A wild country mutant (and that’s just his axe)

If you don’t think you like country music, you’re not listening to the right musicians. Here’s my take on the whole shebang: A bunch of tame, low-impact, ironed-on-jeans-wearing, truck-commercial-singing, multimillion-selling, pretend-honky-tonkers are giving Nashville a bad name.

What Music City — hell, what the the music world in general — needs is more of the deeply intertwined threads of wildness and goofiness that are the hallmark of true hillbilly music.

It’s like this: Way back in the ’20s, Gid Tanner of the Skillet Lickers would play the fiddle with four chicken eggs in his mouth (David Bass, the fiddler for Bryson City’s Freighthoppers, says he tried it once, but he’ll hard-boil ’em before doing it again). Thirty years later, Carl Perkins was singing about his shoe obsession, and Elvis was so shook up that he was “…itching like a man on a fuzzy tree.” Goofy stuff, sure, but they’re class acts, folks — a far cry from pseudo-farmhand, boot-scootin’ Billy Ray Cyrus clones.

Enter Texas transplant Junior Brown, with his huge, taco-curled cowboy hat, his 1950s suit, his comfy loafers, his smooth, Ernest Tubb-baritone — and that contraption that makes all the joyful noise: the doublenecked monstrosity he invented called a “guit-steel.” Listen to him slam his way through “I Hung It Up,” with its dump-truck load of rocking country blues, mixed-up Hawaiian and surf rhythms, and wild slide rides that rocket over the brink, crash at the bottom, then climb back up for more, bruised but not defeated. Now that’s country. It might be scary, but don’t tell me you don’t like it.

Brown and his wife, Tanya Rae, who plays rhythm guitar in his band, adopted Austin as their home, and for years, this one-of-a-kind was one of that music-happy city’s best-kept secrets. But since the release of his 1993 CDs 12 Shades of Brown (MCG/Curb) and Guit With It (MCG/Curb) — and especially since 1996’s Semi-Crazy (MCG/Curb), with “semi” referring to the old Mack rusting on the cover — he’s broken out and up, despite being largely ignored by commercial radio. His songs are often comic, goofball anthems, but he’s far more than a goofball: When he plays, he’s on fire.

Major magazines like Musician and Guitar Player routinely include Brown in various “Best of” lists. He’s wowed audiences and reviewers from the Grand Ole Opry to Texas roadhouses to Seattle’s Jimi Hendrix Festival to the hippest New York City clubs; had two number-one videos (Highway Patrol and My Wife Thinks You’re Dead, the latter of which which won a Country Music Association’s Video of the Year Award); played a part in a major motion picture (Still Breathing, with Brendan Frasier); starred in a Gap commercial; and, during a recent TNN special, blew both Alan Jackson and Marty Stuart off the stage — at the same time.

His famous guit-steel (nobody else plays one) is a Fender Telecaster-style six-string electric guitar on top, combined with an eight-string lap-steel below. “I was playing both the steel and guitar, switching back and forth while I sang,” he told an interviewer last year. “And it was kind of awkward. But then I had this dream where they just kind of melted together. When I woke up, I thought, you know, that thing would work! They make double-neck guitars and double-neck steels, so why not one of each?” Guitar maker Michael Stevens made the dream a reality, and now Brown has two of them — named “Old Yeller” and “Big Red.”

Brown’s youngest years were spent in Indiana, Maryland and Connecticut. “There was always music of some kind in the house when I was growing up,” he was recently quoted as saying. “My dad was a piano player, so I started playing little melodies on the piano before I could talk.” When he was 12 years old, Brown’s family moved to New Mexico. “I started playing [guitar] in high-school bands at teen nightclubs around 1966, just when the surf thing was going out and the psychedelic thing was coming in,” he told a journalist. “I caught the tail end of the surf craze, and played a little of that around Santa Fe. Around ’69, I started playing the country bars near the truck stops in Albuquerque. That’s where I learned the country thing. I’ve stayed with that music. … I’ve lived in a lot of different places and played in lots of different situations, but I always stuck with country as my livelihood.”

His influences include Ernest Tubb, Jimi Hendrix and a host of rock, blues, rockabilly, country and Hawaiian slide names, but his big, wild sound is completely his own. “I get bored easy,” he told Musician magazine in 1996. “So I just dart around to different styles. … [But] the more of yourself you put in, the better; the more you can cut the umbilical cord and use those influences to develop your own thing and not lean on them … you still call on those things, but you try to do it in your own way, and the more you can do that, the more you grow.”

He’s on the commercial airwaves in videos much more than radio these days. “Radio formats are too rigid,” he told a Virginia newspaper. “Country radio is a little bit intimidated about playing something that is a little bit different.”

And his video popularity also makes sense because it’s live that he really shines. “On stage, you only have one shot,” he told the same newspaper. “I pride myself on having a lot of energy, and I feed off the energy from the crowd. I wish I could record and capture each performance. As it is, I just hope that the people walk away with the music.”

Don’t miss your chance — at his upcoming Asheville appearance — to walk away with the music and get your socks blown off by an original, playing an original.

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