The Digital Journalist
Selected photos from Michael O'Brien's The Face of Texas.
© Michael O'Brien

Junior Brown/AUSTIN - Anyone who has seen Junior Brown perform can tell you he's a radical dude. He takes the stage wearing a crisp suit and tie, cowboy hat and boots, and wielding a strange-looking stringed instrument that looks like something out of a low-tech alien flick. He's accompanied by his band and his wife--"the lovely Miss Tanya Rae"--who, in her equally crisp skirt-and-jacket suit, looks like an IBMer. Then Brown, playing this "guit-steel" thing like Ernest Tubb in overdrive, opens his mouth with a reverberating country baritone that penetrates to the pit of your gut. His droll lyrics, meanwhile - on the order of "I got to get up every mornin' just to say goodnight to you," about a late-night girlfriend - complete the tongue-in-cheek picture, which is as compelling as it is incongruous.

Junior Brown, who grew up in the woods around Kirksville, IN, Chesapeake Bay, Annapolis, Maryland and the pinon-studded hills of Santa Fe, New Mexico, wasn't happy with just a regular guitar; it didn't meet his musical needs. So he invented his own instrument.

"I was playing both the steel and guitar, switching back and forth a lot while I sang, and it was kind of awkward," says Brown. "But then I had this dream where they kind of melted together. When I woke up, I thought "You know, that thing would work!'"

Brown took his dream to guitar-maker Michael Stevens, and the guit steel--a single guitar body with both the steel guitar and six-string necks--was born.

The rest is...well, Junior Brown history. There is no one like him and, though most modern country radio stations still won't play his songs, Brown has forged his own unique path, all the way from small clubs like Austin's famed Continental Club and the Grand Ole Opry to some of the hippest venues in Manhattan and Europe. He's been nominated for three Grammys; and his latest album, Mixed Bag, has prompted reviewers to label him one of the greatest guitar players alive.

"A lot of people tell me they don't like country music," says Brown, who played the piano before he could talk, "but they like what I'm doing."

What he's doing is a peculiar but driving blend of country and rock "n roll that has prompted major magazines like Musician to dub him a genius. LIFE Magazine honored him as the only contemporary musician included in their "All-Time Country Band." And his song, "My Wife Thinks You're Dead," won Video of the Year at the 1996 Country Music Association Awards.

Brown considers his music "traditional honkytonk, with some ideas thrown in."

"Texas has always been the place to welcome my music with open arms, when occasionally, in the past, other states have dried up," says Brown, who has worked in Austin for more than three decades. "I've always been able to find an audience in Texas. That, in itself, has spiritual meaning."