Deckle edge

Junior Brown
by Chris Flisher © 1997 /
(first published October 1997 Worcester Phoenix)

Junior Brown
Listening to contemporary country radio—so called, new country—it’s easy to see why Junior Brown isn’t waltzing his way down Music Row with an entourage in tow. The slick, tight-jeaned, cowboy hats of modern day country programming see little in Brown that lights their listener lines. Yet, ironically the movers and shakers of Nashville pay homage to this man with the highest plaudits.

Brown has wowed fellow musicians in and out of the country business and continually gets high praise for his technique, stage style, and song writing saavy. Wielding his self-designed, trademark guit-steel, a musical hybrid born of the marriage of pedal steel and electric guitars, Brown flashes up and down two fretboards with the speed and taste of a master journeyman. This is a performer who knows his roots and proudly digs them up. In short, those who know music, know Brown. Those who follow ratings, markets, trends, and playlists, don’t.

“You’re dealing with 20-year old demographics out there nowadays,” says Brown in a slow, husky drawl during a recent conversation. “You got a narrow audience out there and they know what they want. They want that new country thing with the hair and the hats and all. Radio doesn’t want to risk the chance of someone spinning the dial on them, so they play it real safe. And safe doesn’t include me.”

A traditionalist in many senses, Brown embraces key aspects of country music from the scathing ballads, to the tongue-in-cheek ditties, to the chuckling double-entendres. Truck-drivers, cheating lovers, and working class heroes populate his songs with equal parts wit and sensitivity. Not a neo-traditionalist like a Nanci Griffith or a Lyle Lovett, but a real traditionalist who dredges up the good, the bad, and, sometimes, the ugly of country. But, that’s country and Brown is true to the genre. Unfortunately, the genre is no longer true to itself.

“It’s a big business and tastes are different from what they were 20 or 30 years ago,” observes Brown. “Country had a different place back then than it does today. So you may be true to the past, but that doesn’t hold up today. Selling to a mass market is when the teeth come out. I have proven myself to the business. That’s obvious. They just don’t want to rock the boat and miss some action. So it really is more about image and less about music.”

There’s no question that music is at the root of Junior Brown. Raised the son of a university musicologist, Brown’s span of musical exposure runs the gamut from Broadway show tunes, to springy surf guitar, to the pyro-technics of Jimi Hendrix, not to mention everything in between. His latest release, Semi Crazy explores many of these different avenues and delivers them wrapped tightly with country sensibility and humor.

The remorseful observations of a cuckolded lover come to play in “Gotta Get Up Every Morning,” with its smirking refrain, that continues with, “ just to say goodnight to you.” A similar sentiment surfaces in “Venom Wearin’ Denim” which tackles the loose habits of an obvious tease. Elsewhere, the rambling ways and pride of an aging trucker are found in his duet with Red Simpson on “Semi-Crazy.” And “Joe The Singing Janitor” pays attention to a low man with a lot of pride. Each time Brown draws on the roots of country music, the traditional topics, with authenticity, sensitivity, humor and just the right touch of reverence.

“The important thing is to pay attention to these feelings, situations, and people and strike that happy ground,” agrees Brown. “I hope people take these songs the way they were intended. It’s not comedy. It’s not meant to be a silly thing ‘cause you know someone out there is living these situations. You’ve got to poke fun, but not poke too hard. I’d be interested to hear what people feel about some of these songs. See if I hit the mark.”

Aside from Brown’s appreciation for the country milieu, his musical craftsmanship remains his primary pursuit. Frustrated over his inability to play both steel and electric guitar at the same time he decided to design his own instrument. The guit-steel satisfies those requirements and makes for an impressive presence on stage. Using foot pedals and volume controls, Brown switches effortlessly between the two fretboards without missing a beat, masking the physical challenge of playing.

“It can get very tricky at times and at first it was hard, but I can contort myself in the right position now,” he chuckles, continuing, “I’ll hit a note and try to sustain it for a while until I can switch the foot controls and then work off the other neck. It looks pretty easy from the outside, but it took some getting used to. All I can say is, ‘Thank God for open strings. ‘”

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge