My father’s son: Brand making name in country music
In his song "Walking in My Father's Shoes," Craig Morgan sings lovingly of a father who taught his son how to be a man by example: "He taught me so many things, even when he wasn't trying to," one line recalls.
Country music has a cherished tradition of emphasizing the often complex relationship between fathers and sons.
On the positive side of the ledger, it has celebrated the fathers who were worthy of emulation.
In one of his most beloved hits, "A Father's Love," George Strait croons about the love between a father and son, typifying it as "a love without end, amen." The song ends by comparing an earthly father's love to that which the Heavenly Father possesses for His people. President George H.W. Bush, a lifelong country music aficionado, called Strait's song his favorite because it reminds him of a treasured relationship with his own sons.
On the negative side, country has also mourned deeply those fathers who were MIA.
Hank Williams, Jr., has often written songs that reflect wistfully on the tragic legacy of his father, Hank Williams, Sr., a legend who died at age 29 after little more than a half-decade of hit-making and hard-living. The elder Williams left a legacy of womanizing, drunkenness and drug abuse that no son would benefit from emulating.
More recently, in the Billy Currington hit "Walk a Little Straighter, Daddy," a son pleads with his alcohol-dazed father to "walk a little straighter daddy, you're leading me." The boy grows up and concludes, "My old man is still like he was, but I love him anyway and if I've learned one thing from him it's my kids will never have to say: ‘Walk a little straighter daddy.'" The song is an emotional reminder of the unspeakably profound stewardship involved in fatherhood.
Owen Brand, son of Chad Brand, professor of theology at Boyce College and Southern Seminary, is in position to write a song of the decidedly more joyful variety about his father's legacy and personal impact. At 27, the younger Brand is a rising country music talent who, alongside musical heroes such as Haggard, Cash and Jennings, places Chad Brand as the most influential man in his life.
"My dad has taught me about great theology and early on, he sat me down and taught me about good music," Brand said. "Dad and I are very close and he been a great influence on my life and my music."
Owen Brand's musical pilgrimage began some 13 years ago at age 14 after his father introduced him to classic rock and country artists such as the Beatles, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and challenged him to assess the worldviews communicated in each. Owen soon took up playing guitar, another of his father's longtime pleasures, and at 14 played his first paid gig.
"When I was 13 I got my first guitar for Christmas and I started playing in bands a couple of years after that, all local stuff," Owen Brand said. "My first gig was at an opening of a Burger King in South Carolina at age 14. We got $40 apiece for it and each of us got a cardboard Burger King crown."
These days, Brand is not playing openings for hamburger joints, but is fronting, as lead singer and guitarist, his own group known as "Firebrand," a band that includes his wife, Whitney. Brand also regularly plays shows as a freelance guitarist for other groups. His travels are often rigorous and have taken him in recent years from the southernmost tip of the U.S., Key West, Fla., to the upper northwest, including the Dakotas and the Rocky Mountains.
Firebrand performs cover tunes of classic country and Southern rock artists, but also sings original songs that Brand has written. Brand writes in the classical storytelling vein of old country music. In the fall, he plans to record his first full-length original album with famed producer Elliott Mazer, who has worked with such folk rock legends as Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin.
The elder Brand, who also plays guitar and loves classic country, says he was awakened to his son's significant musical gifts long ago and has watched them gain momentum like a Southern Railway engine in a Boxcar Willie song.
"I think Owen has been gifted by God," Chad Brand said. "When he first learned to play, we would play together and I would play ‘Proud Mary' or something like that. I would play the cords and sing a little bit and he said, ‘I'll never be able to do that.' Within six months, he had far outstripped me. He is incredibly gifted both as a guitarist and a vocalist."
In recent months, when Owen is home from the road, the two Brands have played and sung gospel songs in church together at Northside Baptist Church in Elizabethtown where Chad Brand serves as pastor. Most recently, they dueted on Josh Turner's hit "Long Black Train."
Owen Brand says he is drawn to country music because of the genre's ability to communicate stories that relate to both the hard times and good times that form the metanarrative of everyday life. Country music, with its close historic ties to gospel and blues music, is an excellent means for communicating the fallenness of the world and every man's need for divine grace, he said.
"The book of Job is the perfect wrap up of country music," he said. "Look at the book of Job and tell me that's not every CM song you ever heard? Job didn't have a pickup truck, but if had, it would have been stolen. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about.
"The world we live in is fallen. If I'm out there singing my songs in these clubs and restaurants on Saturday nights and I can cause people to ask the right questions and seek wisdom from someone in their lives like their pastors, then that would make me happy.
"If you were to take a theological example of what I am talking about, think about Jonathan Edwards' first delivery of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." People were crawling over the pews to be saved and he told them, ‘No, go home and come back next week.' That's how I feel about writing and singing. If, when I play and sing, somebody gets to a point to where they want some answers they are going to go ask the people who can point them to the answer."
Working in an industry in which the artists often live out the honky-tonk songs they perform, how does Brand hope to make an impact as a follower of Christ? First and foremost, he wants both his fans and fellow artists to witness something different in his daily life.
"You have to be around sinners if you are going to speak to sinners," he said. "But you have to be in the world, but not of it. I get a chance every time I play to lead by example. Often, people will want to buy me a shot (of an alcoholic beverage), and I say, ‘Give me a Diet Coke and I'll be fine.' By the end of the night, I'll have 12-15 Diet Cokes lined up on the stage. You'd be surprised how people notice that.
"When you are up playing in front of people, they are watching everything you do. So, they notice when you aren't drinking and you are able after the set and to interact with and be gracious to the fans."
Further plumbing the father-son theme, how will Chad Brand, who often attends his son's performances when they are within close proximity, help his son avoid the dark underbelly of the entertainment world?
"I encourage him to avoid the dark side of the music industry," Chad Brand said. "I probably had to do that more in the earlier days than now, because he has really found his own footing. I don't really feel like I have to tell him what to do at this point, because he isn't caught up in the dark side of the music industry at all."
Having his wife and infant son-named Buck Owen Brand after Buck Owens, who pioneered the Bakersfield country sound- on the road with him much of the time provides natural, and much-welcomed, accountability. Dad, he said, will always be there as well.
"It is a hostile environment," he said. "I have really good structural foundation build into my life. I have a great family. I have a really solid relationship with God and my family, and of course, with my dad. I am very thankful for these relationships."