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For a while, Brown played guitar with the Last Mile Ramblers, a country group that appealed to both rednecks and hippies. When big-name stars like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings or Dolly Parton would come to town, the Ramblers often would be the opening act.
What happened next in Brown's career is a matter of some dispute. Steve Swenson, who formed Colorado's progressive country band Dusty Drapes and the Dusters in 1972, says he asked Brown to join the group a few years later, after the Dusters picked him up hitchhiking on a New Mexico highway. Further, Swenson claims that Brown was just another rock guitar player before the Dusters got ahold of him. "I told him, 'You're gonna have to cut your hair, shave your beard and cowboy up,'" Swenson said last year. "The point I want to make is that he got his whole image from the Dusters." Swenson, who fell on hard times after the Dusters broke up in the early '80s, claims he was the one who gave Brown his famous nickname, and bandmate Teddy Carr claims he was Brown's country-western mentor.
All of which makes Brown laugh. "That's a stretch," he says. "That's just not factual. I was playing country music at the Tower Bar back in 1970, 1971, and that was way before I got together with those guys. And I wasn't even with them for very long. They'd already had their heyday."
At any rate, Brown left the Dusters after a few years and relocated to Austin, where he worked as a sideman playing guitar and pedal steel for such groups as Asleep at the Wheel, Rank and File, and Alvin Crow's Pleasant Valley Boys. He'd also begun writing his own songs, and he recorded two of them — "Too Many Nights in the Roadhouse" and "Gotta Get Up Every Morning (Just to Say Goodnight to You)" — for a 500-copy single issued in 1984 by Dynamic Records.
Needless to say, the record didn't make Brown a star. When Leon McAuliffe, who had played steel guitar for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, offered Brown a job teaching guitar at the Hank Thompson School of Country Music in Claremore, Oklahoma, Brown took the gig. He didn't stay long — he wanted to play, not teach — but he did meet Tanya Rae, his future wife and muse, who had signed up for guitar lessons. They married in 1988 and, after the pair moved back to Austin, things finally started coming together for Brown.
With "the lovely Miss Tanya Rae," as her husband usually introduces her, playing rhythm guitar and singing back-up, Brown's style came more into focus, and he became a hot draw at Austin's Continental Club. A cassette-only recording, 12 Shades of Brown, was eventually picked up by Curb Records. When it was released in 1993, Brown found himself in the spotlight, even if the album received scant radio airplay. Critics loved Brown's fresh take on classic country music, and the guitar geeks couldn't get enough of his hot licks on the guit-steel. The album contains some of Brown's best songs, including "My Baby Don't Dance to Nothing but Ernest Tubb" and "Broke Down South of Dallas." His follow-up disc, Guit With It, features a cover of Red Simpson's "Highway Patrol," an 11-minute instrumental titled "Guit-Steel Blues" and what may be Brown's most famous song, the twisted "My Wife Thinks You're Dead."
For last year's Mixed Bag, his sixth album, Brown went to Nashville, where he recorded with some of Music City's legendary "A-team" studio musicians, including Bob Moore, Buddy Harman, Hargus "Pig" Robbins, Jimmy Capps and Pete Wade. "It was a big thrill," he says. "I'd always wanted to record with those guys." He also wrote a song ("Our First Bluebonnet Spring") with one of his steel-guitar idols, the relatively little-known Lloyd Green, one of Nashville's most innovative session players. (Some of the work Green did with Johnny Paycheck in the '60s is astonishing.) Mixed Bag contains a few gems, like "Runnin' With the Wind," a lovely ballad, and "Grow Up, America," a message song about child abuse. But "Cagey Bea," a novelty number about a love affair with a Russian spy named Beatrice Knockemoff III, gets old rather quickly, and the cover of Jerry Reed's "Guitar Man" seems a bit too obvious a choice.
Still, you've got admire Brown for staying true to his unique style, particularly on a major country label such as Curb. "They're not much on promotion," he says, "but they give me a lot of room as far as creativity, and I appreciate them for that."
Not surprisingly, Brown is rarely heard on country radio — a station manager once told him, "I'm not supposed to play Junior Brown, but I do anyway!" — but he's certainly benefited from appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman, Saturday Night Live, Austin City Limits and The X-Files, as well as on commercials for Lipton Iced Tea, Lee Jeans, the Gap and Mountain Dew Code Red. Last July, he no doubt picked up a few new fans when he opened for the Dave Matthews Band at a handful of arena shows.