If you don't know anything about Junior Brown, perhaps the kernel of knowledge that will explain his music best is that, on his latest album, Long Walk Back (Curb/MCA), Brown is joined by drummer Mitch Mitchell, who once powered the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and by Hargus "Pig" Robbins, whose piano playing was the heart and soul of the classic Nashville sound from the mid-'60s into the '80s. Few musicians have it in them to span those disparate worlds, but Brown is one of them. Across four albums now he has combined astonishing technique -- playing every kind of guitar lick imaginable on his unique "guit-steel," a lap-steel/six-string guitar contraption of his own invention -- with traditional country weepers and cornpone comedy pieces. His music has earned him the love and respect of nearly everyone who has seen or heard him -- as well as a few nominations from the Grammys, the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music -- but precious little in the way of airplay from country radio, which still rules the roost in terms of who is popular and who is not. Brown has found other outlets to get his message across, including hilarious videos such as "Highway Patrol" and "My Wife Thinks You're Dead," and has appeared in some commercials for the Gap and Lipton tea to boot. For Brown, it's all about getting his music across, and if nontraditional means are the way to go, then so be it. He spoke with the RFT from his home in Tulsa, Okla.
RFT: You've had to resort to some extramusical means -- TV commercials, funny videos, etc. -- to get your work before the public. Is it really that hard to get your style of music out there these days?
Brown: It is, but that's because country music is dead -- and it's been dead for a long time. So if you're going to do traditional country, boy, you better have something going on that's different. It's been beaten to death, and people don't really want to hear it. If they do, they want to hear it in a repackaged form. What I try and do is sneak the pill in a piece of hamburger so the dog'll eat it, you know? (Laughs) I do that with the things that hopefully make me exciting to the people -- the lead-guitar playing and the little rock & roll and blues quotations that I put here and there.
Your latest album features a variety of styles -- hardcore country, surf music, even heavy blues-rock. Are those styles of music that you've always been interested in?
Yeah, I guess. I had first gone to the record company with a very straight-ahead country album, but they didn't like it 'cause it didn't show enough guitar playing. I got to thinking they were probably right, so that's when I added some of the guitar-oriented things. But at the same time, I have to do stuff that's real to me, or else you're just all gimmick and you're nothing but a put-on. So I try and do it in a way that's sincere. A lot of that playing on there, the blues licks and the surf stuff, that's the kind of playing I used to do when I was a teenager.
Were you always a Hendrix fan?
I always listened to Hendrix, but he died in 1970. I got pretty disgusted with rock & roll after that. I didn't think it went anywhere significant. It's like now -- I don't think anybody knows what to do next. We're in an era where everything's been done. It's the same in the art world. An artist will combine modern techniques with a real traditional one within the same picture. And I got to thinkin' -- that's kind of what I do: just a whole junkyard of old styles. They've already been done, just not combined in that way.
Who were your country guitar heroes?
I just liked anybody that I could hear that had an electric guitar or steel. I would pay attention because I just loved the sound of those things. And I always liked to hear singers that featured those instruments. I have since learned to listen to music in a different way, where I don't have to hear an electric guitar or steel guitar to like it, but it took me a long time to get to that point. (Laughs)
If you think country music is dead, do you think that the torch is being carried for it in any way by the people playing so-called alternative country?
Yeah, but the only way they're carrying the torch is if they've got that in one hand and their record collection in the other. They're just imitating it. They're not taking it anywhere. The only people that are carrying on traditional country are the traditional-country people -- Kitty Wells, Little Jimmy Dickens, George Jones -- because they lived it. That's a part of that sound. Nobody in my generation lived it, because they were corrupted by rock & roll. My generation is the generation of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons and so on. All that stuff wasn't country music, it was country-rock, and it was more rock than it was country. They were paying tribute, and I'm not knocking that. You can still go see the traditional artists that are left, and that is country music. You go see me or BR5-49, and that is not the same thing. Traditional country is, for the most part, gone -- that's just the way it is. The thing to do is to honor it the best you can.
Country has a long tradition of songs with crazy wordplay and funny titles, like Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn's "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly." Did you pay attention to stuff like that? You seem to have a lot of that going on in your music.
Yeah, I must have. Hoagy Carmichael wrote a bit like that. A lot of the Tin Pan Alley writers did, too. I don't know where that came from in my music. I guess subconsciously I've always wanted to get a chuckle out of people. I mean, what are you gonna write about? Why not do something besides 'I love you, I need you, I miss you, I cheated on you?' We're always looking for something to get us away from that.
Your videos are very funny, too. Where would you be without video outlets like CMT?
The country video stations gave me airplay, and I had a couple of No. 1's because of that. Now why is it that the radio stations are so much more restrictive? I don't know -- it's got something to do with the advertisers, I suppose. Certainly it doesn't have to be like that. Every time you pick up a magazine, you'll read that people are tired of that. You never pick up a magazine and read that everybody likes country radio just the way it is -- don't change it. Never! Everyone is always saying it's too restrictive and too predictable. Something's gotta give somewhere, sometime.
You've done some acting. Anything else in the works in that direction?
Yeah, in fact, I'm going to be in a movie called Whom Shall I Fear. I'm going to be doing some of the soundtrack and some acting. It's going to be a lot of work. I've just got my feet wet in all this; it's not anything big. There's a Brendan Fraser movie out called Still Breathing that's doing really well in home video right now, and I had a small role in that. And I did The X-Files, which people made a big deal about, 'cause it's such a popular show. That kind of whetted my appetite.
You know, the thing that might work for you is the same thing that did for Dwight Yoakam -- I don't think I know what you look like without the hat.
Right. I can change my image. Although I guess a lot of people don't know what I look like either way. (Laughs)
Junior Brown plays at Mississippi Nights on May 14 with BR5-49
and Reverend Horton Heat.