Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Semi-Crazy

By Mark Jordan

JUNE 22, 1998:  Junior Brown may very well be one of the few true musical artists we have left – a player firmly rooted in the past but whose forceful personality and sheer talent make his work stand out as a unique and unmistakable form of self-expression.

Plus, the man can just get down.

And that last point is the most important when you play the kind of music Brown plays. The word honky-tonk was invented for a man like Brown. And why not? From his first professional gig in the late ’60s to his debut album as a solo artist, 1990’s 12 Shades Of Brown, he’s certainly played more than his share of them. He’s been called too country for country radio, and one listen makes it apparent why. His rapid-fire dance rhythms and blistering, bar-honed guitar work are a lot more in-your-face than a lot of the bland pop country that dominates country radio.

Brown, in short, is the real deal. One look at him confirms that. In his high-brimmed cowboy hat and traditional Country Gentleman-ish suit, he is one of the most distinctive-looking artists around today. It’s a look that, coupled with his own charismatic personality, has helped make Brown a popular product spokesman for the Gap and, in an upcoming series of commercials, Lipton Tea. It’s also landed him a film role in the new Brendan Fraser romance Still Breathing.

Adding to Brown’s persona is the strange double-necked instrument he is often seen wielding, the guit-steel, which Brown invented to suit his particular needs.

“I always loved to play steel and guitar both, and while singing I’d have to choose between one or the other for a particular song,” he says. “I decided why not combine the two into one instrument that I could switch quickly between.”

The guit-steel can be heard on Brown’s latest album, Long Walk Back To San Antone, due in stores in July. The album, Brown says, is “full of the wild guitar playing plus the traditional country stuff I’m known for.” That said, though, expect plenty of other exotic musical tidbits – slices of rock, bluegrass, blues, even a little Hawaiian – mixed in with the honky-tonk country.

Junior Brown with the guit-steel, a hybrid instrument he invented to suit his unique musical requirements. Now he doesn’t have to switch instruments.

“I’ve played all these different styles in my career,” Brown says. “Speaking of the Hawaiian, I played luaus over in Hawaii for awhile in the early ’80s. I’ve always loved the Hawaiian steel guitar, so I put a little bit of that influence in, depending on what the song is. And then bluegrass. I’ve always liked certain bluegrass things. I’m on Ralph Stanley’s new album, singing a duet with him.”

And then there is Brown’s love of rock, in particular the music of Jimi Hendrix. As with most post-’60s guitarists, you can hear shades of Hendrix in Brown’s playing, especially during some of his wilder, extended solo bits. But Brown takes the relationship a step further on the new record and tour. Long Walk Back To San Antone features Hendrix’s Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell. And on his current tour, he is being backed by Band of Gypsies drummer Buddy Miles.

With four albums now under his belt – including the Grammy-nominated Junior High and Semi-Crazy – Junior Brown is clearly one of the most highly regarded figures in the highly regarded field of traditional country music. But it’s interesting to know that there wasn’t much in Brown’s past to foreshadow his life today. Indeed, Junior Brown the guitar player almost seems to have sprung up like a force of nature, helped along a little by happenstance.

“My parents were into classical music,” Brown recalls. “But I lived in a very country, rural area of Indiana when I was young. So, I’d get into trouble and they would send me over to the neighbors’ house. Well, they were all into country music, you see. So that’s were I really picked it up at a very young age.

“I just found my first guitar in my grandparents’ attic. It didn’t have all the strings on it. But there was an old banjo up there and a guitar, and I just took to that guitar. [My grandparents] didn’t play or anything. They just collected junk and that was part of what was up there. My dad taught me to play piano, and I took piano lessons. But I never took to the piano. I never enjoyed it that much. I always wanted to play that guitar.”

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