by Andrew Clayman
It would be easy enough to call Junior Brown the last of a dying breed, but it would probably be more accurate to say he's a new species unto himself. Even at 54, with a few decades worth of honky-tonk pit stops in the rear-view mirror, Brown still has the mindset of an artist half his ageâ"constantly looking for the newest twists on the oldest tricks.
Back in the mid-'80s, he famously invented the hybrid instrument known as the â“guit-steel,â” a unique double-neck concoction that allows the player to jump from six-string electric guitar to eight-string steel in one shake of a lamb's tail. But that's old news. Today, with a new tour on the horizon, Brown is eager to talk about his latest and greatest innovation.
â“I'm coming up with a brand new playing style on the 10-string steel,â” he says, nearly raising his Texas baritone to an inflection of giddiness. â“What I'm doing now is an E9 tuning, which is really built for a pedal steel. It's not made to play without pedals. So, with this style, I thought of doing something that this tuning was not really intended for. And for some reason, it's working, so I'm going with it.â”
Under normal circumstances, Junior Brown should be at that stage in a country singer's career when he can rest on his laurels and perpetually recycle whatever shtick made him famous. For better or worse, though, Brown's career has never followed a particularly predictable arch. Despite being an incontrovertible wizard on the axe, he labored in obscurity for years, drifting from band to band before slowly building up his own reputation in the clubs of Austin, Tex. It was in that city's unique environment that Brown's full arsenal was finally unveiledâ"honing his craft as a songwriter, introducing the guit-steel, and channeling everyone from Ernest Tubb to Jimi Hendrix with incredible expression and accuracy.
â“Well, Austin has always been open to singer/songwriter type people,â” he says, â“and there's always been an audience there for people to present their art in a way where they don't have to be treated like a jukebox, you know? I've always appreciated that, and I guess that's what got me coming back there time after time. Really, Austin was most responsible for what success I've hadâ"playing at the Continental Club, and that leading to a record contract.â”
That contract, with Nashville's Curb Records, signified a triumphant end to one stage of Brown's life, and a somewhat surreal beginning to another. At 41 years of age, he released his acclaimed 1993 debut album Guit With It , and if only for a moment, found himself afloat in a business typically dominated by disposable youngsters and immovable icons. Brown has since moved on to Telarc Records, but has nothing bad to say about his Curb experience.
â“Oh, I can't look back and have any regrets. I'm just glad I sort of squeaked in there,â” he says. â“You know, for me to get signed by a major label was just kind of unbelievable. It was really at the end of a time when Nashville would venture out and take some chances, too. Today, Nashville would never take any chances. They have their artists now that they sign, and they groom them, and they have a shelf life, and then it's time to sign another young artist. So when they signed me, in 1993 or whatever it was, it was even a big deal then. And so, here I am, and I'm thankful for it.â”
In truth, Brown's belated take-off as a solo recording artistâ"along with the subsequent births of his two children with wife Tanya Raeâ"might be a central factor in his sustained appreciation and youthful enthusiasm for his craft. The origins of that passion, however, date back much further, to a radio in rural Indiana, and the static-tinged sounds of the honky-tonk and rockabilly pioneers that first inspired him.
For some fans, Brown's brand of smart, witty, and stylistically â“puristâ” country music keeps that tradition alive, but for Brown himself, those glory days of old Nashville are long gone.
â“That's all died out,â” he laments. â“It'd be like somebody carrying the torch for Dixieland jazz. It's been too long, you know? It's all gone. I just have to accept it. When Jimmy Dickens comes up and tells me that I â‘know where the bodies are buried,' it's a nice compliment, but it doesn't really help. It doesn't bring the bodies back, just because I know where they're buried, figuratively speaking,â” he laughs. â“As I said, it's flattering, but it actually kind of makes me sadder in a way, because I know the bodies are gone.â”
Gone or not, Brown does acknowledge that his music might at least help introduce new audiences to the honky-tonk universe, but he doesn't see it as a carrying of any torch.
â“It's just me doing what I like,â” he explains. â“The minute I try to hold up some sort of standing of being the real thing , it never works. You just got to do what you like, and if it's real, people will pick up on it.â”
WHO: Junior Brown WHEN: Saturday, May 26, 8 p.m. WHERE: The Shed at Smoky Mountain Harley Davidson, Maryville
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