“We were buying Cadillacs. Now, they were used Cadillacs, but hell, it sure didn’t matter to us!”
By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
When Junior Brown started playing country music as a session musician in the 1960s, his idea of “stardom” was a lot different than a lot of other folks.
He played guitar and pedal steel for a variety of groups including the Last Mile Ramblers and Asleep at the Wheel. But, by and large, he was pretty happy with where he was.
“I had no other skills in life than playing music,” Brown told the Pittsburgh Current recently. “But back then you could make really good money as a sideman. You just went out and played gigs. I’m telling you, there was good money to be made in a classy club.
“And to be completely honest, even the dumps were paying well. There was no recession back then. A lot of my people in the business back then will remember; we were buying Cadillacs. Now, they were used Cadillacs, but, hell, it sure didn’t matter to us!”
Junior Brown opening for Rev. Horton Heat’s Holiday Hayride with Big Sandy and The Blasters. 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2. Jergel’s Rhythm Grille, 103 Slade Lane, Warrendale. $33-49. All ages if accompanied by parent or legal guardian. jergels.com
Brown has been a touring musician most of his adult life and shows no sign of stopping now. He hits town Dec. 2 as one of the opening acts for Rev. Horton Heat’s Holiday Hayride, an annual roadshow that hits Jergel’s in Warrendale. Fans of rockabilly, western swing, Americana and traditional country, have long followed Brown, his melodic baritone voice and his iconic guit-steel, a hybrid electric/steel guitar.
“I play both instruments and it would be frustrating because if I wanted lead guitar behind the vocals, I couldn’t have steel in that song,” Brown says. “So, the idea of the guit-steel is to have this double-necked instrument so you can change from one to another in the same song. It also allows you to just hire one player instead of two.”
The idea for the guit-steel came when Brown was at a music store owned by a man name Michael Stephens in the 1980s. “He had all these double-necked things, a Fender mashed with a Gibson, that kind of thing,” Brown says. “I showed him what I was looking for and it pretty much invented itself.”
Brown owns the instrument on stage. He rocks his originals with his band that includes rhythm guitarist, his wife Tanya (I was her guitar teacher. I kept her after class,” Brown jokes) and longtime Austin-based drummer Scott Matthews, formerly of the Derailers (“He may be the best drummer, I’ve ever worked with,” Brown acknowledges).
Although life as a sideman was lucrative, Brown admits that he might have gotten a little too comfortable.
“I think it did make me lazy,” Brown says. “Instead of writing songs and hustling to get a deal, I was pretty content which was definitely not a good attitude.”
Finding himself not necessarily a Nashville-type of artist, Brown considered heading to Austin, Texas in the 1970s along with an anti-Nashville contingent of artists that included Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Steve Earle, Jerry Jeff Walker and many others.
“At that time, everyone was getting a contract,” Brown says. “If you were any kind of decent country guy at that time with long hair, you could start a band and get a deal.
“But I just think it wasn’t my time.”
Brown has been leading his band since the 1980s. They moved to Austin in the 1990s during a second rush of counter-culture country artists looking to play a more traditional sound of music. Brown and his band became the house group at the famed Continental Club. His sound really struck a chord with fans starting with 1993’s 12 Shades of Brown LP.
“I made it to Austin a couple of decades after those guys, and when I got there, the blues guys like Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughn were the main attraction,” Brown says. But traditional country sounds, in a way, were returning. It came from the likes of the Derailers and Dale Watson in Austin, the Mavericks out of Miami, Two Dollar Pistols from North Carolina and Nashville’s BR549.
But this time around, bands weren’t solely focused on making country music per se. Take Brown, for example, his style, while steeped in Western Swing, also contains elements of blues, rockabilly and rock-and-roll. It’s an evolution of traditional country music that still contains the country soul but is miles away from the audio buffoonery that makes up today’s country music.
“People often are looking for a resurgence in original country music, but its time has passed,” Brown says. “I don’t consider myself a traditional country artist. People aren’t going to come out and listen to that. You’ve got to give them something new.”
And that’s what Brown has done. While he writes new music often, he will often take quite a bit of time in between releases. Earlier this year he released Deep in the Heart of Me, his first record in eight years and only his second since 2005.
When asked about the gaps between releases, Brown once again jokes about his laziness. Oh, I’m just lazy, I guess,” he says with a laugh. “But, no, I put this last record out without support of a label and when you’re doing this on your dime, you tend to take your time. And also, I don’t put out a record unless I’ve written all of the songs, so I like to take time to accumulate material.”
It’s also tough to write when you tour as much as Brown does, He enjoys playing live and says, coincidentally, that Pittsburgh is one of his favorite places to play.
“There’s a buzz for live music in Pittsburgh that a lot of other cities have lost over the years,” he says. “There’s a lot of live music there; there’s a thirst for it. I think that says a lot about the humanity of a city.”