Junior Brown – Out of this world
In 1997, an independent film titled The Planet Of Junior Brown highlighted the Toronto International Film Festival. When I stumbled across that title during a web search for a certain alterna-country artist, I was struck by what an inspired idea this was for a movie — a fantasyland where a guy with the offstage demeanor of a soft-spoken Don Knotts becomes a larger-than-life, fire-breathing guitar god whenever he straps on his uniquely-designed, two-necked instrument.
On this cinematic planet, Ernest Tubb and Jimi Hendrix are soul brothers, and Nashville, Austin and Honolulu are all on the same musical axis. It’s a realm where a deep reverence for the past meets a previously unimagined future, where surf music spins into supersonic orbit and classic honky-tonk acquires a surrealistic tinge, like a Hank Williams video shot by David Lynch or the Coen Brothers.
A planet very much unlike our own, right?
Alas, the movie that exists isn’t that at all. As it turns out, the Canadian indie flick was based on a book of the same title, published in 1971, aimed at African-American teens. The Junior of page and screen is an overweight black kid whose mind conjures a fantasy world while he pursues his love of classical piano. In the sort of coincidence that could only happen on The Planet Of Junior Brown, the book came to the attention of a roadhouse guitarist shortly after he’d decided to change his billing as a professional musician.
“I’d been going under the name of J.B. Brown, and that didn’t do it for me,” explains the artist formerly known to his friends as “Jamie.” “I’d been called Junior here and there, got that handle by being the youngest guy in the band, the guy who played in the bars with the fake ID. I was scared of calling myself Junior because it sounded too corny, but then I decided, it’s corny, but it has a good sound to it. And then when somebody gave me the book with that title, I said, ‘Omigod, my alter ego.’
“But wouldn’t that be a great name for an album: The Planet Of Junior Brown?”
Yes it would — better than the more provisional-sounding Mixed Bag, a title that could apply to pretty much every one of his releases since his late ’80s 12 Shades Of Brown debut. Mixed Bag, released July 31, opens with Junior roaring through Jerry Reed’s “Guitar Man” like the alt-country equivalent of Joe Satriani, a pleasure that, to these ears, wears thin pretty quickly. Yet it also features a couple of ballads that rank with the most soulful of his career — “Running With The Wind”, which could pass for one of Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s country-zen koans, and “Our First Bluebonnet Spring”, written with one of his steel-guitar inspirations, Lloyd Green.
Among the other highlights are prime examples of Brown’s patented wordplay: “Cagey Bea” (about a Russian spy, naturally, giving Junior the chance to rhyme “borscht” with “Porsche”), and “Little Town Square”, a deadpan weeper with Jordanaires-style sweetening from the Nashville Edition.
If Brown wants a musical motto, his aforementioned admission — “It’s corny, but it has a good sound to it” — could apply to more than his name. One of the biggest musical stretches of Brown’s recording career comes with the horn-laden Dixieland of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Riverboat Shuffle”, where what seems like a trombone is actually Junior’s guit-steel. He brings such musical exploration full-circle by applying similar treatment to Ernest Tubb’s “Kansas City Blues”. Backing Brown throughout the album are many of the “A Team” musicians who defined the classic Nashville sound of the ’60s and ’70s: pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, drummer Buddy Harman, bassist Bob Moore, and guitarists Jimmy Capps and Pete Wade.
“When you play with him, you just hang on,” says Robbins, whose countless credits extend from George Jones’ “White Lightnin'” to Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” to Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde. With cancer and chemotherapy taking their toll, the retired Robbins says that Brown’s album is the last he’ll play on. “With his ability and technique, he’s as unique as any artist I’ve ever worked with. He loves that old traditional rhythm, but then he puts some wild stuff on top of it.”
“I’ve got my heroes on there — the very, very best of country’s very best era, the guys who taught me to hear what the instruments are all about — but I’m not trying to ram it down anyone’s throat as ‘traditional country,'” says Brown. “There’s too many people running around saying, ‘I’m country and these people aren’t country and that isn’t traditional country.’ If you’re country, it’s gonna show. It’s like Ray Price with a string section — he’s country, there’s no way around it. People said, ‘He’s selling out, he’s sold out’ and all that. Yeah, but he’s Ray Price! It’s gonna be country no matter how it’s arranged. You’re not going to take that kind of soul out of him.”
So it goes on The Planet Of Junior Brown, where radical innovation and respect for tradition are simply two sides of country’s musical coin. Born in Arizona, raised in Indiana and New Mexico, he’s been stepping to the beat of a decidedly different drummer since he dropped out of Santa Fe High School, left the home of his parents and started supporting himself on the $150 a week or so he made playing guitar at Southwestern country bars. As far as the rock of that era was concerned, Junior was more like Rip Van Winkle, oblivious to musical developments from the late ’60s to the ’80s.
“When I really started making my living, the rock clubs weren’t happening, as far as playing there every night,” he says. “You could work those rock clubs on the weekends, maybe, but if you wanted to make some money, you had to go to the country bars. And that’s what I did, year after year after year. I grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll, quite a bit, but I never played any rock ‘n’ roll gigs except with Rank And File in the 1980s. When people ask me about rock of the ’70s, I have no idea who any of those bands were, ’cause I was lost in the country bars, where the Ray Price style was what was popular.”