published Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

Backwoods Tennessee man turns dance with raccoon into Internet sensation (with video)

Coonrippy
Mark Brown, known to some as Coonrippy and to many as a YouTube sensation for videos of him and his pet raccoons, plays an original bluegrass song at his home on Wednesday in Gallatin, Tenn. Brown's pet raccoon Rebekah was recently seized by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Brown is lobbying to get her back.
Mark Brown, known to some as Coonrippy and to many as a YouTube sensation for videos of him and his pet raccoons, plays an original bluegrass song at his home on Wednesday in Gallatin, Tenn. Brown's pet raccoon Rebekah was recently seized by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Brown is lobbying to get her back.
Photo by Maura Friedman.

GALLATIN, Tenn. — Up in Sumner County, through the woods and down a gravel driveway, a man with a white nest of a beard inside "The Compound" leans against his safe and taps a keypad.

Nothing happens. Again, he punches in the code.

Again, nothing.

He tries a third time, leaning harder into the safe now.

"I got so many guns here, you gotta push against the door," he says, wearing an NRA cut-off shirt, an NRA hat and overalls.

Finally, the safe pops open and Mark "Coonrippy" Brown grabs an AK-47 to teach a visitor how to shoot. He used to do this all this time, teaching a handgun safety class inside this two-room, two-story building on his property at 1428 Kansas Lane.

But that's not usually why visitors come here anymore. They come to see Brown, and to interview Brown, and to tell others that, yes, Brown seems the same in person as he does on the computer screen.

Many people know of him through one or two online videos. To them, he is the man who dances to soul music with his pet raccoon. Or he's the man who sprays Hannah Montana body lotion on his arm to stop that raccoon from biting him.

Both moments -- each viewed more than 1.2 million times on his YouTube channel -- have led Brown to national news coverage and features on "The Tonight Show." They also have brought unwanted attention. Days after his second video went viral in July, a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officer took his raccoon, telling him that owning such an animal is illegal.

Brown rallied to get his pet back, telling media outlets that TWRA officials have conspired against him, jealous of his fame. He has inspired online petitions appealing to Gov. Bill Haslam to step in on behalf of the raccoon. He has even received supportive emails from around the world.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "What are people seeing in this?"

Brown, 54, has lived in Gallatin his whole life, and he has considered himself an entertainer and a local celebrity for much of that time. But until he performed in these simple online videos, he was unknown to most people outside his hometown of about 30,000.

His rise to fame -- like the rise of so many other obscure online personalities -- simply could not have happened 10 years ago. Websites like YouTube have opened opportunities for people like Brown, people who are celebrated by niche audiences even though they never would have gotten a chance to perform on a traditional outlet.

Along the way, the online community has also allowed the trivial to stand alongside the consequential and given personalities a platform, a forum for page views and media attention and cultural influence.

And from here, now that he is a known commodity, Brown may take advantage, may cultivate his fame into something more substantial, more lucrative.

Or he may just fade away.

•••

Before they made him famous, Brown knew little about online videos. He considered "viral" an adjective to describe illness, and he relied on an Internet hookup many people left behind in the last millennium.

He has since learned a lot about being an online star. And he has learned that such a distinction can lead to more opportunities. One day, maybe as soon as next year, Brown hopes, his fame will spread, from blogs and Twitter feeds to television guides and DVRs.

Brown wants to become a reality TV star.

But on this Wednesday afternoon in September, he doesn't prepare for small-screen fame, make a new YouTube video or rally support for his lost raccoon. No. On this afternoon, Brown shoots.

After grabbing the gun, he reaches into a box and pulls out a bumper sticker: "Handgun on Board." He had it made back when he taught that class. And on one wall in The Compound hangs a sign with a quote purported to be from Adolf Hitler about the importance of gun control.

On the second floor of the building, Brown has a station filled with all the supplies he needs to make his own ammunition. He pauses to think about his variety of homemade bullets, as if he were about to list the groceries he needs to buy.

"Forty-five automatic," he says. "Forty-five-seventy. Two-twenty-three. Thirty-thirty. Thirty-ought-six. Thirty-eight specials. Three-fifty-seven.

"Just about all of 'em."

A collector of bullets, Brown stocks up on them when a politician pushes for gun control. When a store announces it will stop selling ammo, he's there to make one final purchase.

Brown is preparing for something. He doesn't know what, exactly. Not quite an apocalypse, he says. But something bad. Something that will cripple society, if only temporarily.

"Hunger, in animals and humans, overcomes fear and common sense," he says. "You start gettin' hungry, start gettin' thirsty, you wind up doing something you wouldn't normally do."

Brown believes all of America needs to hear this message. And he says he has plenty of other lessons to share. He says America isn't the country it used to be, the country it ought to be. It needs to get back on the right path. He is ready to help.

As Brown says this, members of a New York-based production company are planning to fly down to Gallatin and stick cameras in his face. And later this fall, the company -- Hot Snakes Media -- will pitch a reality show about Brown to network executives who are looking for a program similar to "Duck Dynasty," which in August drew 11.8 million viewers for its season premiere, the most-watched nonfiction show in the history of cable.

If all goes to plan, Brown will begin filming his own show next year, at which time he hopes people all around the country will tune in to hear a Tennessee boy teach them about sweet Southern values.

And all of this -- the network meetings and media coverage -- came to Brown because of a digital camera.

"Let's start watching the checks come in," he says.

•••

On July 1, 2012, Brown and his girlfriend, Connie Hurt, sat on his back porch, just chatting. It's what they do most days, they say. But on this particular afternoon, Hurt asked Brown if they could make a video with his raccoon, Gunshow.

At the time, Brown had only a dial-up connection and knew a little bit about YouTube (he had seen a video of a father shooting bullets through his daughter's laptop). He liked it, so he wanted to make his own video.

Every minute, people like Brown load more than 100 hours' worth of clips onto YouTube. And every month, according to the website, more than 1 billion visitors log on and watch such videos. The site reaches more Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 than any cable network.

Some of those videos, of course, draw more attention than others. To an extent, science dictates whether a particular clip will go viral (see accompanying story). At the same time, nobody can predict which videos will connect with an audience, and which ones will be discarded.

But one thing is for sure: Almost every week, someone, somewhere, will get famous, if only temporarily. That person can be an old man singing about his late wife. A little girl reading a book about kittens. Or maybe a man with a fat raccoon.

Fifteen months ago, as he sat on his porch, Brown did not think about any of this. All he knew was that Gunshow was nibbling on his arm, and that the raccoon did this often, and that he always stopped once Brown put a fragrance on his body.

On this afternoon, Hurt had a bottle of Hannah Montana body spray that she bought for her granddaughter. She gave it to Brown, and Brown decided he was going to put it on during the video.

He would call it "Hannah Montana coon repellent," he decided. He would let Gunshow chew on his arm, and then he would apply the body spray, and then Gunshow would stop chewing, and the scene would end. He told Hurt the plan. She pulled out her digital camera and hit record.

"Is it ready?" Brown asked her.

•••

Brown found Gunshow when the raccoon was a baby in 2009. A family heard some noise inside their wall, and they called Brown to come help. He used to be Gallatin's animal control officer.

He brought the raccoon home and decided to keep him. Brown trained him to use the litter box, and the raccoon was free to roam the yard. But mostly, Brown says, he stayed inside the house.

Brown gave him his name one day, he says, because he sensed the raccoon wanted to follow him to a gun show. He won't say how he knows. He just does.

"It's sacred," he says. "You don't need to know. It's beyond your realm of reasoning anyway. You wouldn't get it."

Two days after she shot the video, Hurt loaded it onto YouTube. She didn't know what to expect. A few minutes later, she and Brown checked the page.

"Yee-haw!" she said. "We got 17 views."

But the video's popularity rocketed. By the end of the day, Hurt says, about 500 people saw it. The next day, 6,000. The day after that, 50,000.

Neither of them knew how it happened, but as the video's popularity increased, Brown and Hurt started getting emails. Brown was funny. Viewers wanted more videos.

From there, Brown didn't need much convincing. He's wanted attention his whole life. When he was 2 years old, his grandmother took a picture of him. He kept posing. She kept snapping. Eventually, with film dwindling, she stopped taking real pictures and tried to fake it. That didn't work. Brown threw a fit.

So, with people begging for more videos, Brown obliged. He and Hurt started videotaping all sorts of stuff: Gunshow trying to open a package, Gunshow drinking Pepsi, Brown blowing up a watermelon. Just the kind of stuff Brown does every day, he says.

Then, the same week the "coon repellent" video went viral, Brown and Gunshow starred in yet another clip. They were hanging out on the porch when the speakers started playing "Chain of Fools" by Aretha Franklin. Hurt grabbed her camera.

Dance, she said.

And so Brown did. For about a minute and a half, he wiggled, stomped and twisted his hips around the porch. Gunshow grabbed Brown's leg and held on. At one point, as one of the greatest singers of all time performed one of the most famous songs of all time, a man in overalls and his obese pet raccoon held hands and danced.

And that was that. The video ended, Hurt posted it online, and the couple waited to see what happened next.

Then, nothing.

Like all the other videos Hurt posted after Brown's original hit, only a couple thousand people watched it. About a year passed. Gunshow died. Brown found a new raccoon and named her Rebekah, after the Bible character.

One day in July, almost a year after he made the video, it went viral. Almost overnight, 1 million people watched Brown and Gunshow dance, many of those people sharing it on their Facebook pages, their Twitter accounts, their Tumblr blogs and other online outlets.

Once again, Brown was a star. He got emails from Finland and Australia. He got calls from CNN.

He doesn't know what happened, but now 4,000 people subscribe to his YouTube channel.

"I was looking at Merle Haggard's YouTube stuff, and he ain't got 4,000 YouTube subscribers," Brown says. "That's Merle Haggard, for cryin' out loud. God, Merle, you need to hang out with me for a couple weeks. I'll make you famous."

•••

Before he spent his days making online videos, Brown worked in a variety of fields. He was a bartender, a short-order cook, a wildlife trapper, a factory hand, a used-car-lot owner, a handgun instructor, an arms trader and an animal control officer.

"I do everything for about a 10-year stint," he says. "Then I get burned out."

On the side, Brown wrote columns about outdoor sports for the local newspaper. He says that prepared him for fame, at least a little bit. His mugshot ran alongside each column, and people never forget that beard.

He says he keeps it long because the book of Leviticus tells him to. But his mother, Patsy, has a different theory. She once offered him $100 to shave, and he refused. And that, she said, was not surprising.

The beard brings attention. And Patsy says, cameras or no cameras, her son loves to perform. She compares him to Daniel Whitney, the Nebraska-born comedian who turns into Larry the Cable Guy on stage.

Simone Burke, a director of development at Hot Snakes Media, a production company in New York, believes Brown's character will draw an audience

Burke, who found him after seeing the Hannah Montana video, says she was drawn to his humor and energy, but also because he can surprise you with his eloquence. When he was a boy, he once skipped school so he could read Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi." As an adult, he writes bluegrass music, touching on subjects like war and the loss of a friend to cancer.

Last year, Burke was working for a different company, and that company failed to land a TV show for Brown. She says they didn't have a focused idea at the time. But Burke moved on to Hot Snakes Media, which makes "Breaking Amish," "Amish Mafia" and "Elder Skelter."

Meanwhile, Brown's contract with the other company expired, so Burke pushed for Hot Snakes Media to sign him. She thinks they have a better concept this time, and she is confident people will connect with Brown.

"That's the incredible thing about online media: It validates you immediately," Burke says. "You think, 'I'm incredible, and look at all these other people who agree.'"

Neither Brown nor Burke would discuss the specifics of the show, but Brown wants to use it as a platform to educate the public. He knows what he will say.

On government programs: "We've become so dependent on our government to make decisions for us. It's like we ain't got no sense to know what to do. You can just walk out here in the yard and lay down on your back and say, 'I give up.'"

On religion: "We need to get the United States back to what it was based and founded upon, which is Christianity. Even George Washington said that it is rightly impossible to govern a nation without God and the Bible."

On the West Coast: "Everything happens in California and, within five or 10 years, it makes its way here."

Bell bottoms: "Started in California, and after it became old out there, we started wearing bell bottoms."

Skateboarding: "Started out there. Five, 10 years later, here we're all skateboarding.

Emission control in automobiles? "We never had 'em here. Started in California, now we got it here."

As he says all of this, Brown sits on his porch, the same porch where he filmed his famous videos, the videos that have brought him in contact with people all over the world.

"I'm still kinda overwhelmed with all of it," he said. "I ain't nobody."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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