No Longer Bulletproof
Twelve years and eight albums since moving to Austin from Bend, Oregon, Reckless Kelly front man Willy Braun sounds like he's had one too many.
Interviews, that is.
A bit wary in the beginning, after a few minutes Braun warms to the task of promoting the band's new Yep Roc release, Somewhere in Time. All of the songs on the new album were written by Idaho country singer Pinto Bennett.
"We've wanted to do a record of Pinto's songs for at least ten years," says Braun. "He was good friends with our dad [Muzzie Braun], so we've known him forever. We stole heavily from Pinto and my dad. They were both ahead of their time and independent as hell in that Western sort of way."
Bennett, adds Braun, has been a longtime role model for Reckless Kelly, for his reality-based songwriting and reputation as a true "do-it-yourselfer."
"How we do it now, our attitude about the road, the songs, the job, we got a huge part of that from Pinto," he says.
Bennett, whose Web site describes him as "the King of Elmore County, the Mayor of Miserable City, Singer, Songwriter, Guitar Picker, Author, Movie Star, and Honkytonk Asshole," was a larger-than-life figure in Challis, Idaho, where Braun and brother Cody were born.
Bennett's band, the Famous Motel Cowboys, is a Gem-state country music institution, with status akin to that of someone like Jerry Jeff Walker in Texas. He even flew to Austin for the sessions and sang with Braun on two Somewhere in Time tracks.
"It was fun to watch the master at work," says Braun. "He's just a consummate pro, and he nailed his parts in only a try or two. As a singer, that's something I really respect, because sometimes it takes me a bunch of takes to get it right."
One of the most poignant tracks is Braun and Bennett's duet on "Thelma," a pathetic yet touching tale of an indigent wino ex-lover keeping a dead female country singer's memory alive with a shrine he maintains in a bus-station locker.
The album was produced by Braun, his brother Cody and lead guitarist David Abeyta. Although all of the songs are Bennett's, Somewhere in Time sounds exactly like a Reckless Kelly album. They've stamped everything about the record with the rock attitude and big sound that has been a trademark for years.
Included are three tunes — "I've Done Everything I Could Do Wrong," "I'll Hold the Bottle, You Hold the Wheel" and the brilliant "You Cared Enough to Lie" — that mark a return to hardcore honky-tonk. Steel guitar maestro Lloyd Maines adds strong, legitimate country flourishes, along with Cody's fiddling.
"The last album, Bulletproof, was more rocking," says Braun, "and it did really well for us, got us into the national charts like Billboard for the first time, widened our audience. But putting this project together brought us back around to honky-tonk.
"We'd gotten away from shuffles working the last album, but when we first moved to Austin we played a lot more beer joints and dance halls, so these songs really took us back there," he adds. "It felt good, and it's such an integral part of what we are down deep."
Cody Braun, who also plays mandolin, makes his debut as a lead singer on "I've Done Everything I Could Do Wrong."
"Cody's got such a great honky-tonk voice," his brother says. "He's sung harmonies for years, so it was time for him to step up to the mike."
Another standout is another duet, Willy and Joe Ely's "The Ballad of Elano DeLeon."
It's a perfect vehicle for Ely, who has always been attracted to the plight of working people and the Hispanic element in Americana. The biggest thrill of recording Somewhere in Time, according to Braun, was watching Ely and Bennett's first meeting.
"Pinto was blown away by how much Joe knew about him and his music," he says. "They really hit it off, and it was just a great thing to be part of."
Braun credits Ely with helping make Reckless Kelly the success it has become.
"We were lucky enough to meet Joe when we first came down here," he says. "He's been such a good friend to us since day one. He opened some doors."
Braun isn't done praising Reckless Kelly's Texan mentor. Hardly.
"And if anyone has a patent on 'cool,' it's Joe," he adds. "He's such a showman, so he's been a primary role model and has always been there as a mentor, showing us how to go about doing this the right way."
"We've always liked the way Joe carries himself, the respect he shows his audience,how much of himself he throws into every performance he does. We definitely went to school on Joe."
According to Braun, Reckless Kelly is continuing to build in what he sees as orderly and incremental stages. But as the band's popularity has grown, so has the responsibility that comes with an expanding operation.
"We've grown, and even though we still try to do a lot of stuff ourselves, now we've got layers of business around us, booking agents, managers, radio people," he sighs. "That's all important, but it also is a lot more to keep our eyes on and deal with when what we really want to do is create and play and make records."
Now that Reckless has made some noise outside the Texas/Red Dirt circuit with Bulletproof, Braun says they're working harder than ever to attract new fans. Ever heard of Pittsburg, Kansas? Reckless Kelly has, and will be playing a show there on the current leg of the band's constant touring schedule.
"Once you commit to this life of being almost broke and traveling, you do everything you can to sustain it," Braun says. "You know, whatever it takes, those crack-of-dawn radio shows when you're dead tired, interviews like this one. Everyone in the band is committed in that way.
"We had some success with the last record," he admits. "It was the first one that put us solidly in the charts and it definitely brought us some more fans, got us some new bookings. I know a lot of people had a bad 2009, but for us it was a pretty successful year."
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