STORY WRITTEN BY CHRIS CAMERON
For Digital First Media
Junior Brown is an American original. From his trademark double-necked “guit-steel” guitar and his Texas Rangers’ style garb to his baritone voice that seems to get even deeper and better with age, Brown is a country music legend in his own right. He seems to possess an encyclopedic memory of where he was and who he performed with at any given age.
As a child, Brown grew up listening to country music on television and on the radio, basically whenever he could sneak it in without his parents noticing.
“My family was into classical, but anything I listened to was guitar driven, particularly electric guitar,” he said.
But when he found a guitar in his grandparents’ attic, it was love at first sight. He started off on the piano, but the strings of the guitar called to him.
“My parents weren’t too excited about me playing the electric guitar because it represented rock n’ roll and juvenile delinquency. I tried to tell them that jazz guitarists played the electric guitar, but that didn’t help me win any arguments.”
He moved around a lot with his parents and began to get a feel for playing in front of audiences from an early age. As a teenager he shared the stage Bo Didley on several occasions.
“His music was all about the rhythm,” he said. “I’d get up there and try to do some fancy stuff and he’d kind of shoo me to the side, but by the end of the night he’d only have one or two strings left on his guitar so he’d need to rely on me.”
But he never got to see live country music shows growing up. The closest he came to seeing live performances was watching them on television.
“My dad watched some Flatt and Scruggs, but I was mostly in my own little world, watching as closely as I could to how the guitarists played on TV.”
When he discovered pedal steel guitar, there was no holding back his urge to play.
“I just liked the feel of the steel strings and there was something about playing metal on metal that attracted me.”
He eventually relocated to Austin, Texas and spent a good deal of time working as a “fill-in” player for bands and playing the honky-tonk circuit, which he credits with helping him to hone his performance skills.
In 1985 he created his double-neck guitar with luthier Michael Stevens, which he calls the “guit-steel.” The top neck of the guitar is a traditional six-string guitar, while the lower neck is a full-size lap steel guitar for slide playing. He uses a music stand to support the instrument and stands behind it.
“The first time I played it was at the Station Inn in Nashville. Peter Rowan was performing and invited a few of us on stage to perform. Vince Gill was on mandolin, Roy Huskey Jr. was on bass, Mark O’Connor was on fiddle, and Jerry Douglass was on dobro. I’m not really sure what they thought of it because I was too concerned with just trying to play it for the first time. I didn’t have a stand for it yet and was struggling to play it in my lap.”
Since then, Brown has been writing and performing nearly all his material. There have been some Grammy nods over the years and a Country Music Association award for his song “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead.”
His songwriting led to performances with some of his musical heroes including Ralph Stanley, George Jones, Doc Watson, Ray Price and even the Beach Boys.
He has explored other genres of music including blues, Hawaiian, and rock, having appeared on Letterman, Conan, Saturday Night Live, the Dukes of Hazzard movie (as the narrator), X Files, Better Call Saul (creator Vince Gilligan is a fan), and even SpongeBob SquarePants.
His most recent album is “Volume Ten,” which is his tenth studio release and also refers to the loudest setting on a guitar amplifier (unless you’re in Spinal Tap). On the album cover, Brown sports a “loud” red suit, but don’t call him a loud dresser or might get insulted.
“My suits are traditionally very conservative,” he said. “I only wore that for the album. I tried to model my garb the Texas Ranger look.”
Brown and his wife, Tanya Rae, perform in the band together and plan to release a new album titled “The American Original” later this year.
He now lives in Branson, Missouri and spends time travelling back and forth between Branson and Austin visiting his grandchildren when he’s not out touring. And if you’ve never seen him live, then you need to “guit with it.”