Junior Brown's unique sound coming to Noho
By Craig Harris
Special to Reminder Publications
Iron Horse, Northampton
April 24, 7 p.m.
Adv. $25; door, $28
For further information, call 584-0610
There's no one like Junior Brown. Dressed in a conservative suit and tie and wearing an ever-present cowboy hat, Brown seems like he stepped out of the heyday of western swing and honky tonk country music. Singing in a deep baritone, he inspires comparisons to such country music pioneers as Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell and George Jones.
But don't try to figure Brown out. Just as you think you've got him pegged as a country music revivalist, he'll take you completely by surprise with a turbo-charged rendition of a Jimi Hendrix song or a medley of surfing tunes.
"Growing up in the '60s, you couldn't help but be influenced by rock," Brown said from his Tulsa, Okla., home. "The blues was in there, too. There was a big folk movement going on and I was able to hear a those records because my dad was a teacher at a liberal arts college where kids were listening to that stuff. Other kids my age had no idea who Paul Butterfield, Lightnin' Hopkins or Muddy Waters were. But I did."
The biggest inspiration, though, came from country music. "It fit my feelings more genuinely," Brown recalled. "A lot of the stuff that you heard on the radio, I didn't like that much. But, if you looked back to people like Bob Wills, it was a whole other story."
After playing with a series of high school rock bands, Brown was increasingly drawn to more urban sounds. After dropping out of school in 1971, he began driving to Albuquerque, N.M., to play in country music clubs with older, more experienced musicians. "They played all these old shuffle tunes," he remembered, "the Texas dance shuffle. That got me into western swing and pointed the direction."
Brown's fascination with country music separated him from his peers. "Nobody was listening to country," he said. "It was too square. If you did, you kept your mouth shut about it. I didn't tell anybody that I was watching 'The Ernest Tubb Show' on TV, either. I didn't want anybody to know."
Equally skilled on electric guitar and steel guitar, Brown plays a double-neck instrument, the Guit-Steel, which incorporates both. The original design for the instrument came to Brown in a dream.
"I was going to glue a little lap steel onto my guitar," he said. "I forgot about that idea. But, it must have stayed in my subconscious. I had that dream where there was this double-necked instrument that incorporated an eight-string non-pedal Fender steel guitar and a six-string Fender Bullet guitar. It made total sense to me."
Completed in 1985, the first guit-steel, "Ole Yeller," which took Michael Stevens five years to build, was followed by a second model, "Big Red."
"I happened to walk into (Steven's) shop in Austin, Texas," Brown said. "He had made some double-necked guitars with a six- and a 12-string, a six-string and a bass. He made them look exactly as if Fender had made them. I thought, 'This is the guy.' He's making a guitar for me now that has pedals on it. It's taken forever but it's going to be beautiful."
Humor is an essential element of Brown's songwriting. His repertoire includes such laughter-provoking songs as "Hillbilly Hula Girl," "My Baby Don't Dance To Nothin' But Ernest Tubb," "Venom Wearing Denim" and "Joe the Singing Janitor." He received a Country Music Association (CMA) "Country Music Video of the Year" award for "My Wife Thinks You're Dead," which featured 6'7" Gwendolyn Gillingham.
"I don't do songs about drinking and cheating," Brown said, "the 'she's done me wrong so I'm going to do her wrong' type of things. So, it leaves me with the funny side. But, it also goes back to my parents' 78 rpm records that I listened to as a kid. There's a lot of humor in the songs of people like Hoagy Carmichael and a lot of the Tin Pan Alley stuff filtered into country music. Hank Williams, Hank Thompson and Ernest Tubb did funny songs. How many love ballads can you write? But, you can always come up with a funny story. That's why I do it."
Brown was one of the busiest musicians in Arizona during the 1970s, performing six nights a week with a honky tonk band. "There was hardly a night when I wasn't in a club," he said. "I guess you could call that 'paying dues.' But, I don't think of it that way. It was the guys before me that really paid the dues, running around in station wagons. They worked a lot harder. I spent a lot of time just learning on the bandstand. That was my classroom."