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Whenever and wherever Junior Brown performs, you can bet your Telecaster that a gaggle of guitar geeks will be standing in front of the stage, their mouths wide open, drooling over Brown's frenzied fretwork on "Big Red," his custom-made guit-steel. The hybrid instrument, which combines an electric guitar with a lap steel, first came to Brown in a dream in 1980. Guit-steel number one, "Old Yeller," was built several years later by Austin luthier Michael Stevens. Appropriately, it now resides in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, displayed alongside such hallowed musical artifacts as Mother Maybelle Carter's 1928 Gibson L-5 archtop and Merle Travis' 1952 Bigsby solid-body electric.
But the 49-year-old Brown is more than just a hot picker. He's a first-rate songwriter with a penchant for both clever word play ("Venom Wearin' Denim") and serious topics ("Don't Sell the Farm"). He's got a resonant baritone voice that evokes such country-music legends as Ernest Tubb and Ray Price. It's on the guit-steel, however, that Brown has made his mark. And like the gapers who worship at his feet, he's been something of a guitar geek for most of his life.
Born in Arizona, the son of an itinerant musicologist, Jamieson Brown ("Junior" came later) was just a kid when he discovered a beat-up old guitar in his grandparents' attic. "It didn't have very many strings on it," he says by telephone from his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he lives with his wife and occasional rhythm-guitar accompanist, Tanya Rae, and their 4-year-old granddaughter. "But then when I was 8 years old, I got a Silvertone acoustic for Christmas, and that was really the beginning of it."
Several years later in Annapolis, Maryland, where his father had taken a teaching job at St. John's College, Brown had a musical epiphany. "It was back in the early 1960s, at a March of Dimes parade," he recalls. "They had this long thing of tape going down the street, and you could come up and put your coins on the tape. And up on a balcony was this live rock 'n' roll band playing. I'll never forget it. I said, 'That's what I've got to do.' It was the electric guitar and the sound of the live band that captivated me. There's still nothing like it."
In 1965, Brown and his family moved to Santa Fe, where St. John's had opened a satellite campus. "I was one of those oddball kids," he admits. "I didn't understand my parents, and they didn't understand me. We would get together at mealtimes, and that was it. The rest of the time, I was in my room whacking away on that guitar." But not, alas, on an electric one: "My parents didn't like electric instruments, so it took me a while to get one on my own."
At 13, he had already put together his first rock 'n' roll band, called Harmonious Discord, but he had to borrow an electric guitar from one of his bandmates. "And I was the lead guitar player!" he says, laughing. (He once described the band's sound as "surf music slowly turning into psychedelic.")
At 17, Brown dropped out of high school, moved out of his parents' house and began eking out a living as a musician in the bars of Santa Fe and Albuquerque. In 1970 he managed to talk his way backstage at Albuquerque's Civic Auditorium, where he had a brief encounter with one of his guitar gods, Jimi Hendrix. "It was right before he died," Brown says. "He was pretty tired. His manager had been running him pretty hard. But I got to shake his hand. It meant a lot to me, because I had a lot of respect for him." Brown still recalls Hendrix's flamboyant outfit: a red, white and blue fringed-leather suit, "kind of like what Evel Knievel used to wear."
Two years later, Brown got to meet another of his idols, legendary country singer Ernest Tubb, known as the Texas Troubadour, who was playing at an Albuquerque club called the Hitchin' Post. "I'd been a fan of his from '64 or '65, when I used to watch his TV show," Brown says. "I was always in awe of the guy, even when it wasn't cool to be."
It's safe to say that, even in the early '70s, when the country-rock movement was in full bloom, there weren't too many people who revered both Jimi Hendrix and Ernest Tubb. But to Brown, there was no contradiction in his choice of icons, and to this day, he makes the connection between the two seem obvious. (Think of Brown's guit-steel as a sort of metaphor for his multiple musical personalities.) "I've always played the field," says Brown, who must be the only person to have recorded with both Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix's original drummer, and Hank Thompson, the legendary honky-tonk singer (though not at the same time).
In Albuquerque, Brown began playing country music in places such as the Tower Bar, where rednecks dwelled and longhairs feared to tread. "You had to have short hair in those places back then," he says. "The Vietnam War was going on, and there was a real division in society. It's hard for people to understand that, unless you were there. I had to walk the walk and talk the talk. But I loved the music, so that wasn't a problem."