From country songs about cell phones to the theme for ‘Better Call Saul,’ Junior Brown makes music his way
With his suit and tie, ever-present cowboy hat, and I’ve-seen-it-all eyes, Junior Brown looks like he’s from the classic country era. Once he starts singing, though, it becomes clear that he’s no retro act.
His songs are rooted in classic American styles, but the lyrics are very much of today. One of his best-known tunes, “Hang Up and Drive,” is a humorous, timely take on distracted driving. The way Brown sees it, if you like the way music sounded before it became “more and more processed,” then play it that way—but bring it up to date.
“Don’t sing about the boogie-woogie bugle boy of company B,” he says. “That’s World War II. Stick with your own era.”
With his blues-tinged, rock ’n’ roll-driven country music, Junior Brown has defied easy categorization. As a youngster, he could hear the harmonies on car horns, and he picked out melodies on the piano before he could talk, but he never really took to the piano. It was the guitar that called his name—in particular, the electric guitar, which he first saw when a circus band came through town. It was love at first sight.
Brown honed his chops, and by his early teens, he was in a band. There was just one problem: he didn’t have an electric guitar of his own. He borrowed one from the rhythm guitarist, as it was understood between them that Brown was the best player, so he should have the best guitar.
“That’s never something someone wants to loan out,” Brown says. “Especially back then, in the early ’60s, it was more of a specialty item. [My bandmate] and his parents were very generous to do that, when I look back on it.”
By the time Brown hit his late teens, he had dropped out of high school and was playing professionally. He didn’t have any friends who were into country music, and he didn’t have any place to watch country artists. Everything he knew about the style he learned from television, including Ernest Tubb’s show.
Brown’s first big gig was with R&B/blues legend Bo Diddley at Old Martinez Hall in Taos, New Mexico, in 1970. If Brown’s fate as a musician wasn’t already sealed, that experience did the trick.
“Bo had his own thing going,” says Brown. “There’s nobody quite like him. It was a very simple sound, but it was something that I was able to do, and I got my little taste of the bright lights. That really hooked me.”
As Brown developed as a guitarist, he would switch between playing the electric guitar and the steel guitar, which was inconvenient because he sometimes played both instruments on the same song. Brown enlisted custom guitar maker Michael Stevens to help him devise a solution that would come to define him: the guit-steel, a double-necked guitar that has an electric guitar on top and a steel guitar on the bottom. While it has what Brown calls a “one-man-band look” about it, the instrument liberated him to play the different parts he heard on his songs.
“It gave me a tremendous confidence by having something that I could use to switch between the guitar and steel—while I’m singing—on the same song,” he says. “I was surprised there hadn’t been people doing it before I did, because it’s so convenient.”
Brown and Stevens are, as Brown puts it, “still making stuff.” The two are currently working out the bugs on their latest creation, a guit-steel with pedals on it. “It’s a pretty wild looking thing,” says Brown.
Over 20 years into his career as a country rock ’n’ roller, Brown is still going strong. He still doesn’t fit in well with any particular scene, but that’s fine with him.
“I’m in my own little group by myself,” he says. “But it’s OK because I’ve got my own writing style and own instrument. It’s a lonely place to be, but at the same time it’s real fulfilling because I’m still doing things I enjoy.”
Brown has also appeared in movies, television shows, ad campaigns, and he wrote the theme song for the Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul. In addition to all this, Brown is putting together the songs for his next album—the 11th of his career, which he plans to record this spring.
“I haven’t slowed down yet,” he says, “so I might as well keep the pedal to the metal.”
Junior Brown will perform at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Thursday, March 26 at Kuumbwa, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $25/adv, $30/door. 427-2227.