In five years together singing country music duets, Brown, 46, and Cornelius, 38, emerged as one of Nashville's hottest acts, all the while insisting that their longing gazes were pure performance. The liner notes on their first album repeated the old C&W line: "They are both happily married but not to each other." Then this January Helen divorced her husband of 20 years, trucker Lewis Cornelius. A month later Becky Brown filed for divorce from Jim Ed; only legal formalities remain before that 19-year marriage ends. Now Brown and Cornelius concede that they're more than just business partners.
"As the marriages fell apart, our relationship grew deeper," admits Helen. "Jim is a wonderful, sensitive, compassionate person. I feel deeply for him." Both insist that their own attachment was a result, not a cause, of their marital problems. Jim Ed even says that when they announced they were breaking up their act a year ago, it was because "we both wanted to do different things in our careers," not because Becky had reportedly given him a Helen-or-me ultimatum. His wife, who first filed for divorce in February 1979, withdrew the suit the month of the declared dissolution of the Brown-Cornelius duo, only to reinstate her legal action this year. ("Becky had become very vindictive toward Helen," one associate says. "She pledged Helen would be sent back to Missouri with her tail tucked between her legs.") In any case, the Brown-Cornelius professional split lasted less than a month, and in the period that followed they became as close as their harmonies.
"You have to have somebody you can lean on," explains Helen. "Jim and I traveled together, recorded together, rehearsed together, conducted interviews together. We were together all the time. There developed a very, very deep friendship." The inevitability of it all, however, has not spared Brown and Cornelius from that staple of C&W cheatin' songs: G-U-I-L-T.
"The failure of my marriage has made me do a lot of thinking," says Jim Ed. "I grew up extremely poor and promised myself my children would never want for the things I did. I put material things above my marriage and family life. I wonder if that was all a wrong attitude." Adds Helen: "There's a lot of guilt feeling any time you value something in life and fail at it."
She and her husband had consulted a marriage counselor, but problems remained. "Lewis never mentioned Jim Ed," says Helen, "but my being gone so much bothered him. And there were little things," she continues. "When I was invited out, it was expected for me to show up with Jim Ed, not my husband. The spouses would see us smiling in each other's eyes on television, singing a love song."
To complicate the situation, Lewis was not working at the time and was more or less in charge of their three children while Helen toured. "He had to endure the loneliness of the days, and I know it was terrible for him to go to bed alone each night," says Helen. "But I don't think quitting my career would have solved the problems. If my children had ever asked me to quit, I would have done it in a minute, but they enjoyed what my income provided for them. I thought I could have the success and the marriage. I thought I could beat the odds."
That was, of course, the expectation of both couples, particularly with their conservative origins. Helen grew up a Southern Baptist in Hannibal, Mo., married when she was 18 and had her three children by 21. Before she met Jim Ed, she worked mostly at home, writing tunes for singers like Lynn Anderson, Barbara Fairchild and Connie Smith. Brown, son of an Arkansas lumber dealer, began singing with his two sisters (as the Browns, they had a hit with Three Bells in 1959) before going solo in 1967. He and Helen were teamed by Nashville producer Bob Ferguson in 1976, in what amounted to a blind recording date. The result, I Don't Want to Have to Marry You, became the first of their 10 Top 10 singles. Jim Ed also co-hosts the syndicated Nashville on the Road TV series on which Helen is a regular, and all of that has made them a top concert attraction. "I went from making $3,500 a day to $10,000 with Helen," Jim Ed says. They have, however, just hired stage director Kent Cathcart to doctor their act. "Their show is a little old-fashioned," Kent feels. "We're working to let their talents shine through."
Cornelius has let her hair down—literally, to a windblown look, as well as figuratively. "When I first started in the music business," she says, "I thought I had to appear matronly because I had three small children. I used to pick up women's magazines and be wrapped up in family planning, decorating and recipes. Now," she continues, "I pick up those magazines and look at new fashion trends and new makeups. Only this year have I worn a bathing suit in front of the boys in the band and gone to the hotel pool. Before, I was too bashful to show all the sides of Helen Cornelius."
They won't have to wait long for the reaction of their Country Music Association peers to their new relationship. Brown and Cornelius are up for the CMA "Vocal Duo of the Year" award October 13. They won in 1977, and Jim Ed thinks if there is any justice they will repeat, being the only permanent partners of the five nominees (the others: Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty, Janie Fricke & Johnny Duncan, George Jones & Tammy Wynette, and Moe Bandy & Joe Stampley).
Whether Helen and Jim Ed will formalize the partnership offstage, too, is a question. "I could not say we would not tie the knot," he cautiously replies. "But it really hasn't been discussed, and that remains in the future." Helen adds: "I honestly don't know whether after all this turmoil we will discover that we just have a very deep friendship or are deeply in love. If we reach the point where we wanted to tie the knot, there would have to be some giving on both sides," she also points out. "I don't know if either of us is willing to do that."
For now, Helen is living in the Cornelius home in the fashionable Nashville suburb of Brentwood with her two younger children, Christy, 17, and Denny, 15. (Joe, 18, is a logger south of town.) Her ex, now in construction work, is staying nearby to keep in touch with the children. Jim Ed moved out of his South Nashville home in February and regrets his lack of time with Buster, 17, and Kim, 12. He describes his Nashville HQ as "a temporary apartment. All I have is a coffee cup, spoon, fork and plate. I don't really consider myself as having a home except on the bus."
On tour, Helen says that "when a lot of groups get into town, they like to roar. That was never our idea of what to do. We are basically nondrinkers. We go to coffee shops, to movies or just walk and shop." Interrupts Jim Ed: "I know better than to go shopping with a woman. She takes too long."
Brown is obviously still coming to terms with his new life. "I've prayed for success," he says. "When it came, I said, 'Thank you, God, thank you.' I admit now it wasn't exactly the way I would have wanted it. But who am I to question? If it had not been God's will, Helen wouldn't have come along."
On one of the strongest cuts of their latest LP, Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius sing Johnny Duncan's Fools. "Fools never learn," the lyrics observe. "You play with fire/You're gonna get burned/You and I are fools/We played with love/And we're gonna get burned." So Jim Ed and Helen can't say that nobody warned them.