Brownlee lovingly restored the barn and turned it into quite the party pad. In previous years, our party would be held at various locations, to include the Natural Bridge fire station or at the Natural Bridge Hotel and Conference Center. Wherever they’re held, they’re always a lot of fun.
In 1987, I was 15 years old and at the height of my teen angst. That year, the Flames played in the ballroom at the Natural Bridge Hotel and Conference Center, which, at the time, my Uncle Brownlee was managing. I remember watching the footage of that party, with Brownlee playing organ and trombone. I seem to remember my Uncle Steve also jamming with the band… for all I know, even my mom played organ that night. It was one hell of a party. There was an open bar and… I may have gotten a bit wasted for the first of too many times in my life.
I’m so glad I got to be there for that party, since it was one of the last times I got to see Brownlee play with the whole band, to include his dear friend Donnie Cash, who played saxophone and sang. A few years later, when I discovered my own musical abilities, I would join Brownlee and Donnie for a couple of numbers at the hotel when they would provide music in the hotel restaurant. I remember how much fun it was to sing with them. They were pros, and as much fun as karaoke can be, there is nothing like singing with live musicians. I’m grateful they gave me the opportunity, which was always a huge thrill for me and very flattering, to boot.
I wish I could watch that video of our 1987 party now, especially since it has hours of video of long departed relatives. I’m thinking of that now. In one part of the video, Brownlee is dressed in a business suit. It’s the day after our epic Friday night shindig. He had to go to work. On his way to the car, he stepped in a pile of dog shit. My late Aunt Nancy filmed him as he cleaned the crap off of his shoe in disgust. Nancy asked him how his lip was feeling, since he’d played the trombone at the party. Brownlee memorably said, “It feels like a piece of baloney.” I guess you’d have to play trombone to understand that.
In the years following that party, when I had the ability to drive myself anywhere I wanted to go, I started spending more time with my aunt and uncle at the Tolley homestead. I spent a lot of weekends at the Tolley house during my senior year at Longwood College. I especially got to know Brownlee better, and he became more than just my uncle. He was a true friend. I have so many memories of watching him learn new songs by ear on his organ. He’d play a recording of the song and play his organ along with it until he had it down cold. Later, he’d go drink a Miller Lite. That was the only kind of beer I ever saw Brownlee drink. Naturally, I usually joined him.
Besides playing music, Brownlee loved building things. I shared in a previous post all of the work he did on his home to make it a really special place. He had a real gift for turning odds and ends into things of value. I loved to watch him work and I loved to see the end results of his efforts, which were always magnificently crafted and impressively constructed.
Brownlee and I also shared humor. He was a very funny guy and tolerant of my penchant for crude jokes. I loved hearing his stories about my dad, or about his dad, my Pappy, who died when I was two. I never knew Pappy, but Brownlee helped keep him alive through the stories he and his siblings told. My father did not have a good relationship with Pappy, and he rarely talked about him. Although Granny told me that Pappy was a very nice man, he was also an alcoholic and my dad, being the oldest son, got the brunt of a lot of abuse from Pappy. My dad generally only talked about his father when he was drinking, and he usually didn’t paint the man in a flattering light. So in order to know anything about my grandfather, for whom the road running in front of the “homestead” is named, I usually had to talk to my uncles. Brownlee told me many funny stories about Pappy, reminding me how important it is to separate people from their actions and showing me that I come by my quirky personality honestly. My family is full of funny storytellers, artists, and musicians.
The last time I saw Brownlee– in fact, the last time I would see my late Uncles Carl and Kenneth, and my Aunt Betty– was Thanksgiving 2014. I had gone home to Virginia to honor my father, who died in July 2014. My mom had asked me to sing at my dad’s memorial service. She chose the song “Softly and Tenderly”, but despite having so many musicians in the family, no one volunteered to accompany me. So Brownlee and Bill and I went to the church to set up the recording and give me a chance to practice it. Brownlee and Bill chatted while I rehearsed in the family church. I remembered how welcoming Brownlee was when I brought Bill into our family.
Brownlee and his wife, Gayle, were the first of my family members Bill met. The year was 2001. It was Labor Day weekend. I had driven up to Virginia from South Carolina, and Bill had come down to Natural Bridge from the Pentagon. We had only seen each other in person one other time, in May of that year. We weren’t sure where our relationship was going to go. I remember my aunt and I went to meet Bill at a gas station and lead him to our home. When we walked into the house, Brownlee was frying eggs in his underwear and a wife beater shirt. I introduced Bill to Brownlee and he said hello… and then he said in his deep southern twang, “You wanna egg? I mean it. I’ll knock a hole in one for you.”
Bill and I proceeded to have the most wonderful weekend together. We went to Goshen Pass, which is a beautiful gorge near Lexington, Virginia. I remembered having my sixth birthday there in 1978. It was a family celebration, because there are many June birthdays in our family. My birthday is tomorrow… and Brownlee’s would have been on Friday. Maybe that’s another reason we got along so well– similar birthdays… but then, Brownlee never met a stranger. Most everyone loved him when they met him. He was just fabulous.
After that visit with Bill, Granny– who was then 95 years old– told me I should marry Bill. But then 9/11 happened… Bill was in the Pentagon that day. Fortunately, he survived, and that was when we decided we needed to go public. It didn’t take long before we were engaged, and Brownlee and Gayle were so helpful to me during that time. Brownlee told me to make sure I took good care of Bill. Like me, he was a pretty good judge of character and he knew Bill was a keeper. Then Brownlee and his friend, Donnie, played at my wedding reception, which I really, really, appreciated. Actually, my extended family really helped make my wedding special… I’m not sure I ever expressed to them just how much that meant to me. It meant a whole lot.
The world has lost a wonderful man, but Heaven has gained a great new organ player. I’m sure Brownlee was welcomed by many people who preceded him and loved him as much as I do. I’ll bet Donnie was there, and Granny… and Brownlee’s brothers and sisters. I’m sure it’s a big party now… just like the old days of Thanksgiving 1987.