Honky-tonk king

He’s been called “too country for country radio.” But one listen to Junior Brown’s rapid-fire dance rhythms and blistering, bar-honed guitar work tells you he’s more likely to be too in-your-face for country radio, given the often-bland, poppy pablum that pervades those airwaves, these days.

Though firmly rooted in tradition, Brown’s take on country music is original enough to catapult his larger-than-life sound into a singular form of true self-expression.

Plus, the man can seriously get down.

The importance of that last point shouldn’t be underestimated, when one plays the kind of music Brown plays. The word “honky-tonk” was invented for a man like him. And why not? From his first professional gig in the late ’60s to the tour promoting his solo-artist debut — 1990’s 12 Shades Of Brown (Curb) — he’s certainly played more than his share of those beer-soaked venues.

And the Texas-based Brown — with his gravel-infused, Ernest-Tubb baritone vocals; huge, taco-shaped cowboy hat; and country-gentleman suit and tie — has become not only a music icon, but an American pop-culture phenomenon, regularly appearing in ads and commercials for The Gap and Lipton Tea. (He also just landed a film role in the Brendan Fraser romance, Still Breathing.)

Fueling Brown’s musical fire is the strange, double-necked instrument he wields with such authority — the guit-steel, which he invented to suit his particular needs.

“I always loved to play [pedal] steel and guitar both, and … I’d have to choose between one or the other for a particular song,” he says. “I decided, why not combine the two into one instrument that I could switch quickly between?”

The guit-steel can be heard in all its glory on Brown’s latest CD, Long Walk Back to San Antone. The disc is chock full of frenzied guitar work, on everything from traditional, honky-tonk country to rock, bluegrass, blues — even a little Hawaiian.

“I’ve played all these different styles in my career,” Brown says. “[Regarding] the Hawaiian, I played luaus over in Hawaii for a while in the early ’80s. I’ve always loved the Hawaiian steel guitar, so I put a little bit of that influence in, depending on what the song is. And then bluegrass … I’ve always liked certain bluegrass things. I’m on Ralph Stanley’s new album, singing a duet with him.”

And then there’s Brown’s unabashed love of rock — in particular, the music of Jimi Hendrix. As with many post-’60s guitarists, you can hear shades of Hendrix in much of Brown’s playing, but he takes the influence a few steps further: Long Walk Back to San Antone features Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell. And, on his current tour, Brown is backed by Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies drummer, Buddy Miles.

With four CDs under his belt — including the Grammy-nominated Junior High (Curb, 1995) and the critically acclaimed Semi-Crazy (Curb, 1997) — Brown’s stellar reputation continues to grow.

There wasn’t much in Brown’s early history, however, to foreshadow his current fame. Indeed, Junior Brown, the guitar player, seems to have sprung up like a force of nature, helped along a little by happenstance.

“My parents were into classical music,” Brown recalls. “But I lived in a very country, rural area of Indiana when I was young. So I’d get into trouble and they would send me over to the neighbors’ house. Well, [the neighbors] were all into country music, you see. So that’s where I really picked it up, at a very young age.

“And I … found my first guitar in my grandparents’ attic,” he continues. “It didn’t have all the strings on it. But there was an old banjo up there and a guitar, and I just took to that guitar. [My grandparents] didn’t play or anything. They just collected junk, and that was part of what was up there. My dad taught me to play piano, and I took piano lessons. But I never took to the piano; I never enjoyed it that much. I always just wanted to play that guitar.”

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