By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
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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."
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.
"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."
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."