The story of Reckless Kelly originates precisely in the White Cloud Mountains of central Idaho. Synonymous with grand exploration, the White Clouds border a host of other ranges, including the Sawtooths, the Bitterroots and the Bighorn Crags in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
The four sons of Muzzie Braun — Cody, Willy, Micky and Gary — were raised in the heart of myriad peaks overshadowed by the calm blue of the sky. It was the life of tall mountaintops, rich wilderness, great hikes and of a family bonded in an old mining house found on a dirt road adjoining national forest.
But the boys also experienced an upbringing that was, well, a wee bit different; influenced heavily by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, their musician father took them on the road as part of a country band, and the boys shared the stage with luminaries such as Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell and Merle Haggard.
“My dad made a living with music and he worked hard with different bands,” said Cody Braun. “He played with my grandpa and uncles. We were always hopping up on the stage and singing. We used to get musical instruments for Christmas. I was 10 and my brother Micky was about 5. We would do a short set or open the show ... We played in Idaho City for five bucks and a Shirley Temple (nonalcoholic drink). We played the Grand Ole Opry. It was in our blood and we knew it early on.”
Eventually, the family moved to Bend, Oregon, where as teenagers Cody and Willy met drummer Jay Nazz. (Over the years, Micky and Gary Braun have headed off in a different direction, and currently lead their own band, Micky and the Motorcars.)
“We played a couple of bars and new breweries in Bend, but at that time it was at the end of the grunge scene in 1994. We played country-rock, and in the clubs they would look at us like we had two heads. Nobody was playing country-rock and through the grunge and angry atmosphere, we said, ‘We don’t do this.’ It was a negative vibe for us. Then around 1996, Son Volt and Whiskeytown helped get the Americana thing kicked off and we came on the heels of that. All this led us to Austin, live music and more like-minded musical people.”
From the beginning, Cody said that the Braun boys believed as if they had the whole world of opportunity around them; music was their escort and ancestor, and they were reared in circumstances that branded them with the necessary blueprint to succeed in the industry.
“We learned to be inventive and to make things work no matter what the odds,” said Cody. “We learned early on that if you are to make a living playing music, you need to watch every penny, and do all of the jobs you would ordinarily pay others to do.
"You book your own shows, make own records. Dad bucked that regular mold and was making own records with a four-track recorder in Moscow. There is every aspect of that, and the fact that it was never important to be famous or super-wealthy and we loved it for the music. We learn that it is all totally possible, as long as you stay realistic with your goals and spending.”
Cody, Willy and Jay formed Reckless Kelly in autumn 1996, deriving its namesake from Australian outlaw Edward “Ned” Kelly. Lead guitarist David Abetya was added in 2000; bassist Joe Miller joined in 2012.
For more than 20 years, Cody and the boys have not only pulled from their roots but have extended them in a typically country-like workaday fashion. Throughout that entire time, Cody said that Reckless Kelly has attempted to avoid being categorized as “simply a Texas-based, beer-drinking, rowdy bunch of party boys,” and strived to achieve the Holy Grail of all art: sincere originality.
“We’ve let a lot of it (our reputation) happen naturally,” said Cody. “Of course in Austin you can play every night and you are exposed to so much music and that made us want to become better musicians. You see someone play and you think, ‘Wow, I never would’ve put those two chords together with that line.’ We did it seven nights a week, for tips and beer.
"You have to have the drive to go do it. In order to get a huge audience, sometimes you think that you need to dumb it down to be simple. Though I listen to anything from anytime period, finding new things to play can be hard and challenging, and you don’t want to lose sight of what brought people to you in the first place.”
Reckless Kelly has climbed and notched itself above the ordinary with a blended country-rock sound which is neatly enhanced by Willy Braun’s sharp lyrics. Cody said that that confluence has been balanced and developed slowly over the years.
“We learned early on that we weren’t going to compromise much. There was a push early on by companies that wanted to shift, shape and push us in one direction or another, and we had a problem with that route. There was a pressure to fit in with what was more popular. But for better or worse, we took our sweet time. Now you can pick it out as our sound, which stems from our influences and years of new music, and life experience. When you are young, you are partying and having fun and being crazy. Willy has found new things to write about — heartbreak road songs — and he can think outside the box, and with that, comes other styles and things.
"With our records, we are always trying to beat the last one, while there are challenges of keeping the sound intact and also pushing the boundaries of something new.”
Indeed, Reckless Kelly is often singled out for the tight dynamics of its band and its songwriting emphasis, foundations repeatedly built upon. The last few records were filled with a mixture of profound grief and prideful happiness, stamped with the songwriting sentiments of utmost intimacy, candor and precision.
“Willy has a gift as a songwriter and he allows people to draw their own conclusions from it, and he paints a broad picture. But once you adapt (as a band), all the rules change, and we are now in a place where people can get music for free or a small subscription, and you need to find ways to fill in those gaps. You can stand out and make good records and put out quality stuff.”
Life in music means little without a challenge, and it means even less if there is no adventure or truth contained inside that existence.
“We are doing it for real,” said Cody. “We are not trying to tune every single note and we are not overproducing things in the studio. Grit to me, it means the attitude, and the song topic, and the real talk about what’s going on in the world. I suppose we could do story-songs or fantasies about pickup trucks and about how great everything is. It is great to have music to shake to. But we are more drawn to things that are more personal and more interesting — anger, sadness, happiness, or things that evoke an emotion or that people can really relate to.”