This time around on “Whatever Happened To…” Features Editor, Clint West, joins us to take a look at one of the great characters of Americana music and a firm favourite with those of us who enjoy a bit of wit alongside some blistering guitar playing.
Junior Brown is an original, a renegade and a maverick and as readers will know, here at AUK those are the kind of people we dig. As well as being an accomplished songwriter, Brown is widely regarded as one of the finest guitarists in country music. In 1985 he invented his signature Guit-Steel which he claims was motivated purely by practicality – it allowed him to switch between the two instruments quickly in mid-song. Junior Brown also possesses an unmistakable baritone voice which when added to his songs and his unique guitar playing, makes him an incredibly special artist.
Born in 1952 in Cottonwood, Arizona to classical musician parents, Jamieson (Junior) Brown’s family soon moved to rural Indiana where he began to soak in the sounds of country music and learned to play a guitar that he had found in his grandparents’ attic. By his late teens, Brown was earning a living as a musician playing the tough honky-tonk circuit. This he continued to do for ten years, an experience to which he later attributed his stagecraft and professionalism. In the mid-1980s, Brown got a job teaching guitar at the Hank Thompson School of Country Music in Claremore, Oklahoma. It was at this time that he invented his now iconic guit-steel instrument.
After stints playing in a number of different bands, including Asleep at the Wheel, Brown relocated to Austin, Texas in the early 1990s. After securing a weekly residency at the famous Continental Club, Brown secured a record deal with Curb. Brown’s first album ’12 Shades of Brown’ was initially released in Britain by Demon Records but the Curb deal saw it re-released in 1993. The album showcased Brown’s multifarious talents. His songs demonstrated a simplicity laced with dry wit and ironic humour. He explored traditional country themes like the road (‘Broke Down South of Dallas’), reverence for the music’s past (‘My Baby Don’t Dance to Nothin’ but Ernest Tubb’), and hardship (‘Don’t Sell the Farm’). It also embraced the age-old country tradition of clever wordplay on ‘What’s Left Just Won’t Go Right’. Musically the album incorporated a range of country styles including Honky-Tonk, Bakersfield and Western Swing all blended with Brown’s remarkable guitar work.
Brown’s debut album paved the way for its follow-up ‘Guit With It’. Released in 1993 it was to become his career highpoint both artistically and commercially. The two singles taken from the album were both hits, firstly Red Simpson’s ‘Highway Patrol’ and then the quirky ‘My Wife Thinks You’re Dead’ which was boosted by an entertaining video that won the CMA Music Video of the Year award. Whilst Sugarfoot Rag’ and the eleven minute long ‘Guit-Steel Blues’ showcased Brown’s extraordinary guitar skills, other songs highlighted his ability to write classic country songs like ‘Doin’ What Comes Easy to a Fool’ with Brown’s deep, rich vocals never sounding better. ‘Party Lights’ is a humorous song about getting stopped by the police and ‘So Close Yet So Far Away’ is a near perfect country ballad.
Three years later, 1996 saw the release of Brown’s third album ‘Semi-Crazy’. It represented more of the same, but given how good it’s predecessor was, that was no bad thing. The title track, a duet with Red Simpson, was a tongue-in-cheek trucking song edged with Brown’s typically dry humour. The guitar showcase tracks this time were the rock ‘n’ rolling ‘I Hung It Up’ and the extraordinary ‘Surf Medley’ which closes the album. The lyrically dubious ‘Venom Wearing Denim’ was another video hit but lacked the wit and charm of ‘My Wife Thinks You’re Dead’ both in song and on film.
The release of ‘Long Walk Back’ in 1998 marked a bit of a change. The addition of saxophone to Brown’s sound gave it more of an R&B swing although it was still essentially Junior. However, despite some good tracks it felt a bit flatter than his earlier releases, his quirkiness and eccentricities were slightly ironed out in favour of a more straightlaced approach. Brown went on to produce two more albums, ‘Mixed Bag’ (2001) and ‘Down Home Chrome’ (2004) that further highlighted his unique approach and a stubborn refusal to compromise on his well-established template, before releasing a live album ‘Live at The Continental’ in 2005. The recording captured Junior in familiar surroundings, doing what he does best in a way that only Junior could. With only the six-track mini-album ‘Volume 10’ to fill the space, it was fourteen years between Brown’s last studio album and 2018’s ‘Deep in the Heart of Me’. The album leans towards country ballads, something that Junior’s voice is well suited to. The record represents an appropriately pitched edging forward into maturity, with the stand-out track ‘Another Honky-Tonk Burned Down’ lamenting the passing of an era.
In May 2020 Brown launched a series of online performances with his wife and long-time rhythm guitarist Tanya Rae. Episodes of ‘The Junior and Tanya Rae Brown Show!’ are available on YouTube and well worth a look. The series helped to support the couple through the pandemic by way of an electronic tip jar for donations and requests. The couple also announced a new album to be released “in the summer” titled ‘His and Hers’ and I for one will be keeping a keen eye out for it.