"They don't write drinkin' and cheatin' songs anymore," says Junior Brown, lamenting the state of country music these days. "But they do these things about being a redneck; how cool it is in my pickup truck, and we got it all figured out with this wonderful, glorious redneck life that I'm so proud of living."
Brown's no redneck. He plays what he's dubbed free-range country. That lack of fences has him covering territory from Ernest Tubb to Jimi Hendrix. Leaving his Austin, Texas, home as a teenager to play professionally in honky-tonks, he also spent time in Hawaii perfecting his steel-guitar skills.
Traditional country music is the backbone of Brown's music, but the guitarist says that art form is virtually extinct. "The only place you can hear country music anymore is on old records," says Brown, calling in on the way to a gig in Cleveland, Ohio. "Occasionally, on the 'Grand Ole Opry' you'll see some older guy who knows how to do it, but very rarely."
Tubb, who was an idol and a mentor to Brown, encouraged him to experiment but "'bring it right back down to the country,'" Brown says. With the aid of his guit-steel, a Telecaster fused to a lap steel, Brown takes his traditional country to young audiences who wouldn't have investigated the music on their own. His first appearance at Bonnaroo this year earned him positive feedback from the young audience, he says.
Brown gets his message across with his sense of humor. His 1993 song "My Wife Thinks You're Dead" features Brown shooing off an ardent ex-lover: "Somebody spread the rumor that you had lost your life/Least that's the way I heard it and what I told my wife/We'll have to say hello maybe some other time instead/'Cause you're wanted by the po-lice/And my wife thinks you're dead."
He debuted in 1993 with 12 Shades of Brown, featuring the Tubb tribute, "My Baby Don't Dance to Nothing but Ernest Tubb," but "My Wife Thinks You're Dead," released later that year on Guit with It, got all the attention. Some wanted to stuff him into a novelty bag, which he wasn't happy with. "I used humor as a way of getting away from all the lousy song ideas everybody comes up with," Brown says. "At least with humor, you're not promoting anything stupid. You're being stupid on purpose."
But there's nothing stupid about Brown's approach. "I lean on humor 'cause there's not really a lot of other things to write about that'll go along with the sound of the music I like," he says. "It's mainly the sound that I'm attracted to, the sound of the voice, rather than the meaning of the words."
But even that concept has gotten so distorted that going to see a big country act these days is like going to a Rolling Stones show, with 16 tractor-trailer loads of sound and lights assaulting your senses. "It diminishes it visually, and it diminishes the sound," Brown says of the overmiked, overblown affairs that often have the rhythm section sounding like incoming artillery. "It's just really not easy to listen to that music."
It's all about the pulse, Brown believes. People are so used to taking a pounding from hip-hop beats that if they don't get that, they think they're getting something wimpy-sounding and feel like they're being cheated.
But you won't be seeing Brown surrounded by giant video screens or enhanced by truckloads of sound and light gear.
"Even if I could afford it, I wouldn't use that stuff," Brown says. "I really believe that some of the reason acoustic music has made a big comeback – the whole unplugged thing – 'cause people want something that's easy on the ear."
His theory seems to be working. "I'm still attracting fans," Brown says. "I still can draw a crowd, and still hold a crowd. As long as I can do that, I'm happy."
All 80s movies want you...
Their show with Chris, Lord about 3 years at the Unicorn was the best.
I am a connoisseur of this real soul music like the comment above I'm glad…
You've got a few of my faves listed here, plus a bunch I've never heard…
This is such a cool idea and the performance is great (I've been twice) but…