Guit-in' Down

Junior Brown's trademark is his purity, a hard-line, country way of doing things that, curious as it sounds, has earned the 43-year-old Ernest Tubb disciple the status of one of Texas' more endearing crossover phenomenons. "It takes a long time to figure out what your style is," Brown says. "I've spent a lot of time coming up with my own -- presenting country in a way that I like it."

A jaw-dropping guitarist who also sings, writes and produces, Brown may suggest 100-proof authenticity, but even he will concede that his notions are often heavy on the mixer. Have a listen to Brown's latest version of the Hank Garland/Vaughn Horton-penned "Sugarfoot Rag" on his latest five-song sampler, Junior High, and your ears will pick up more than a smidgen of Hendrix, a short shaker of Stevie Ray and, dare say, a small dash of Jimmy Page. But just when you think old Junior's gone all bluesy psychedelic on you, Brown quickly slathers on the C&W charm, melting hearts and gruffer sensibilities with a lilting original such as "That's Easy for You to Say." That's the beauty of keeping it honest: mixing things up doesn't have to mean watering them down.

Brown learned that first through the advice of his idol, whom he honors with "My Baby Don't Dance to Nothin' but Ernest Tubb." From the start, Tubb urged Brown to go hog-wild on his instrument, a peculiar hybrid known as the "guit-steel." Brown's command of this custom-made contraption -- a hybrid of a steel and a standard six-string guitar -- is a wonder to behold, and it's earned Brown accolades from all directions. Not a magazine to mince words, Musician dubbed Brown "a genius," while in 1994, Guitar Player heaped a pile of "best of" honors on him, including number one lap steel player and number two country guitarist.

Junior Brown's country experience began in the backwoods of Indiana just outside the town of Kirksville. With his dad, a skilled piano player, acting as prime motivator, Brown went pro as a teenager in the 1960s, and by the '80s, he was teaching guitar under Leon McAulliffe, the venerable steel player for Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, at Oklahoma's Rogers State College. While there, he met his future wife and rhythm guitarist, "the lovely Miss Tanya Raye," and soon after, the couple moved to Austin, setting up shop at the Continental Club. It didn't take more than a year before the reports on Brown's considerable skills began to surface in cities as far away as New York, and eventually, Brown inked a deal with Nashville-based MCG/Curb Records.

While most of his new EP leans toward the traditional, Brown's last two full-length efforts, 12 Shades of Junior Brown and Guit With It, coast through the blurred spectrum of country, rock, blues and jazz. Through it all, masterful guitar work keeps the influences in check. In person, Brown provides stunning visual proof of his greatness when he settles into a chair and lets loose on his twin-necked beauty.

-- Hobart Rowland

Junior Brown performs at 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday, December 30, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Tickets are $15. For info, call 528-5999.

Joe Ely -- On his latest release, Letter to Laredo, Joe Ely finds himself buried in the dust and tumbleweeds. This tantalizing work, where slide-guitar meets Spanish flamenco head-on, may be a cause for worry among fans of Ely's raucous live shows, where table dancing has been the norm. But keep in mind that Ely's most somber work often takes on a new energy when he straps on the guitar in a live setting. It's the way he's operated for years, dating all the way back to his days with the Flatlanders, the influential early '70s project he shared with fellow icons Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. We can be thankful that, in Ely's case, the more things change, the more they stay the same. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, at 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, December 29 and 30. Tickets are $15 and $27.50. The Hollisters open Friday; Wayne Hancock opens Saturday. 869-TICS. (Greg Barr)

Storyville -- Singer/frontman/student Buddhist Malford Milligan is more or less unknown outside of Austin, but the rest of the Storyville package -- guitarist David Grissom and the Stevie Ray Vaughan-pedigreed rhythm section of drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon -- indicate a slapdash, if talented, session band. All it takes is a single live sighting, though, to come to the conclusion that Storyville is exactly the thing it has never been terribly clear about presenting itself as: an unparalleled Texas rock-and-soul band. Word from Austin is that Storyville just inked a deal with Atlantic Records for a sophomore release tentatively scheduled for sometime next year. Live, Milligan's band rocks hard, as it has to if it wants to keep up with its frontman's passionate emoting -- a virtuosic outpouring that will, sooner or later, cement Milligan's place alongside the late Ted Hawkins as one of soul music's latter-day heroes. At the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue, 8 p.m., Saturday, December 30. Tickets are $8. Breedlove opens. 869-COOL. (Brad Tyer)

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr
Hobart Rowland
Brad Tyer