Tales from the Fenceline
“You get a few years in the music business,” says Fontaine Brown, “or not even the music business, but just if you’re a person that loves music, if you’ve been at it a long time, you get a pretty good idea of where the fenceline is. And if you come back from it, and you’ve still got that love, then you can tell some tales from the fenceline. Then, maybe you’ve got an idea about what’s important. Am I being just vague enough?”
Just so. Brown’s Tales from the Fenceline showcases the voice of an artist with stories of cutting his first single at Chess Studios in Chicago in 1962, of producing his own and Bob Seger’s ’60s-punk 45s in Detroit, of an apprenticeship under Motown songwriting great Mickey Stevenson, of playing in Southwind—a band headed for an Apple Records contract until Apple dissolved, so instead produced by industry stalwart Tommy LiPuma—and after all that, not before, of a five-year, wandering bar-band tour he describes as his “man with no fixed address period.” Run that experience through a 200-plus song catalog tapped by the likes of Dave Edmunds, Percy Sledge, John Mayall, Dave Alvin, Joe Louis Walker, Emmylou Harris—and sampled by Gorillaz—and the sum total is an artist who has earned his ideas of what’s important yet retained the artist’s preference for letting his music speak for itself.
Produced by Don Dixon, noted for his work with REM, the Smithereens, Marti Jones, and others, and with a redoubtable studio band of Dixon, Jim Brock, Mitch Easter, and Peter Holsapple supporting Brown’s vocals, guitar, and blues harp, and with backing vocals by Kelley Ryan, Tales from the Fenceline emerged as a bracing concoction in which roadhouse-R&B rhythms run up seamlessly against mandolin runs or electric sitar. Three songs were layered from Brown’s own home-studio demos. The rest rolled out in basically three days’ time at the Fidelitorium in North Carolina.
“Don, he’s a great engineer,” Brown says, “he’s a great bass player, and you go in there, and it’s like a train leaving the station. You’d better be on it. And those musicians, I never have enjoyed myself more. The only thing I hated was that it was over so fast.”
Playing the role of “guiding light,” as Brown describes it, was his longtime friend Dan Bourgoise, the founder and recently retired chief of the indie publishing firm Bug Music. Brown and Bourgoise came up together in the 1960s Detroit rock & roll scene, and later, after both had moved to California, they co-produced The Further Adventures of Charles Westover, a Sgt. Pepper–era album by their Detroit buddy Del Shannon, of “Runaway” fame.
“When Dan decided he was going to retire from Bug,” Brown recalls, “he said, ‘You know, that was always one of the most fun things that I did in my life, is when we did that album with Del. And I would like to get back together and do an album with you, and you record all these songs of yours that other people have been recording, and let’s have a ball.’ ”
Born in 1942 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Douglas Fontaine Brown took to the road at the age of two weeks when his father “got the wanderlust” and bought a trailer. “We took off, and for the next seven years we just criss-crossed the country,” Brown says. “He would stop in a place that he liked, and he’d get himself a job.”
Back in Ann Arbor by age nineteen, and fanatical about the rock & roll generation of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, Brown was making music with friends when one of them told him that Ollie McLaughlin, a local DJ who had managed Del Shannon, was looking for talent. Brown wrote a song, McLaughlin liked it, and next thing he knew, Brown was recording his debut single for the Chess Records companion imprint Checker.
“That was called ‘Blue Night.’ And that was also my first song that I’d ever written, and first time I’d ever sung into a microphone or anything,” Brown says. “It was just a fluke.”
He next formed Doug Brown & the Omens and started to make a name on the local club and frat-party circuit. While working as the house act at the Norwest, a lounge attached to a bowling alley on the outskirts of Detroit, Brown met Bourgoise, himself a precocious, nineteen-year-old artist manager and record store owner who, despite such credentials, needed a fake ID to get into the Norwest. The two became fast friends, and after Brown introduced Bourgoise to Shannon, the three went in on a short-lived song-publishing deal, with Shannon using his access to Dick Clark touring acts to pitch tunes written and sung by Brown and another new friend, Bob Seger.
But enjoying the club scene so much, Brown gave little thought to recording, he says, until he met Dave Leone and Punch Andrews, partners in a legendary Detroit teen club called the Hideout and its companion record label, Hideout Records. Doug Brown & the Omens cut the Hideout single “TGIF”—in honor of the club’s Friday night promotions—with Brown shouting those ’60s-combo words to live by: “Gimme that guitar!” Meanwhile, Seger joined the Omens, and Brown would produce several Seger sides for Hideout, including Seger’s raucous debut, “East Side Story,” and his “Heavy Music,” “which I think is a great record,” Brown says. “I still get a thrill out of hearing it.”
Through a Bourgoise connection, Bernie Yeszin, formerly the art director at Motown, Brown met Mickey Stevenson, whose writing and production credits include no less than “Dancing in the Streets.” Wanting to start his own label, Stevenson mentored Brown in the ways of hit production, and when he did start that label, Venture, Brown joined him in California. For Brown’s first Venture project, Stevenson assigned him to cut the tracks for the Righteous Brothers’ Souled Out album.
But despite such production work, of which he remains proud, Brown decided he was “not really cut out to work at a record company.” So after producing a Venture album by the group Southwind, he simply joined the band, which missed the shot at Apple but did get to record two albums for Blue Thumb. Says Brown, “We had a record called ‘Ready to Ride,’ which did OK, got some notice, and a song called ‘The Heat Down in the Alley,’ which we recorded live at the Fillmore, which got quite a bit of airplay. And that kept us going for a while. But then we did our sort of a classic band meltdown.”
What followed next was the “man with no fixed address period.” “I got in this band, and we got a van, and we basically gave up our apartments and houses, and we went on the road for five years. It was one of those playing little crappy clubs, and just making enough to keep going. But that was really what I wanted to be doing, was playing in a band.”
Brown took one more shot at a record deal, a 1981 EMI release as Fast Fontaine. “After that record didn’t make it, and I’d been out on the road again a lot, Dan said, ‘Well, why don’t you try the songwriter thing. I’ve got the publishing company, and lots of writers that you can work with.’
“And I thought, ‘You know, it might be good to have an address for a while.’ So I moved down to Laguna Beach, and I built myself a little home studio, started writing songs, and I could get just enough covers to keep me going. And so that’s what I did for the next, oh, God, twenty years. Just writing those songs.”
When it came time to record Tales from the Fenceline, the biggest obstacle was how to winnow the album down to a cohesive twelve songs from the 200-plus in Fontaine’s catalog. But Bourgoise and Dixon helped with their own perspectives. “From the second that I stepped on the plane with Dan, we started creating this mood,” Brown says.
In the end, Tales from the Fenceline came together, as Bourgoise describes it, “just like the way we used to listen to AM radio, where things flowed together in a good way. When it’s bluesy, it’s just bluesy as it can get, but at the same time there are elements that are just a real pop treat.”
Of course, Brown had certain favorites to include. “Like ‘Detroit Saturday,’ I just really wanted that song. I wanted to have a little sermonette for my old stomping grounds. Something where I could really testify and—you know, it’s like a little message from me to Bob Seger,” Brown laughs.
Another favorite is the moody “Lost in the Sensation.” “I just wanted to have that on there,” he says. “It’s a certain feeling in there—it’s a love song, and I just wanted to say, ‘This is for me. I like this. This should be on there. If you’re gonna have ‘Fenceline,’ then you gotta have ‘Lost in the Sensation,’ too.”
Both Brown and Bourgoise emphasize more than anything the spirit of the sessions themselves, the studio camaraderie that worked its way into the music. “It was about three days, and we’d cut a couple songs, and then we’d all go out and have dinner,” Brown says. “And we’d have a long, long dinner, and then we’d go back and cut a couple more. It was just a beautiful way to work. I mean, I think that the dinner was as important as the sessions, because we would sit there, and we just really got to know each other. We got a good feeling going.
“We didn’t talk about the arrangements so much as we talked about the feeling of the song, what is the emotion of this song. And then everybody would just give it their best, and bang, it would be over, darn it. I can’t wait to do it again. It was a high point of my life.”