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
“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. ‘”