First song: home run. Second song: home run. Third song: another home run. Fourth song: I swear to god, another home run. The game was over in the first inning. Junior Brown was smoking it right out of the box.
I was sitting with my brother Dan and my brother-in-law Eric at the Iron Horse on a frozen January night. The first tune was “Broke Down South of Dallas.” This is an early Junior Brown classic, a perfectly constructed, truck-driving shuffle complete with Junior’s low E string bending “buh-buh-buh-bow-wow” fills and his matching drop-down baritone-to-bass voice. It is a simple country tune with lyrics so musical and rich, you could eat them with a spoon. Listen to Junior, an unlucky trucker singing about how he is faithful to his suspicious wife: “I’m the king of the road/ She’s the queen of the house/ And it may not be a palace/ But it sure beats a load/ By the side of the road/ Broke down south of Dallas.” Just say those lines out loud. You can almost hear the truck slowing down as it pulls over into the breakdown lane.
Junior’s backing band at the Iron Horse consisted of his actual wife, Tanya Rae Brown, on acoustic rhythm guitar, long, tall Jase Rathman on Fender bass guitar, and young James Gwyn on snare and cymbal. I’ve seen Junior four or five times in the last 20 years and this was his best sounding band yet, especially drummer Gwyn who was spot-on playing that little kit. The whole set-up and presentation was spare and to the point. Junior was dressed, as always, circa 1962 in his white shirt, black coat, black tie and white 10-gallon hat. If the presentation was elegantly simple, Junior’s guitartistry was spectacular. Junior’s trademark double-neck guit-steel sat in a special stand that allowed him to rapidly switch back and forth between electric guitar and pedal steel. (The design of the instrument came to him in a dream.) At the Iron Horse Junior leaned sideways over the guit-steel like he was the Hunchback of Austin, Texas. As he soloed with virtuosic abandon, he made intense, contorted faces in response to his own playing. He seemed more into the music than ever.
The second song was the superb “Party Lights” from the breakthrough album “Guit With It” (1993.) “There’s another kind of party lights that I can’t stand to see/ When there’s a man in that patrol car/ And he don’t want to party with me.” Nobody writes about the police and the American highway like Junior Brown, who looks like he could be a state trooper himself. He later played “Highway Patrol” (cue guitar sirens) and “Hang Up and Drive” a recent one (2012) about drivers and their cellphones. “Party Lights” was followed by one of my all-time favorites, the lesser-known “Lifeguard Larry.” This song is a slight but wonderful ditty about a handsome lifeguard who often performs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on girls at the beach. Junior’s sure, wry touch transforms this juvenile topic. “He’s the expert at pullin’ a girl out of the sea/ He’s doin’ his level best/ She’s breathin’ heavy from her chest/ And she don’t look like she’s hurt too bad to me.”
If “Lifeguard Larry” was a charming party-trick, the next song, “Hung it Up” was a sonic tour-de-force. Brief, rapid-fire verses were interspersed with dazzling, ferocious fretwork. Junior is a dyed-in-the-wool country guitarist, but he has big ears for all kinds of music. Well-known for throwing Hendrix quotes into his guitar solos, during “Hung it Up” he magically incorporated Miles Davis’s beautiful melody “Four.” (I had to ask Junior after the show to identify the tune.) Later Junior paid tribute to Albert King with a scorching instrumental blues. Throughout the show Junior demonstrated his delight in making cool sounds with an electric guitar. He strewed homemade confetti full of string-bending, chicken-scratching, wow-wow-swirling, harmonics-ringing, and beyond-the-nut plinking in and around his songs. He used no effects boxes. The way he made his guitar sound like a car horn was a masterpiece of mimickry. You could have sworn somebody was honking at you.
After this amazing start, the concert evened out, which was just as well. I was worn out from Junior’s intensity, plus the sound was too loud and piercing. I had to put napkins in my ears. Later highlights included the jaunty “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead,” about an old girlfriend who shows up unexpectedly. Between lines like ”It’s good to see you, baby, it’s been a long, long while,” he inserted dapper fills on the lap steel with astounding dexterity. One of the most poignant song was the more recent “Phantom of the Opry.” It is a minor-key lament from the point of view of an out-moded country artist who lives in the basement of the Grand Ole Opry. At one point the singer mentions a dream in which he was discovered in the basement “just like some episode from Scooby Doo. “ Leave it to Junior to work a goofy kids’s cartoon into one of his most personal and forlorn songs. “Am I the phantom of the opry/ Just a relic from another time?” he wonders. Junior Brown’s songwriting, singing and presentation is a relic from another time, the era of people like Ernest Tubb, Hank Thompson and all the country greats who followed in the footsteps of Hank Williams. At the same time nobody else has ever, wailed on a double-necked, guit-steel guitar in a style that integrates country licks with surf, psychedelia, Chicago blues and bebop. He is the one and only and no relic, not by a long shot.
During the encore he covered “Better Call Saul,” which the band was going to perform for the Hollywood premiere of a TV show by the same name. The song had faux-Junior Brown lyrics that were funny-ish but lacked his light touch. After a quick “Sugarfoot Rag” Junior waved goodbye and threw guitar picks into the audience. Then as he walked off-stage, he pretended to throw the guit-steel into the audience. Don’t ever do that, Junior.
After the show Junior Brown stood by the front door, taking pictures with fans and talking with anyone who was interested. I told him it was the best show I’d ever seen him do. He said, “I appreciate that.”
January 21, 2015 – Iron Horse Music Hall – Northampton, MA