The voice is deep, rich, and weathered. The hands may show some age, but they glide over the strings of the old Gibson guitar effortlessly, like they have maybe a million times before. Don Brown is not the same young man that first graced a noisy barroom stage in Cloquet nearly six decades ago, but his country music remains much the same.
Brown started “playing out” with a friend about 1961. “I think the first place we played was down on Dunlap Island in Cloquet, at a little place on the corner called Woody’s Bar,” he said.
“I think we got five bucks a night and all the three-two beer we could drink. So, I was really appreciative,” he recalled with a little laugh.
Looking back at his roots in country music, Brown spoke of being born and raised in a farmhouse on the same beautifully wooded shoreline property his current home occupies.
“My mom and dad were huge Grand Ole Opry fans, and I still remember sitting in the old farmhouse on Saturday nights with a big old radio, and my dad tuning in to the Grand Ole Opry,” Brown said.
Watching the recent Ken Burns series, “Country Music,” on PBS, brought back some good memories for Brown: “I got a kick out of seeing pictures of the old Ryman Auditorium (in Nashville, Tennessee). We went down there in ‘52.”
Brown has continued to play that same style of country music since the very beginning of his life in music.
“When I first heard Johnny Cash back in ‘54, or whenever it was, I was so hooked then, and that was my big thing,” he said. “What I still do is basically Haggard and Cash and Waylon and Charley Pride,” Brown said.
As we spoke in his house overlooking Chub Lake, just south of Carlton, Brown’s big Black Lab appeared at the door. “That’s Cash, the dog in black,” Brown remarked, sharing his easy-going humor.
After graduating from high school in Carlton, Brown attended UMD for a while, then worked for 20 years at Weyerhaeuser in Cloquet. While going to school and working, he continued to play in various country music bands throughout the 1960’s. Then, in the early 1970’s, he teamed up with friend and lead guitarist Doug Soukkala to form the nucleus of the Last Stand Band.
Soukkala himself had started playing guitar at 12 or 13 years old with a local rock and roll band called the Del Mars. He wasn’t too sure about making the switch to country music when Brown approached him with the idea.
But Brown persisted, and their collaboration became a long-running success. The Last Stand Band was good, often playing to large crowds devoted to their style of traditional country music.
They worked hard at their musical craft, and the hours were long. Soukkala recalled, “We used to play from nine to one, and then still go to play at somebody’s house. They’d invite us to stay for breakfast and we’d still be playing at five, six in the morning.”
Brown remembered, “When the Register (bar) opened up in Scanlon, boy, that was a beautiful place to play. It had a huge stage, and a huge dance floor. They opened up about 1980 or so. We played there six nights a week for a year.”
Having been through good times and bad together, stories of the band’s adventures and misadventures during its 15-to-20-year run flowed from these two old friends in a seemingly endless stream of shared consciousness. The countless late nights on stage, traveling to and from shows, setting up and tearing down gear, the guys in the band, and the crowds — all remembered, treasured, and shared freely.
Brown told the story of how a man came into the Register one night, introduced himself as Phil Goodman, and soon joined the band. “Phil was a fantastic steel guitar and five-string banjo player. We were a pretty good band back then, and Phil just added to it, even teaching my son Greg some guitar,” Brown remembered.
“He played with us until one night, he just didn’t show up. The next morning he calls me, ‘You gotta help me out, man, I’m in jail,” Brown said. “Then, on the front page of the Duluth Tribune, we saw that the FBI arrested one of their national “Ten Most Wanted” in Duluth. And there was a picture of Phil Goodman, only that wasn’t his real name. The guy was a career hustler, a crook!”
And so, the band had lost its pedal steel player, but Brown remembered him as a great guy and a great band-mate, one that wouldn’t harm a flea.
Soukkala recalled how a trailer they purchased dirt-cheap fell apart just as they got it home one night, miraculously avoiding serious injuries and the loss of all the band’s gear on Thompson Hill.
Brown recounted how a man armed with a rifle came into a bar where the band was playing and fired a .30-30 round in anger. The band, responding as one, took quick action. “You never saw four guys dive behind a piano so quick,” he marveled.
After many years of playing together, and following the death of a band-mate and dear friend, the band members drifted apart. The Last Stand Band faded into local country music history.
Soukkala went on to play with Mahtowa’s highly acclaimed “Holy Hootenanners” band. Brown, now retired from a career in Law Enforcement with the Carlton County Sheriff’s Department, still plays his beloved classic country as a solo act at nursing homes and assisted living facilities around the area.
In the meantime, after a 31-year recording hiatus (Brown released his only previous album, “Roarin’ Again,” in 1987), Brown compiled some of his favorite recordings from his long career.
These were drawn from his late brother Keith’s extensive recorded collection of original country songs, and his own original music and past recordings. Brown had paid a visit in 1987 to Kerry Rodd at KDAL radio. Rodd had spun the tunes from Brown’s first album and interviewed him, providing the interesting on-air dialogue between artist and DJ that is the format for Brown’s new CD, ”The Keeper.”
Brown’s son Greg, an established Nashville music producer, took Brown’s compiled recordings and the Kerry Rodd radio interview and produced the CD.
New CD in hand, Brown then called his old friend and musical partner, Soukkala. The two had not played together since the breakup of the Last Stand Band in the late 1980’s.
Brown proposed that they play together as a duo one evening from five to eight p.m. at the Chickadee Coffeehouse in Barnum. But, things had changed since the late-night gigs of the old days. Soukkala replied, “Don, I’ve got my pajamas on at eight o’clock!”
Undaunted, the two forged ahead with the plan, and even scheduled a rehearsal. Brown recalled the get-together: “So, he (Soukkala) brought his guitar over, and we sat there. All we did was laugh about old times, sang maybe one or two songs, and said “the hell with it.”
Brown continued, “So, at the Chickadee, well, we bantered a lot there. Doug used to just stand and play lead guitar. But now, he tells stories about the old days, you know, so many stories.”
Brown and Soukkala estimate they have over 200 country classics in their well-played repertoire, so rehearsal takes a back seat to spontaneity, while requests and questions from the audience are welcomed.
Their show at the Chickadee was packed, with people begging them to book a larger venue.
Soukkala recalled what happened next: “After that Don called me up and said, ‘Doug, don’t you think we should play a little bigger place?’ I asked him, ‘Well dang it, Don, what time is that from? And he said, ‘Well I don’t know, what do you think?’ I said, ‘Well, maybe three to four?!?’”
The veteran country music duo is booked to play at the Elmwood Inn on Sunday, October 27th, from three to six p.m., and people are excited about it. Soukkala stated that even people at a Holy Hootenanner gig in Hinckley were asking about the duo’s upcoming show at the Elmwood.
What should people expect at their show? Soukkala answered, “Don and I, we will never change because that’s what we were brought up with — we’re going to keep playing (the original, classic style of country music) until we die.”
“He’s more like a brother to me than a friend,” Soukkala continued. “We went through a lot of stuff together, but we pulled through. And thank God, because otherwise I think we’d both be dead right now if we’d kept on the pace we were going. That’s why this is a blessing to me, that I can do this with Don, because I didn’t think I could ever do this again.”
When Soukkala arrived at Brown’s place for a recent get-together, he took off his old cowboy boots and walked in. Going over some of the music for the upcoming Elmwood Inn gig, they covered old songs from Rosanne Cash, Charley Pride, Don Williams, Gram Parsons, George Strait, Merle Haggard, and of course, Johnny Cash.
Great music, great stories, and great fun are shared by these two old friends — a couple of guys just about as comfortable as an old pair of well-worn cowboy boots can be.