Junior Brown goes against every trend in country music today, thank God. In an era of careful calculation, he’s an unreconstructed original. In an era of melodramatic balladry, he emphasizes
humor and working-class heroes. And in an era when up-tempo country means drawing on the Eagles or Southern rock, he kicks in with timeless, dynamic guitar work rather than three-part harmonies, loud drums or references to the color of his neck.
But much more than this sets him apart. While most country performers carve, pad and pump themselves to look good for the cameras, Brown resembles a county agricultural agent who hasn’t changed his choice of clothes in 35 years. And while nearly every male country performer to rise in recent years is cover-boy material, Brown has a face as sharp as a thumb. All this aside, Brown’s most distinguishing features are his God-given talents: He writes distinctively detailed songs, sings in a basso profundo voice packed with character, and plays guitar with as much flare and technique as anyone in the world. Even in the ’90s, that’s good enough.
Performing during Fan Fair week at the Exit/In, Brown laid out his humble virtues for an appreciative audience. He came out in a red blazer over conservative rural clothing as plain as a K-Mart rack sale, and the brim of his Resistol hat was blocked into drastic curves seemingly modeled after a bobsled track. The crowd included several camera-toting out-of-towners. It was easy to tell they were tourists: They showed up at the rock club believing the advertised show time of 9 p.m. At least they got to secure good seats or prime standing spacewhen Brown hit the stage shortly after 10 o’clock, the club had filled to capacity with longhaired rockers, college students, new-country-lovin’ couples, and aged cowboys. It was a wildly diverse group, and they all cheered Brown’s songs with equal enthusiasm.
Brown’s group has been the same since he started venturing beyond Henry’s and the Continental Club in Austin, Texas, where he developed his reputation as a bandleader after more than a decade as a well-traveled sideman and a guitar teacher. In concert, the quartet moves together like a couple who’ve been dancing arm-in-arm for years. With Steve Layne on upright bass, ex-Wagoneer Tom Lewis on a single snare drum, and wife Tanya Rae Brown on acoustic rhythm guitar, Brown walked onstage and nodded a half-smile to the crowd, like a man acknowledging a few neighbors. The cheers grew louder with the first notes from his guit-steel, the self-designed electric guitar and lap steel that allows Brown to switch instruments within a beat or two. Then he set the tone with “Broke Down South of Dallas”: a swinging rhythm, some flashy but to-the-point picking, a leathery voice, and a half-grinning expression.
For all the attention given to his unusual guitar, and all the talk of his voice and his instrumental talent, Brown’s appeal has as much to do with his songs. The bulk of his stage show draws on Ernest Tubb two-steppers, Ray Price shuffles, and a bit of Western swing. He shows off his incredible knowledge and skill with forays into Hawaiian hula songs and jet-packed instrumentals: He’ll begin with steel guitar rags and surf tunes before rampaging into a history of electric string specialties, touching upon everything from the Nashville Sound to psychedelia to heavy-metal hammering while quoting Hank Garland, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Eddie Van Halen and Vernon Reid.
But these musical turns are the sweet desserts; the meat-and-potatoes of his show comes from his tightly written and impeccably crafted characters, which he describes with amazingly colorful detail. In concert and on his three albums, Brown finds endlessly inventive ways of looking at the foibles of working Americans. He affectionately delves into their lives with humor and pathos, but never at the expense of honesty and dignity. He doesn’t simply write blue-collar tributes, though. Instead, through first-person narratives, he inhabits the lives of truckers, janitors, drunks, roadhouse musicians, prisoners, soldiers and couples. While many country songs these days patronize their subjects or set up superficially sensitive scenarios, Brown brings his characters alive through unconventional ideas that sound just bizarre enough to be true-to-life.
“Joe, the Singing Janitor” might sound like a novelty song, but it’s also about a man asking for dignity and respect. It’s told by a custodial worker who likes to pass the time by singing not on a stage, but on a concrete floor with a broom for a microphone. “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but I carry that bucket with pride,” Brown sings in one of the funnier lines of the song. Joe knows people look down at him, and he admits that he’s square, but he’s also “getting by the best I can.” So he gently pleads in the chorus, “Go easy on a guy trying to make life easy on you.”
The song is similar to “Highway Patrol,” an old Red Simpson number that Brown revived into a near-hit last year. Not many modern performers, not even country singers, would dare sing a tribute to a working cop. But Brown breaks it down perfectly: “My hours are long, and my pay is low, but I’ll do my best to keep you driving slow, I’m just a-doing my job, I’m the highway patrol.”
Brown works a similar combination of humor and insight with his relationship songs. “Broke Down South of Dallas” tells of a working man whose truck stalls on an isolated stretch of Texas freeway. After spending several hours fixing his rig, he frets that his wife won’t believe him when arrives home near dawn. “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead” is another song in which a faithful mate encounters a difficult-to-explain situation. In this case, a guy runs into a former lover by surprise; he tells her it’s nice to see her and then flatly lays down the law: “If you think that I want trouble, then you’re crazy in your head, because you’re wanted by the police, and my wife thinks you’re dead.”
On occasion, Brown plays it completely straight, proving he’s a better balladeer than his humorous turns might suggest. His Exit/In show included a smoothly crooned “Pretty Words,” a 1954 hit for Marty Robbins, as well as his own “Darlin’ I’ll Do Anything You Say,” on which he gave a surprisingly tuneful delivery.
Brown reportedly drew a rousing response at Fan Fair, which makes sense. For people genuinely interested in country musicand not how attractive a singer is or how many awards he or she has wonBrown presents a consistently entertaining option to the pop-country mainstream. He appeals equally to traditional fans and to the younger, alternative country set. In the best way, he’s an audacious reminder that the freshest new sounds can be as unlikely as they are unpredictable.
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