You might say Junior Brown’s old-fashioned, and you wouldn’t be wrong … but you wouldn’t be right either. While he definitely possesses great appreciation for classic country artists like Hank Thompson, Buck Owens, and Chet Atkins, he’s just as enthused about Dick Dale or even Jimi Hendrix, who’s “Foxy Lady” he covers on his last studio full-length, 2004’s Down Home Chrome.
Yes, Brown’s a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, though not in the presently fashionable Nashville vein. It’s a kind of vexation for Brown who before the beardo country-folk onset described himself as “country music for people who don’t like country music.” (So much for that.) All he knows is he’s got no time for clichés.
“It doesn’t all have to be park the pickup truck, kick the dog, and head to the honky-tonk. There can be other things in there,” Brown says on the road from Oklahoma, clearly warming to the subject. “I don’t like redneck rock, so I’m out of the loop there. I like country music, and I like rock, but I don’t like redneck rock. So I have to be careful the terminology I use because people don’t understand. ‘Oh isn’t that what you do?’ Terminology always messes you up.”
Between 1990 and 2004, Brown released six albums, showcasing both his wide-ranging tastes and dry wit. While he’s not above the occasional love song (“The Better Half” off 1998’s Long Walk Back is a fine example), Brown is just as prone to tightly drawn little slices of life, from rhapsodizing about a vehicle (“Freedom Machine”) to sly paeans to law enforcement (“Highway Patrol”) and two-step metaphoric tour-de-forces (“Venom Wearin’ Denim”). Perhaps his best known song, “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead,” involves an encounter with a crazy ex-girlfriend on the lam from the cops.
Of course, Brown’s really a triple threat. He’s not only a canny, understated songwriter but an astounding guitar player abetted by a deep basso like Darth Vader’s country cousin. Not since the Beat Farmers Country Dick Montana have you heard a croak like his, though Brown admits it took a while to adapt.
“If you listen, my voice doesn’t start opening up until like the fourth record,” he says. “I developed my voice and it’s gotten a lot better. I’m 60 years old now and I sing better than I ever did.”
We’ve saved the best for last. Brown is a lights-out guitarist thanks in part to his technological innovation. In the ’80s, he had the idea to combine the electric guitar and lap steel into one instrument, the “guit-steel.” Like the double-neck guitar, it affords him a wide palette of tones with which to demonstrate his tremendous guitar proficiency. He received it in ’85, and played it that same day at Nashville’s famous Station Inn.
“It was a little hard, but I played it,” he chuckles. He’d soon augment the strap with a stand so he doesn’t have to cart the heavy thing around all evening. Years later he’d requisition an improved Cherry Red version he dubbed Big Red. Recently, he received the Mach III version, or the “ped-tar steel.”
“It’s a pedal version,” he explains. “You can play the steel standing up with the pedal and then you switch to the guitar which comes up on hinges out of the body of the steel. It’s pretty wild looking. I’ve used it before, but right now I’m not using it live, I’m just using it in the studio, though, I may get back to it. There are so many things I do need the pedals for. I’m not going to abandon her, it’s more like the spruce goose in the hangar.”
If your ears perked up when you heard he was in the studio, you’re probably a fan. It’s been eight years since his last studio album, and Brown anticipates the follow-up is only months away. Never one to push a song, Brown expresses his preference for quality over quantity. However long it takes is how long it takes. There are still a couple to be recorded, but it’s almost there, and he’s feeling confident. “The songs have been going well live in front of audiences so I know they’ll work well on record,” he says.
He mentions a song about cellphones, “Hang Up and Drive,” but isn’t much help in narrowing down the album’s sound. Narrow simply doesn’t fit him.
“It’s almost, ‘Here’s what I don’t do,'” he says. “No genre is off-limits to me. I like it all. As long as it’s well played and it’s something I can express my personality through. For instance, reggae music’s fine. I don’t have any problem with reggae music, but it’s not something I can add anything to, so I leave that alone.”
He pauses and backtracks. Who knows if he ended up jamming with some cats in Jamaica, maybe he could get down with a dub beat? “So maybe that’s a bad example,” he relents. “I guess what I’m trying to say is I try to do stuff I can pull off honestly.”
Of course, that doesn’t narrow things down much at all.