We had arrived at the gravel bar but Ralph was nowhere to be found. We went to the low water slab that crossed Huzzah Creek, stuck our heads over the side and hollered ”Ralph are you down there?” It took a couple of minutes but here he came, soaking wet, crawling out from under the slab. The days had been hot. Over 100 degrees and Ralph would often be under the slab where he could wedge himself between a rock and the abutment for a cool nap.
He was Ralph Brown or Treehouse Brown as he was known in the area. We were doing a documentary about this cantankerous old river rat who we had come to love. To get him going in the morning we would stop at the Country Mart on our way to Steelville and pick up some jelly filled pastry to get his sugar up and going. I had met Ralph about a month earlier when we visited him on his river property, the centerpiece being his house. A large shack on polls high in the trees above his gravel bar. Thus his nickname Treehouse Brown.
By this time we had gotten to know each other. “Treehouse Brown” was no longer a person to fear as many folks in the county did. He was just a 70 year old man who had spent his life on the river living it on his own terms. The stories about him were the things legends were made of and I was anxious to get as much of him on tape as I could.
Ralph was a bear of a man who could hoist an aluminum canoe on top of his pickup like it was a child’s toy. His river, the Huzzah, was famous for floating and that was Ralph’s occupation. He rented canoes. However, if one wanted to stop or camp on his gravel bar he charged them a dollar, no two ways about it. Once some ununiformed St Louis police officers stopped at his gravel bar. When Ralph demanded his dollar they told him no, at which point Ralph turned the canoe over, dumped the officers in the river, picked up the canoe, and threw it across the river. Later on, as the story goes, he threw it across the river with the officers still inside. Like I said, he was a man from which legends are made.
Being over 100 degrees every day, dragging Ralph out from his spot under the bridge was a blessing. We figured that was probably the only time his body ever touched water and he could get “ripe” as the day went on. In fact there was often an argument about who was going to put the lavalier microphone on him. And riding with him in his pickup could bring a person to tears.
Ralph would tell us stories about the old days when he was the only person on the river renting canoes. He knew everyone in the county and he had a story about each of them. That was good because I wanted to tell the story about how river life had changed in Missouri over the last 75 or 100 years. He introduced us to men who had cut railroad ties from the trees and turned them into great rafts which were floated down the river to St. Louisback in the 1920’s. He told us about making molasses from sorghum and the best way to spear frogs for dinner.
Ralph was also known for getting in the occasional gunfight. He told us the story about the time a man came at him with a gun and said “Damn ya I’ll kill ya” at which point Ralph said “Then we’ll go to Hell together and I shot him in the chest with a shotgun. I’ve got a crippled arm but I’m still here.” I never did hear about any deaths but I believe those stories are one reason people who didn’t know him gave him a wide berth.
As it turned out, the film “Treehouse…an ozark story” became a popular project winning the film a CINE Golden Eagle and appeared on PBS. It also helped launch my video career. Music and film go very well together and I felt fortunate in being able to take part in both disciplines simultaneously.
One afternoon as I sat in the car watching Ralph clean some frogs he had just speared his nickname, Treehouse Brown, began ringing in my ears. Seemingly, out of nowhere, a melody appeared to go along with the words I was hearing. It was a Celtic kind of melody that probably dated back to Scotland. Having grown up in folk music I understood where this was going and let my mind just follow. The names of the oldtimers Ralph told me about soon appeared as did the hardscrabble life in the county. The image of Ralph cleaning frogs for dinner added to the vibe and before I realized what was happening there was a song. Treehouse Brown.
As I was wrapping up the video project I called Michael and asked if he would help me with a recording. He said “sure” and sang lead and played guitar. I did the harmony and played banjo, and called on Roger, our favorite steel guitar player, to work his magic. And then it was a complete recording that became the soundtrack for the documentary and eventually part of Brewer and Shipley’s Heartland album.
To this day Treehouse remains the work I am most proud of. Having started my creative career as a folk singer, then a recording artist, and eventually a television producer, being able to write and record a folk song about the subject I was filming allowed me to bring these disciplines together into a single piece of work. For that I will forever thank the spirits that watch over those of us who decide, for better or for worse, to make our living as artists.