In Brown's case, playing everywhere from the Grand Ole Opry to rock showcases on the West Coast and his hometown of Austin, Texas, "crossover" is not synonymous with watered-down or light-weight. "Just about the time they label me as some old time honky-tonk singer, " he says of his ever-growing legion of converts, "I throw something new in there that surprises them. And then they'll appreciate the traditional styles of country music, too. Do something to wow them without ruining the roots of country and they end up accepting the music that they would have been prejudiced against."
Following years as Austin's best-kept secret and the town's one must see act for visiting musicians and label heads, Junior Brown and his music have since found an audience far beyond the Lone Star border.
There's usually a wide-eyed look accompanying one who witnesses Brown's unique instrumental prowess for the first time . . .or the second, or third, for that matter. To help facilitate his dexterity on both the standard 6-string and steel-guitars, Brown invented his own guitar hybrid, the "guit-steel."
"I was playing both the steel and guitar, switching back and forth a lot while I sang, and it was kind of awkward," Brown says. "But then I had this dream where they just kind of melted together. When I woke up, I thought 'You know, that thing would work!' They made double-neck guitars and double-neck steels, so why not one of each?" A quick call was made to guitar maker Michael Stevens, whose expertise made the dream a reality, and the guit-steel was born. Recently, Brown once again enlisted the services of Stevens to make a second guit-steel, a cherry-red axe affectionately nicknamed "Big Red."
In lesser hands, the guit-steel might become a flashy gimmick at best. In Junior's, it's clear that it's merely a tool, a means to an end--the end being some of the hottest, most heartfelt playing heard in years (and in a town like Austin, where you can't swing a Stratocaster without pole axing a phenomenal guitarist, that's saying something.) His talents have led major magazines like Musician to herald Brown as a genius. Life magazine honored him as the only contemporary musician included in their "All Time Country Band" and Guitar Player magazine's 1994 "best of" saw him #1 lap steel player, #2 country guitarist, and #3 country album ("Guit With It"). He has also made numerous television appearances on shows like The Late Show With David Letterman, Late Night With Conan O'Brien, Saturday Night Live, Entertainment Tonight, Austin City Limits, Good Morning America, TNN's American Music Shop, At The Ryman, The Road, and Canada's Much Music.
Instrumentalist is only one of the hats the 43-year-old is comfortable wearing. Along with singer, songwriter, and producer he is equally adept and impressive in each role, having turned professional as a teenager in the late 60's. "There was always music of some kind in the house when I was growing up," he says, "My dad was a piano player and so I started playing little melodies on the piano before I could talk. We lived out in the woods outside of Kirksville, Indiana and there's a lot of country folks out there. I used to hear country music over the radio, Ernest Tubb and others. When we got a TV, I watched his show and I've always been a big fan of his."
Junior met Tubb numerous times, which inspired "My Baby Don't Dance To Nothin' But Ernest Tubb," from his album 12 Shades Of Brown.. Tubb offered the devotee some stern advice: "Keep it country, son." He was concerned about country music getting watered down," Junior says. "He wanted young people to get a hold of it and get as wild as they wanted instrumentally, as long as they brought it right back down to the country, backing the singer and to remember that they're in a country band."
In the mid-80's, Junior taught guitar under Leon McAulliffe, the legendary steel man for Bob Wills' Texas Playboys at Oklahoma's Hank Thompson School of Country
Music, part of Rogers State College. He even passed on a little more music to one student--it was there that Junior met Tanya Rae, the talented woman who would become his rhythm guitarist, backup vocalist and wife. "I kept her after class," Junior laughs. Not long afterwards, Junior and Tanya Rae decided to seek out the best environment for their musical vision. The place was Austin, Texas, where the lines between various musical styles and genres have always been a bit blurry. They set up shop at the legendary Continental Club, where slowly but surely their appearances there got people talking. Its not uncommon now to spot any number of celebrities at a Junior Brown show. "It's music for everybody," he says.