Stealing from thieves

Little Charlie’s dad was known around Danbury, Conn., for two things: He led the parade band and he was the village eccentric. As Charlie would sit in Danbury’s town square, his dad would direct four marching bands toward the center of town from different directions, simultaneously playing marches in different keys and meters.

That’s everyone’s favorite story about Charles Ives, the curmudgeonly New England insurance salesman who stayed up late at night composing polytonal symphonic works that went mostly unperformed. After his death, many came to regard Ives as the father of American classical music. In life, he had the same rep as his dad: He was just kind of a left-of-center whack job.

In that respect Charles Ives and Junior Brown are brethren. But instead of New England, Brown was raised in the prairies of Indiana. Instead of performing with marching bands, Brown spent his childhood soaking up music on TV and from traveling circuses. But Junior Brown is every bit the eccentric, every bit as underrecognized and — if you get a chance to chat with him — even slightly curmudgeonly.

Brown also thrives on strange musical dichotomies. He’s at once a country traditionalist and a Hendrix zealot, a psychedelic surfer on acid and a buttoned-up Texas showman. Just take a gander at his trusty “guit-steel,” a double-neck monstrosity that is half-Telecaster, half-lap steel. It’s the perfect instrument for his stylistic tangents. Though his songs usually travel the well-worn dirt roads of country-rock, “Big Red” (the nickname for the “guit-steel,” that is) often leads Brown on musical junkets to Hawaiian luaus, Appalachian porch jams and everything in between.

“I’ve never been interested in playing old music that people have all heard before,” Brown says candidly. “If you want to hear country listen to Hank, listen to Ernest Tubbs. I hunger to do something that isn’t going to bore me. Something that is going to express everything I feel, not just part of it. I could sit and play traditional country songs all night and love it — but there would be things that I was holding back. I want to get wild too. I want to cram all those vegetables on my plate.”

In a sharp Texas suit, the clean-cut 51-year-old looks like a man who eats his vegetables. But when he’s on stage, freaking out with some tripped-out guit-steel jams, your ears and eyes may seem to be reporting different shows.

“A lot of shows are what you call a contradiction between what you expect by looking at me and what you hear,” Brown admits. “They see a guy with hair cut and my age, and you might expect to hear me play good traditional music. But I throw in something that doesn’t jibe and it causes uproar.”

But, apparently, that uproar does jibe. Brown’s slow-grow fan base and critical acclaim has made him a minor crossover hit, a sound track guru and a sideman to country and rock stars. He appeals to the roots rock set, guitar geeks and the C&W traditionalists alike. Too bad Brown doesn’t relate to any of them.

“I don’t have much interest in most of the other music my fans like,” he says flatly. “Some people heard me first when I was playing with Asleep at the Wheel but I was just a fill-in player. I didn’t like their approach to Western swing; I don’t even like the real Western swing. To hear a parody of it in a boogie-woogie country-rock-hippie kind of format didn’t interest me at all.”

Told you he was kind of a grump. So, what is he interested in?

“Saying something that can satisfy my artistic tastes,” he explains. “Hendrix might have smoked a joint on stage but I can play a Hendrix lick without smoking a joint. I love Hank’s music but I don’t drink. That’s the music I want to make, but it is also the way you have to look at the world too; you might take a little something sweet from this place, but if you take the whole thing it’s sour. If you want to say something for yourself, you use some words someone else has taught you.”

No doubt Ives would agree.


“Experience” Junior Brown Saturday, Feb. 28, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit) with the Ingham County Regulars. Call 313-833-9700 for more information.

Nate Cavalieri is an itinerant writer for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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