When Junior Brown first found his regional spotlight earlier this decade with the likes of "Broke Down South of Dallas" and "My Baby Don't Dance to Nothin' but Ernest Tubb," he single-handedly heralded Texas' traditional country revival. Armed with his now-famous Swiss Army knife of an instrument (the "guit-steel," half-electric guitar, half-lap steel), he ripped through his chosen genre--old-school, crunch-and-swing country--with unapologetic smugness, and his burgeoning audience found a new hero. For those of us gagging on the sugar-pop of "young country," Brown's super-leaded, tube-amp sound was a godsend.
Some critics call him the Jimi Hendrix of the new south--and damn, Brown plays that thing like a heavenly avatar, or hell-bound demon, effectively paralyzing anyone who stands close enough to see his fingers fly across the frets. When the Austinite performed semi-regular shows at the Sons of Hermann Hall a few years back, his cultish disciples--a bevy of Stetsoned, creepy LBJ-looking boys--came out in droves and stood in reverent attention to Brown's ultra-low croon. There's something narrow and intense and furious about Brown's demeanor, and the kids who tapped that undercurrent were the ones to stay clear of. The freewheelin' C&W lovers, on the other hand, just came out to the Sons to enjoy a sweaty evening of great music.
These days, Brown is touring to promote his fifth album, Long Walk Back (Curb Records), a release that features--ahem--Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell. Brown has traded in the charm of the Sons for the glitz of Billy Bob's; certainly his loyal legions fit a little better in the huge venue. Despite the image boost (Gap commercial included), Brown's sound has thankfully retained much of its original punch: "I'm All Fired Up" sounds as if it were recorded in Memphis about 30 years ago. "Long Walk Back to San Antone," with its languid walking bass line, sounds like something your mom may have two-stepped to in her college days. "Looking for Love" carries the smoking torch of swing. Granted, "Keepin' Up With You" veers off on indulgent tangents, and "Rock-a-Hula Baby" is just plain silly, but live, Brown pulls off lengthy sets with such an air of entitlement that you don't dare question the weaker turns. Hell, if you voiced any complaints, an Aryan youth would pummel you from behind.
But to our benefit, it looks as if our man's sticking to what he does best, at least for a while longer. So Billy Bob's isn't the Sons. Be grateful it's not Starplex.
Junior Brown will be at Billy Bob's Texas on Saturday, September 19. For info, call (817) 624-7117