Rich Brotherton – Ace of Austin
(Editor’s note: With this issue we begin a semi-regular feature profiling the supporting musicians who help make much of the music we spend our days listening to.)
Rich Brotherton is best known outside of Austin, Texas, as Robert Earl Keen’s guitar player. But in his adopted hometown he’s much, much more. There he’s also a celebrated folk and Celtic musician, and a producer who has helmed records for Keen, Caroline Herring, Rodney Hayden, Beaver Nelson, Ana Egge and others.
Raised in Augusta, Georgia, Brotherton began his musical explorations at age 8; by 11, he was playing professionally with a folk group, and at 14, he started playing solo gigs in a local restaurant. He attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs, graduating with a degree in music theory and composition.
After finishing school in 1981, Brotherton traveled to the town of Doolin in the County of Clare, Ireland, to study music. He lived in a tent in a field behind McGann’s Pub & Restaurant for the summer, working in the restaurant during the day and playing music in the pub at night. After returning to the States, he ended up in Boise, Idaho, where his family had settled.
In 1985 he made a list of places he wanted to go, and eventually crossed them off until Austin was the only one left. Once there, he quickly made a name for himself. He played guitar with Kris McKay (who had a deal on Arista) and renowned songwriter David Halley. He and bassist J.D. Foster teamed up with Danny Barnes to play in the Barnburners, a short-lived group that was a precursor to the Bad Livers. He played with Ronnie Lane, and toured Japan with Lane and Ian McLagan. He originated the Continental Club’s legendary “Hippie Hour” early shows with singer Toni Price. He played Irish music with Ed Miller.
Brotherton had no problem keeping busy. Then he happened to run into Robert Earl Keen.
NO DEPRESSION: How did your family end up moving to Boise, Idaho?
RICH BROTHERTON: My dad and my uncle bought a beer distributorship at one point. Did you know there are more Mormons per capita in Southern Idaho than there are in Salt Lake City? They decided that they were going to try to sell Schlitz beer to a mostly Mormon community. It was a bad idea. They moved out there right when I went off to college. After college I came back and spent a couple of years in Boise playing.
ND: How did you get your start in music?
RB: My dad had a Harmony Tenor guitar he tuned like a baritone uke. I figured out how to pick a little pattern on the open strings and I showed it to him. He had me do that and he chorded the neck while I played that pattern. I said, “Wait a minute! What did you do there?” He showed me 1-4-5 in G and in C. Then he showed me how a capo worked. From those lessons, anything I was able to hear, I was able to figure out. My first guitar was that Harmony Tenor. When I was 12, my dad gave me a Yamaha FG-180 that I still have.
ND: You list Tony Rice and Leo Kottke as influences, and you’ve got a solid acoustic reputation, playing mandolin, playing Irish music. But you are also a monster on the electric.
RB: I didn’t get an electric guitar until I was in college. I stumbled upon Richard Thompson and went, “Wait a minute.” And then Albert Lee; I listened to “Two More Bottles Of Wine” [on Emmylou Harris’ 1978 Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town] and went “whoooa.” Then there was Clarence White…”Chestnut Mare” and “Tulsa County” are mindblowers. There was a really badass version, that I only heard one time, a buddy of mine had a cassette in college of Clarence and [his brother] Roland doing an electric version of [Mickey Newbury’s] “Why You Been Gone So Long” that was just awesome.
ND: Do you have any trouble with the transition between acoustic and electric? Most acoustic players prefer a much heavier gauge of strings than electric players do.
RB: I tried a lot of stuff for years and I finally got to where I am playing 12s on the acoustic and 11s on the electric, so that I don’t just squeeze it out of tune every time I pick it up.
ND: You started playing with Robert Earl Keen about thirteen years ago after meeting him at a record release party for A Bigger Piece Of Sky.
RB: I was playing at Gruene Hall with Champ Hood. Robert and [Bryan] Duckworth were coming in to set up to do a record release that night. Champ was friends of theirs; we were doing our afternoon set. They sat in with us for a tune or two. That was the first time I met him. It turned out a buddy of mine was playing bass with him. Robert decided that he was going to be looking for a guitar player and my buddy threw my name his way. Maybe he remembered me from that gig with Champ, but he called me up.