The nearly universally held short take on Junior Brown is that he's the guy who fused Jimi Hendrix-style guitar playing with traditional country music -- especially that of Ernest Tubb. Alas, that thumbnail sketch misses what Brown is really all about.
Yes, Brown did lace some of Hendrix's most memorable riffs -- along with other iconic guitar runs -- into the classic country instrumental "Sugar Foot Rag." And he did pay tribute to the original E.T. with the song "My Baby Don't Dance to Nothing but Ernest Tubb."
But over the course of the last ten years, Brown has also visited Hawaiian music, surf rock, Chicago blues and even Dixieland jazz -- hardly the usual fare for an act nominally tagged as country. That's because the most powerful influence on Brown's musical thinking may well have been the wildly eclectic Top 40 radio of the mid-1950s and '60s.
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Back then, AM pop stations played a wide range of styles, predicated on whether the song was a hit, and all it took for a song to be a hit was for enough people to like it. "Yeah, it was pretty much anything goes," Brown recalls of that time. "People had different attitudes. People weren't the kind to wake up in the morning and say, 'Well, I have to listen to this type of music, this is my music, and this is what I have to listen to.' It was a little bit that way, but not so much. Sure, the kids had rock and roll, and the adults had other things. But there wasn't that much prejudice. People had open minds. You'd hear kids listening to other kinds of music, and you'd hear adults listening to the Beatles."
The rich variety of music he heard and loved led Brown to start playing in bands at 13 years old. By his twenties, Brown was the lead guitarist in a popular New Mexico country band, the Last Mile Ramblers. Eventually, though, he grew frustrated playing other people's songs for folks who were more interested in drinking, dancing and each other than the music.
Having built a reputation as both a hot guitarist and steel player, Brown finally ditched band and sideman work in the early 1980s. He got a position teaching guitar at the Hank Thompson School of Country Music at Rogers State University in Oklahoma. (Former Bob Wills steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe was the department head.) One of his students eventually became his wife; the lovely Miss Tanya Rae Brown also acted as his musical foil and, until recently, rhythm guitarist. More important, she gave him the kick in the pants he needed to follow his vision.
"What I need to do is quit waiting to be discovered and write some songs," he remembers thinking to himself. So he and Tanya Rae migrated south down I-35 to Austin. "I knew that Austin was the place where I could do that," he explains. "I had to be in a place where live music was prevalent and people would come out and listen, and you could get a little scene going. That's what you need to do: Get a little scene where there's a bunch of Junior Brown fans and they want to come to see you, and the word gets around." His Sunday-night shows at Austin's Continental Club in the early '90s grew rapidly from cool little gigs for those in the know to packed houses.
His unique act -- Brown with the dual-neck guit-steel he invented, backed by Tanya Rae's acoustic and a minimalist rhythm section of upright bass and a snare drum -- combined witty originals and classics, all heavily laced with Brown's stunning guitar work. It eventually landed him a deal with Curb Records that began with the simultaneous release of two albums: 12 Shades of Brown and Guit With It.
Although Curb marketed Brown to the country audience, he has defied categorization with every release, including his aptly titled latest set, Mixed Bag. "Ever since I did my first album, I've been sort of hard to bag, hard to put in a category. So this is no less difficult to put me in a category, maybe even a little harder, I don't know." He chuckles at the thought. "I like variety in my music, and I think people will like it, too."
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His latest variation was to travel to New Orleans and cut Hoagy Carmichael's "Riverboat Shuffle" with Dixieland pianist David Boeddinghaus and a small horn section. "I grew up with the song," he explains. "I remember driving around with my dad in the early '60s, and we saw a sign for a garage sale. They were advertising 78s for a penny apiece. He bought a whole stack of them, and it was one of them in there."
And as usual, Brown added his own unique twist to the style. "I played the trombone part on steel guitar and really got a trombone sound," he says. "I sat down for a couple of months and was just hearing the trombone part and imagining every note being a steel guitar. I tried to make the steel guitar sound more metallic and smaller. I used a very small amp. And I finally got it. On certain parts of the song you'd swear it was a trombone; other parts you can hear that it's a steel, but it's still playing the same parts, so it blends in very well."
Since Brown has played everywhere from honky-tonks to shed shows with the Dave Matthews Band -- and earned four Grammy nominations over his decade of recording -- his genre-busting approach seems to work quite well. But he doesn't do what he does for the novelty of it. He simply can't do anything else.
"I'm going to always try to do things that are exciting. I'm not going to slip into a rut. That's really the motivation," he concludes. "Not just to be different. Because being different isn't any good. Being different is so other people will think you are different. And that's not enough reason to be different. Be different because you have to be, because you can't do it any differently. You can't do it any other way to satisfy your musical cravings."