"A lot of people tell me they don't like country music, but they like what I am doing," says Junior Brown. "I hear that line more than anything else," which is ironic because a couple of licks is all it takes to erase any doubts concerning Junior's stylistic allegiance. His music combines the soul of country and the spirit of rock n' roll.
In Junior's case, playing everywhere from the Grand Ole Opry to rock showcases on the West Coast and his hometown of Austin, Texas, *crossover* is not synonymous with watered-down or light-weight. He says of his ever-growing legion of converts:
Just about the time they label me as some old time honkytonk singer, I throw something new in there that surprises them. And then they'll appreciate the traditional styles of country music too. Do something to wow them without ruining the roots of country and they end up accepting the music that they would have been prejudiced against.
Following years as Austin's best-kept secret, then a few more as the town's one must-see act for visiting musicians and label heads, Junior Brown and his music have since found an audience far beyond the Lone Star border. Junior's first two albums (12 Shades of Brown and Guit With It) have helped establish him as a crowd favorite from Texas roadhouses to the hippest clubs of New York City and Europe.
There's usually a wide-eyed look accompanying one who witnesses Junior's unique instrumental prowess for the first time... or the second, or third, for that matter. Junior invented his own guitar, one that combines the standard 6-string guitar and the steel guitar. He calls it the "guit-steel."
I was playing both the steel and guitar, switching back and forth a lot while I sang, and it was kind of awkward. But then I had this dream where they just kind of melted together. When I woke up, I thought 'You know, that thing would work!' They made double-neck guitars and double-neck steels,so why not one of each?
A call was made to guitar maker Michael Stevens, whose expertise made the dream a reality, and around 1985 the guit-steel was born. Last year Junior once again enlisted the services of Stevens to make a second guit-steel, a cherry-red axe affectionately nicknamed "Big Red."
In Junior's hands, the guit-steel is an amazing tool, a means to creating some of the hottest, most heartfelt playing heard in years (and in a town like Austin, that's saying something). His talents have led major magazines like Musician to herald Junior as a genius. Life magazine honored him as the only contemporary musician included in their "All Time Country Band," and Guitar Player magazine's 1994 "Best of..." listings made him their #1 lap steel player, #2 Country Artist, and #3 country album (Guit With It).
Instrumentalist is only one of the hats the 43-year-old is comfortable wearing – along with singer, songwriter, and producer – and he is equally adept and impressive in each role, having turned professional as a teenager in the late 60's.
There was always music of some kind in the house when I was growing up. My Dad was a piano player and so I started playing little melodies on the piano before I could talk. We lived out in the woods outside of Kirksville, Indiana and there's a lot of country folks out there. I used to hear country music over the radio, Ernest Tubb and others. When we got a TV, I watched his show, and I've always been a big fan of his.
Once Junior started his own career, he met Tubb several times, and Tubb offered him some stern advice: "Keep it country, son." Junior says:
He [Tubb] was concerned about country music getting watered down. He wanted young people to get a hold of it and get as wild as they wanted instrumentally, as long as they brought it right back down to the country, backing the singer and to remember that they're in a country band.
Junior's admiration for Tubb inspired one of his better known songs, My Baby Don't Dance to Nothin' But Ernest Tubb.
In the mid-80's, Junior taught guitar under Leon McAulliffe, the legendary steel man for Bob Wills' Texas Playboys at Oklahoma's Hank Thompson School of Country Music, part of Rogers State College. He even passed on a little more music to one student – it was there that Junior met "the lovely Miss Tanya Rae," the talented woman who would become his rhythm guitarist, backup vocalist, and wife. "I kept her after class," Junior laughs. They married in July of 1988.
Junior and Tanya Rae decided to seek out the best environment for their musical vision. The place was Austin, Texas, where the lines between various musical styles and genres have always been a bit blurry. They set up shop at the legendary Continental Club, where slowly but surely their appearances there got people talking. "It's music for everybody," he says.