IT’S ALMOST TWO ON A MONDAY morning and a who’s who of Austin roots rockers, mainstream and alternative hillbillies, punks, and graybeards are crammed into the Continental Club, arguably the finest live-music venue in the state. Heads are bobbing and hips are swaying to the pyrotechnics of 43-year-old Junior Brown, the latest electric guitar sensation in town.
Even in a room like the Continental, where six-string virtuosos such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, Bill Campbell, David Grissom, Eric Johnson, Charlie Sexton, and John Reed have performed on its storied stage, the doleful, moon-eyed Brown stands out. His bent-brim Western hat, black coat, white shirt, and dark tie may give him a kind of detached, corn pone cool, but the guitar wizardry he displays as he rips through an amazing and studiously eclectic set—quoting passages from Jimi Hendrix, Ernest Tubb, the Ventures, Jimmie Rodgers, Leon McAuliffe, and Roy Smeck amidst his own compositions—defies typecasting. Brown is backed up by his engaging wife, Tanya Rae, on rhythm guitar; Steve Layne on upright bass; and Tom Lewis, who works a single snare drum with brushes.
The ensemble sound, his retro stage dress, and his unique picking style aren’t the only things about Junior Brown that set him apart. The instrument he plays is a unique double-necked invention he calls the guit-steel, which allows him to express the competing sounds in his head: conventional boogies and low-down blues on the guitar part; weepy, lonesome moans, simulations of gears shifting on a diesel truck, and sustained-note wobbles on the steel part. “If I have to play and sing with just one instrument, that’s not me,” he says. “I like to switch.”
The guit-steel is emblematic of Junior Brown and his place in modern music. Like the instrument, he’s a maverick who has traveled the long road of obscurity because of his uncompromising (and sometimes difficult) nature and his commitment to hard-core country music before it evolved into the bland pop-rock hybrid heard on the radio today. But unlike most of his brethren who root themselves in the classics, Junior is threatening to become a full-blown Nashville star, while remaining resolutely against the grain. There have been sit-ins with the house band on Saturday Night Live, an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, two shots on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, one on The Late Show with David Letterman, nominations this year for a Grammy and an Academy of Country Music Award, and in the past eight months, two number one videos, “Highway Patrol” and “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead,” on the Nashville Network. Brown’s first big-budget album, Semi-Crazy, has been issued to critical raves, and he sings a bitchin’ lead to “409” on the upcoming Beach Boys Go Nashville—backed with vocal harmonies by the Boys themselves—and playing perhaps the first surf-steel solo ever recorded.
As a result, the Sunday night gigs at the Continental are becoming few and far between. Right now, Brown is on tour with the Mavericks, a popular young country band from Miami, through the end of the year. I caught up with the tour at the John T. Floore Country Store, a vintage Texas dance hall in Helotes, twenty miles northwest of San Antonio. Many of Brown’s country heroes have played at Floore’s over the years, including one who pulls his touring bus alongside Junior’s. Johnny Bush, the Country Caruso, who got his start as one of Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys with Willie Nelson and who later popularized songs such as “Whiskey River” and “There Stands the Glass,” has come to pay his respects. Brown naturally treats Bush like visiting royalty, asking him to join him onstage.
Most of the two thousand on hand who’ve come to see the Mavericks have probably never heard of Johnny Bush or Brown’s other heroes, such as Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills. Part of Junior’s mission onstage, with the songs he plays and how he plays them, is to show his younger listeners how the present and future of country music are in its past. He and Tanya Rae are dedicated to getting a sound few other country musicians know how to get—one that is authentic and fresh. And whatever Junior’s guit-steel can’t say for him, his booming baritone—“My cornball singing voice,” as he calls it—does. The music quickly grabs the crowd at Floore’s. Some are clearly country purists, rejuvenated by Brown; others, like the high school kid with the buzz cut and the urbane black gentleman, seem pulled in by the novelty of it all. All are singing along with Junior, nearly shouting the refrain: “You’re wanted by the po-lice/And my wife thinks you’re dead.”
It’s one thing for someone to say he has dedicated himself to keeping country country, but Junior Brown means it. “I’ve waited a long time to do this,” he explained before the show at Floore’s. The son of an itinerant college music professor who grew up in Indiana and Maryland, Brown says a revelation came to him while watching television on Saturday afternoons when syndicated half-hour music programs brought the likes of Ernest Tubb and Porter Wagoner into his living room, introducing Brown to the Southern stylistic nuances of big hair, gaudy outfits, and the music of his future. He was particularly drawn to the sound created by one of Tubb’s Texas Troubadours, Buddy Charlton. “That was the first time I ever heard pedal steel guitar,” Junior says dreamily. “It was Hawaii—the palm trees swaying, the waves. The steel sounded like Hawaii looks.”
When Brown started knocking around clubs in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as a teenager in the mid-sixties, he was oriented to rock and roll. In 1966 he had a face-to-face encounter with Jimi Hendrix, who remains a personal favorite. But by the early seventies, Junior had gravitated to the honky-tonk sound he had heard on television. His entrée was New Mexico’s first long-haired country band, the Last Mile Ramblers, who played in the tradition of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. The band held forth every Sunday afternoon at the Golden Inn