The strangest star in today’s country-circling galaxy, Junior (Jamieson) Brown combines unreconstructed traditionalism modeled on Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills and unprecedented guitar playing. Using his patented guit-steel, a cumbersome-looking two-necked contraption, he jumps from lap slide to twangy fingering — and back — without missing a blistering, lyrical lick. That he’s a student of Jimi Hendrix who habitually incorporates the southpaw’s riffs, as well as muffled cottonpicking and angry distortion, into his roadhouse rock sets Brown, an Indiana native based in Austin, Texas, apart from a world of facile players. Meanwhile, the witty, offbeat sensibility that permeates his superficial normalcy further distances this talented oddity with a rich, commanding baritone from anything coming out of Nashville nowadays.
Brown needs to be seen live (peering out from under a ten-gallon white hat, accompanied by his power-strumming missus, Tanya Rae, a string bassist and a minimalist snare drummer) to be fully appreciated. On record, Brown’s songwriting smarts, clever jokes and voice give his tactile virtuosity the balance needed to make him an all-around entertainer, not a hayseed shredder.
Originally a cassette sold at shows and then a vinyl release in Britain, the self-produced 12 Shades of Brown touches all of Brown’s bases: novelty swing (“My Baby Don’t Dance to Nothing but Ernest Tubb,” “Hillbilly Hula Gal,” “What’s Left Just Won’t Go Right,” “Coconut Island”), wry moral rig-rock (“Too Many Nights in a Roadhouse,” “Broke Down South of Dallas”), Hank-y roots country blues (“Moan All Night Along”) and serious social sermonizing (“They Don’t Choose to Live That Way,” “Don’t Sell the Farm”). Throughout, Brown’s easy confidence and excellent playing make for a delightful diversion.
Brown tones down his colorful personality a bit on Guit With It, devoting more effort to sentimental ballads (“So Close Yet So Far Away,” sung as a duet with Tanya Rae), instrumental showboating (Hank Garland’s “Sugarfoot Rag,” which ends with a “Wind Cries Mary” citation; the eleven-minute “Guit-Steel Blues”) and straight-faced country (“Doin’ What Comes Easy to a Fool,” “You Didn’t Have to Go All the Way”). The music is fine, it’s the songs that are disappointing. The record does include a pair of peppy wisecracks (the old “Highway Patrol” and the calamitous “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead”; “Holding Pattern” is just a corny pun), but the net reduction of wit takes too much of the fun out.
Despite the steady elevation of his national profile — Brown’s popularity is greater outside country circles than within them — his studio output has been meager. Ending a two-year wait in late ’95, Brown released an EP that contains crisp re-recordings of three Guit With It numbers (needless except for the over-the-top frenzy of this rendition of “Sugarfoot Rag”), a mock-Polynesian cover (“Lovely Hula Hands”) and one new original, the heartfelt “That’s Easy for You to Say.”