Enter the most decorous duo this side of heaven

Like it says in that country hit Married but Not to Each Other, Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius have become Nashville's new sleeper duo but not offstage with each other. Their maiden 45 together, I Don't Want to Have to Marry You, clambered to No. 1 on the C&W charts as did their follow-up single, Saying Hello, Saying I Love You, Saying Goodbye. What it could all portend is hello-goodbye to those reigning Nashville twosomes like Conway & Loretta, the on-again-off-again George & Tammy and the only surviving true-blue conjugal duo, Johnny & June (Cash). Jim Ed & Helen were nominated for the Country Music Association's top duo award last year—their first together—and may well win 1977's come October.

"Country fans really get involved with the duets," Helen has discovered. "They like the harmonies, and they also like to imagine you're married—or foolin' around." Though their placebo passions are pretty convincing on tour, Helen cautions, "We sing that way because we're trying to sell a love song. People tell us, 'Y'all are such a nice couple. Why don't ya divorce the others and go off by yourselves?' We got our own little soap opera."

The only trouble with the drama is that Brown and Cornelius are about the most monogamous, church-goin' folks in Music or any other City. The few radio stations that banned their breakthrough collaboration, I Don't Want to Have to Marry You, undoubtedly just heard the title and assumed it was pro-abortion or such. The lyrics themselves, in fact, preach against premarital sex. Jim Ed, 43, has stuck by his dancer-painter wife, Becky, through 16 years and two kids. Helen, 35, and her truck driver (now entering showbiz management) husband, Lewis Cornelius, have lasted 17 years and three children.

Their professional matchup was made by Brown's RCA producer, and they went along blind. "I'd never seen him before," says the diminutive (5') songstress. "For all I knew, he could have been a 300-pounder." Their first recording session was so harmonious that she immediately teamed up as well with his touring band, the Gems, and his (and comedian Jerry Clower's) syndicated weekly TV show, Nashville on the Road. Not that she didn't have a few trepidations. "My mother taught me some very prudish ideas about life," Helen notes. "And when I saw different things going on and high-ups in the industry who assume women 'work their way up,' it was quite a shock to my ideas of what should be. But with Jim around, I'm never faced with rough, off-color talk. I'm treated like a lady."

If Jim Ed were going to be corrupted by lionization, it would have happened long before—Helen's current first trip to the top is his third. In 1959 he and his two sisters, as the Browns, cut a wispy, sweetly harmonized million-seller, Three Bells, and then in 1967 he hit No. 1 solo with Pop-a-Top Again. Cornelius in the meantime had been limited to a faceless career writing material for La Costa, Barbara Fairchild and Lynn Anderson, among others. "As a kid," Helen says, "I always sat up in my room, looking out at the stars, dreaming of bein' on a stage. It's all moving at such an astounding rate, I just can't believe it's happening to a little farm girl from Hannibal, Mo."

She and two of her sisters (she had seven siblings) sang on radio, and Helen won on Ted Mack's Amateur Hour—thrice, in fact—before turning inward to writing instead of performing. In all she has composed 500 songs, some 160 of which have been published. "I used to have time to buy myself things and no money," she cracks. "Now I have money and no time." But her family adjusted smoothly to its recent uprooting to Brentwood, the haut bourgeois Nashville suburb where Loretta and Tammy have also resided. Husband Lewis, 42, is now taking courses in music industry accounting at local Belmont College.

Both families have grown quite close since the Corneliuses relocated. Their oldest boys—16 and 14—are tight buddies, and they all get together for supper and lazing around when not touring, which they do 150 nights a year. Brown's wife, Becky, who, like him, came originally from Arkansas, teaches dance in their home studio and recently choreographed Barbi Benton's TV Christmas special.

Helen says the recent rush to fame has catalyzed her writing, including a burst of five tunes from a hospital bed after a brief illness recently. (Two of the cuts on their hot new LP, Born Believer, are hers, but not the rising single, If It Ain't Love by Now.) Helen hopes their choice of material will defuse some of the rumors that she frets won't go away. They eschew the genre known in Nashville as "cheatin' " songs. "I personally don't care to do them," Helen declares. Jim Ed interjects, "It's a fact of life—that's certain. A lot of people find happiness that way." And Helen replies, "I don't agree. People want clean, refreshing thoughts to cling to and there's enough of the other kind already."