Ashland County has a tie to a hillbilly singer who pursued a music career when country music was starting to fill the airwaves in the 1930s and 1940s.

James Conwell was born in McWhorter, West Virginia in 1917, the eldest child of Ralph and Beatrice Conwell. Like many others, Ralph moved his family to Akron from a West Virginia holler, in search of work during the Depression, and later settled in Albion.

James began his career at radio stations in Akron and Cleveland in 1933, performing under the stage name Slim Carter. The name was a tribute to the famous Carter Family, and "Slim" was an obvious choice for a tall, lanky fellow with sticky-out ears.

By 1940, James had a failed marriage and two children, whom he left with their grandparents. He pursued a radio career on stations in Akron, Cleveland and Youngstown, as well as Fairmont and Wheeling in West Virginia. Locally, he was heard on Mansfield’s WMAN. Soon Slim was singing on the Wheeling Jamboree radio program on WWVA.

In 1942, he met a fellow performer with brown eyes and a sweet voice. Her stage name was Brown Eyes. She won his heart, and they became a couple, both personally and professionally. As he told it, he saw her sing at the Jamboree, and asked her to marry him that same night.

Brownie was born Mary Shvelnas to Lithuanian immigrants in Carnegie, Pennsylvania in 1921. Her father was a coal miner. As a teen, she won a local talent show and, with her parents’ permission, she began performing on the radio. She started out with Shorty Fincher’s Prairie Pals out of York, Pennsylvania before she met Slim Carter.

Slim Carter and Brown Eyes reached the height of their success during the war years. They worked steadily out of radio station WKST in New Castle, Pennsylvania, where they headlined a radio show ensemble called the Home Folks.

In addition, the group often toured the western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia area. They appeared in concert halls, school gymnasiums and on campgrounds and fairgrounds—anywhere a crowd of their fans would gather. Sometimes their concerts doubled as war bond drives, and one of their members even got married during a live show.

Brownie and Slim also published song books filled with music and photos and details about their lives that even included their height and weight. (Brownie was five foot four and 116 pounds, while Slim carried his 190 pounds on a six foot three frame.)

In 1943, Slim and Brownie added a son to their family, which included Slim’s two children who still were living in Albion with their grandparents.

By the 1950s, however, their career had faltered. Slim recorded eight songs, but they failed to make a big impression on the music business at a time when radio stations began spinning records instead of using live performers.

Slim then tried to enter the restaurant business, but he came home drunk one night, and shot Brownie. He did not kill her, but she ended up in the hospital.

Slim did time in prison, and came out with religion. In his later years he dabbled as a radio preacher, and once used a hard luck story to bum money from Johnny Cash. He died of emphysema in 1976.

Brownie never sang again. She returned to her family in Pennsylvania, where she raised her son and eventually remarried. And much to her family’s vexation, she loved Slim until the day she died.

— Sarah Kearns, who writes the Ashland Memories column every other Saturday, works at the Ashland Public Library. Her email is