Junior Brown likes to say that country music was so pervasive when and where he grew up that it was “growing out of the ground like crops.”
As a kid living in the small, rural town of Kirksville, Indiana, country music seemed to be coming through every car radio, every town jukebox, and every living room, said Brown, who was born in 1952.
“Kirksville was a beautiful, pastoral place in the 1950s,” said Brown. “Our house was out by a quarry and our closest neighbor was an old man who lived in a log cabin that his grandfather built. Along with that came the country music and country everywhere, and my first exposure to it. In the early 1960s, there was an infatuation with country things. 'The Beverly Hillbillies' program was very popular, and the Flat & Scruggs theme song. It was fashionable, and not looked down on as much as it had been in the earlier days.”
Brown’s parents liked classical music and his father liked to entertain on an upright piano. After the family bought a baby grand piano, Junior took piano lessons. But the piano lacked appeal, he said.
“I was always fascinated with the guitar. I got my first guitar when I was about 8 years old, an acoustic guitar, almost a toy, almost not a real instrument, and from that first day I had it, I knew that that was my instrument.”
Brown’s first public performance on the guitar happened while he was a Boy Scout at Andrews Air Force Base, in Prince George's County, Maryland, in front of a crowd of thousands.
“There was a Jamboree where a lot of the troops would have entertainment at night,” said Brown. “I was strolling around with another guy as minstrels at the Boy Scout camps, and there was one guy who just happened to be the top brass of the whole deal. It’s funny how one little taste, if you enjoy it, can be a catalyst for what you do for the rest of your life.”
When Brown was a teenager and living in New Mexico, he cajoled blues guitarist Bo Diddley into letting him on stage with him at a club in Taos called Old Martina’s Hall. He then joined Diddley once more for a jam session at an event in Albuquerque.
“I loved being on the stage and entertaining. It was a little taste of as much of the big time as I could get.”
Both the Andrews Air Force Base Jamboree and the Bo Diddley interaction nudged Brown in the direction of a life in the performing arts, a career of slowly paying his dues in countless country bars. Back in the '70s and '80s, Brown said that the general public was more interested in attending live country music, and that there were so many more honky-tonks around for people to go to for a night of western dancing.
Brown doesn’t miss the old clubs as much as he misses the elements of professionalism that he noted from the performers there.
“If you were going to get any kind of a career going, you needed to adhere to a certain set of rules and dress a certain way. There were no cigarettes or drinks on the stage. It is very irritating to me to see some band playing with bottles of water on the stage. It’s a distraction. And people don’t need you to play every lick that you know before you play. There was no warming up. Go out and play. … One thing that was tough about those honky-tonks was that they were centered around alcohol and dancing, and I like to play where they are listening, and I don’t want to be a jukebox. I want people to listen to the songs I’ve written, who are interested in the lyrics, and who watch the licks that I play and so forth.”
Part of the practice that Brown observed and has since mimicked is the performer’s obligation to craft a set with variety, whether it be switching keys to make sure that all of the songs don’t sound similar, or balancing the slow songs with the faster ones. Another trait he emulates from his influences is brevity.
“Watching people that I respected, I noticed that they didn’t talk a lot. They didn’t say, 'Well, I wrote this song while sitting under a tree and this is about a relationship between a guy and a girl.' I don’t do much of that. I let the music speak for itself.”
One of the things that Brown’s music says about him is that he is inventive, a characteristic embodied by his signature double-neck ‘guit-steel’ (part-guitar, part-lap steel) instrument.
“I would play regular electric and steel guitars, and I love both, but I got tired of the hassle of unplugging one and plugging into the other, and I needed something to switch quickly and where I could use both instruments as I was singing.”
Another one of Brown’s strongest attributes is his ability to turn away from the clichés of the overstated drinking and cheating songs. He has long since understood that there are only so many novel ways to recount a tale, describe a scene, or twist a yarn — and yet still he can do it.
“With songwriting, there are parameters; you don’t want it to sound like a copy of another song. There are only so many notes in a scale and you can only arrange it so many ways. There are only so many ideas, musically or lyrically. For example, the limitations of a love song — I need you, I love you, I want you — how are you going say that in a way that’s not like everybody else? So there are a lot of limitations I have before I even sit down and write a song.”
Despite such restrictions, when the melody and the lyrics entwine a rich process ensues which, Brown said, even he can’t predict or prepare for.
“If you can get an idea, a lyric, or a hook line, like 'My Wife Thinks You’re Dead,' you could start with that line and write a little story around it. What would a 'Hillbilly Hula Gal' be like? What would she do? What would she wear? You ask these questions in your mind, and then you write a little melody that answers the question.”