Brown and Red

These days, his signature guit-steel playing leaves listeners slack-jawed. But it took Junior Brown a long time to get to center stage.

"Dave would introduce us, which was a very nice thing for him to do," Brown says. "He'd walk onstage when people were still coming into the auditorium, and he'd give us a nice introduction, and we'd start playing. Some of the folks didn't notice us at first, but by the end of the show, we had them going pretty good. It may take 45 minutes, but I can get almost any crowd to notice me. By the time I've played 'My Wife Thinks You're Dead' and 'Foxy Lady,' they're pretty much curious, if not excited."

Still, despite the cross-eyed looks and bemused smiles Brown's music sometimes inspires, he resists being called a "novelty act." The way he sees it, certain retro honky-tonk bands — he's too polite to name names, but you can bet that BR549 is on his list — may claim to play real country music, but what they really do is parody it.

"You can't fake it," he says. "The music is either from your heart, or it isn't. And people pick up on it if it's phony. That's why I don't try to come off like a country artist. I'm not a hillbilly, and I'm not pretending to be one. The cowboy hat is the only thing that's the slightest bit country, and I just wear that to make me look taller."

Junior Brown: His patented guit-steel is a metaphor for his schizoid musical roots.
Junior Brown: His patented guit-steel is a metaphor for his schizoid musical roots.

Brown's music may be clever at times, but there's nothing ironic about it. When he sings (on Mixed Bag) with sympathy about a boy called "the little town square," who gets picked on because he looks and talks funny, Brown is deadly serious, even if such songs fell out of favor a long time ago. "People kind of lost the desire to hear songs that make us cry, that touch us," he says. "Why that is, I don't know. People are just kind of desensitized." These days, he says, it's not unusual to hear so-called country artists singing "serious songs about their pickup trucks."

You won't hear Brown complaining about not being played on the radio, and you won't hear him grousing about, as the song goes, "too many nights in the roadhouse," despite a grueling schedule that has him playing more than 200 gigs a year. After all, Tubb was still doing more than 300 shows a year when he was well into his 60s.

"I really appreciate the opportunity to do what I do," Brown says, "because I wasn't one of those guys who made it when they were young. I had to wait a long time and struggle a lot. And by the time I made it, I was really, really grateful for the chance to get out there and play for an audience and be on the road, and all those things that a younger guy might take for granted. So I try to make every moment count and please that audience every night."

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