Guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer, educator
Multitalented Junior Brown is a guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer, and instructor who has made his mark on country music. When he told Down Beat’s Bill Milkowski, “A lot of people tell me that they don’t like country music but they like what I’m doing,” he effectively summed up his appeal and his particular brand of music: country with twists of humor, Jimi Hendrix-style guitar rock, Memphis blues, Texas Swing, rockabilly, and bluegrass. Request magazine, in fact, dubbed Brown “the missing link between [legendary country] Ernest Tubb and… Hendrix.” Though he has made forays into other realms, Brown has perhaps best displayed his strengths and talents in the country genre.
Brown became adept at sounding like two, and sometimes three, guitar players at once, due in part to his own musical invention: the guit steel. The guit steel is a dual-necked guitar with a six-stringed top and an eight-stringed lap-steel bottom. The invention came to Brown in a dream in which he imagined himself playing and melding two guitars at once; when he awoke, he called guitar maker Mike Stevens, who was able to make
Born Jameson Brown in 1953 in Arizona; father was a piano player; married Tanya Rae (a guitarist and singer), c. 1979.
Guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer, and guitar instructor; invented guit steel guitar. Played roadhouse circuit, 1960s and 1970s; played with Rank and File, Asleep at the Wheel, and Alvin Crow, Austin, TX; released debut album, 12 Shades of Brown, Demon, 1990; appeared as a guest on television shows Saturday Night Live and Entertainment Tonight, 1994.
Brown’s dream a reality. The guit steel enables Brown to make swift mid-song transactions.
According to Rolling Stone’s John Swenson, Brown is a veritable institution among “guitar-playing aficionados” in his hometown of Austin, Texas, with his popularity steadily burgeoning out to the far reaches of the United States. The southwest has left its stamp on Brown’s music, particularly when he croons songs like “Broke Down South of Dallas” in an unmistakable rural twang. His vocal delivery as well as his songwriting talent sets him apart from other lauded musicians noted solely for their instrumental prowess. Delightfully quirky, his songs celebrate human foibles and eccentricities.
Brown was born in Arizona in 1953 and moved frequently with his family before settling in rural Kirksville, Indiana, where the youngster discovered he had an affection for country music. His father was a piano player, and there was always music being played or listened to in Junior’s childhood home. Brown used to hear country music on the radio and cites Ernest Tubb, whom he would later watch on television, as an early influence.
Brown’s parents considered country music to be backward and his classmates found it stodgy, but Brown nevertheless unfailingly embraced country. When he reached his teen years, he relocated with his family to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Though his classmates there also did not like country music, there were plenty of honky tonk bars in town for Brown to visit and hone his skills. Brown recalled his teen years to Will Van Over-beek in Request: “As a kid who dropped out of high school and didn’t have any skills at all, I got this job playing six nights in honky tonks when I was seventeen years old. I made $140 a week and I thought I was rich.”
Brown played the roadhouse circuit throughout the 1960s and 1970s, devoting a full quarter century to music. He moved to California, Colorado, and Oklahoma before settling down in Austin. There he played with a diverse collection of bands, including the country/punk group Rank and File, the country/pop troupe Asleep at the Wheel, and Alvin Crow, a traditional party band musician.
Brown developed his own signature style, which was a hybrid of music fused into country, and stuck with it throughout various musical trends over the years. He told Down Beat’s Milkowski, “I’ve lived through all the movements in Austin—the Outlaw movement, the urban-cowboy movement, the Kenny Rogers country-pop movement. But I didn’t change to go along with the trends. I stuck with what I liked.”
Brown is a musician’s musician, thrilling a diverse group of accomplished artists in their own right. Ernest Tubb, Carlene Carter, Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder, Chris Isaak, the Butthole Surfers, former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, Neil Young, and Jimmie Vaughan have been, at various times, part of Brown’s sated audience. Vaughan, in fact, made a guest appearance on Guit with It’s “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead” single and once took steel guitar lessons from Brown. And Lowe is the fan responsible for taking Brown’s 12 Shades of Brown cassette to Great Britain’s Demon label; the LP would be released in 1990. Lowe also introduced Brown to Cooder, who was so enrapt with Brown’s music that he flew him to Los Angeles to feature him on the original motion picture score of Trespass.
It was difficult for Brown to start his own band while keeping up a hectic pace of constant traveling and playing the live music circuit. He had attempted to meet with success in Nashville in the late 1980s, only to discover that his version of country music was a little too offbeat for the Nashville formula. Brown returned to Austin and was able to support himself by performing live, all the while working on a recording to again pitch in Nashville.
Brown’s debut album appeared in 1990 as an independent cassette that he sold at his shows, titled 12 Shades of Brown and subsequently released on Britain’s Demon label. The album featured the Brown standard “My Baby Don’t Dance to Nothing But Ernest Tubb,” along with “So Close Yet So Far Away” and “Party Lights.” 12 Shades Of Brown was reissued in 1993 by Curb Records, due to an upsurge in his popularity upon the release of Guit with It. The singles “Guit-Steel Blues” and “Sugar-foot Rag” are examples of Brown’s eclectic country hybrid form; both feature a mix of country, blues, and rock.
In addition to sometime members Steve Layne and Roddy Collona, Brown’s band includes rhythm guitarist and backup vocalist Tanya Rae Brown, who is also his wife. The two met when she was one of his guitar pupils at Oklahoma’s Hank Thompson School of Country Music. Brown told Guitar Player’s Chris Gill, “She’s the backbone of my sound.” They have been known to glare at each other during a performance, primarily because Brown can be meticulous about how the music is played, and because Tanya Rae wants to sing with him more often than she is asked. They have also been known to coo at each other and have performed the single “So Close Yet So Far Away” as a duet; the rendition has been favorably compared to that of George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Commenting on his original-sounding brand of country, Brown told Request’s Overbeek, “I’ve got a foothold on what my style is… how far I can go without going too far, how simple I can be without being too simple, and keeping that balance … finding a place to grow with it without losing it…. That’s the thing: Having a tiger is great, if he’s trained.” After the release of Guit with It, the musician made guest appearances on the television shows Saturday Night Live and Entertainment Tonight . To keep his bearings in the swirl of increased popularity and publicity, Brown follows the advice of Ernest Tubb, who, according to Down Beat, once told him, “Keep it country, boy.”
12 Shades of Brown, Demon, 1990, reissued, Curb, 1993.
Guit with It, Curb, 1993.
(Contributor) Trespass (film score), Sire, 1993.
Billboard, March 26, 1994.
Country Music, March 1994.
Down Beat, May 1994.
Guitar Player, December 1993.
Musician, January 1994.
Request, November 1993.
Rolling Stone, December 1, 1994.
Spin, March 1994.
—B. Kimberly Taylor
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