In September 2015, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF) announced the induction of ‘I Heard the Bluebirds Sing‘ written by Albertan songwriter Hod Pharis. The song’s induction was celebrated with a cover performance by Canadian supergroup The Good Family as part of the CSHF’s on-going Covered Classics series.
‘I Heard the Bluebirds Sing’ was first recorded in 1952 by Pharis and Little Anne for the Vancouver based Aragon Label. It wasn’t until five years later however, that the song reached mainstream success with a version spawned by the popular American country trio The Browns. The group, composed of Jim Ed Brown and his sisters Maxine and Bonnie Brown, saw their recording of ‘I Heard the Bluebirds Sing’ top the country music charts and in the decades since, covered by countless artists from Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge to Bill Monroe and Marty Robbins. We had the pleasure of speaking to Maxine Brown about ‘I Heard the Bluebirds Sing’ nearly 60 years after the song was first heard on radios and televisions across North America.
How did The Brown’s come to record ‘I Heard the Bluebirds Sing’?
Jim Ed Brown was in the army when we first recorded ‘I Heard the Bluebirds Sing’. We (The Browns) were happy when he got out because it meant that we were able to work on our careers again. The song was found by Chet Atkins (who produced The Browns) and we learned it from a couple of Canadians by the names of Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody. As for the writer Hod Pharis, I do remember the name, although I didn’t realize that he was from Canada at the time. Of course, I’ve since learned that he was. It is such a great song and it was a great song for The Browns.
Why do you think the song resonated so well with the listeners?
We were coming off of a big smash hit called ‘Looking Back to See’, following that we had success with the song ‘I Take the Chance’. We did one of the first TV shows that was ever done in Nashville called Country Style USA which was hosted by Jody McCrea. On the show Jim and I sung ‘I Heard the Bluebirds Sing’ and I think after the video came out, that’s when the song really took off. TV was a new thing and there were very few TV shows back then.
‘I Heard the Bluebirds Sing’ called for a duet similar to our earlier hit ‘Looking Back to See’ so I guess that’s why Chet presented the song to Jim and I in the first place. However, the three of us (Bonnie, Jim Ed and I) would always sing the song as a trio on the Grand Ole Opry and in other public appearances. We would always encore with ‘I Heard the Bluebirds Sing.’
Was it a song that you performed a lot throughout your career?
Oh yea! We had too. The public wouldn’t let us leave the stage unless we did! (Laughs) ‘I Heard the Bluebirds Sing’ always remained one of the public’s favourite songs. Even though the ‘Three Bells’ was The Brown’s biggest selling record, the public always wanted to hear ‘I Heard the Bluebirds Sing’.
Did you have any idea that ‘I Heard the Bluebirds Sing’ would become as popular as it did?
No! (Laughs) Never dreamed it would. It has great arrangements. Tommy Jackson played the fiddle and Chet Atkins played the guitar. We recorded the song in the old RCA/Victor studio, which at the time was inside of the Methodist Television, Radio & Film Comission building, on McGavock Street, in Nashville. We recorded the song on two tracks; on one track you had the vocals and on the other, the musicians. It had a great sound to it and still does today. That’s why everybody loves it. It’s good country music.
What does the song mean to you today?
‘I Heard the Bluebirds Sing’ has been good to The Browns. It has been a song that the public have always enjoyed and still continue to enjoy to this day. That in itself means a lot. It has also been recorded by quite a few artists. It is such an honour for the song to have been selected for the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. I’m so proud. I wish Jim Ed was still here to share that with us. He would have loved that.