John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Demented Artistry of Junior Brown

Great singer-songwriter-instrumentalist, as is “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead.”

By - Oct 26th, 2017 03:21 pm
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Junior Brown

Junior Brown

There are two things you want to do well as a singer/songwriter and they’re right there in the name. There’s a third skill some rare birds manage to excel at, and that’s playing the hell out of their chosen instrument. In his completely unique way, Junior Brown wins that trifecta. He’s so good at all three that, hard as you try, you can’t say which he does best.

Most people who have heard and seen him would say the way he plays his own surreal invention, the guit-steel, would have to top that list. When he’s bent like a mad scientist over that devious contraption paying tribute to everyone from Speedy West to Jimi Hendrix, it’s hard to argue that point. He could be at the top of the guitar god pile for that alone and have a very nice career going around and leaving audiences with jaws on the floor.

But when he opens his mouth and the ghost of Ernest Tubb jumps out rumbling notes too deep for anyone but whales to hear, then turns around and sings so sweet and tenderly, with his lovely wife, Tanya Rae, right by his side, you have to conclude he’s no slouch in the vocal department. And his songs, novelties that live on the edge of weird, straight rock and country with maniacal energy, dazzling instrumentals and sentimental ballads, are the works of a true original.

Junior is truly a one-off and choosing a song that sums him up is almost impossible. There is one that comes close and it’s also one of his most recognizable tunes, “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead,” seen here in a video almost as corny and demented as the song. When you see the guit-steel for the first time it doesn’t seem bizarre so much as inevitable — it simply solves the problem of how to keep both instruments, which he mastered long ago, right at his fingertips.

When he played Turner Hall recently, it was remarkable how he flowed back and forth between them. There’s a little compartment at the top of the guitar where he keeps his slide and he didn’t drop it once during the course of the evening. He plays some pretty complicated fills while he’s singing, displaying an independence that looks way easier than it actually is. As this tale of an unwanted visit from a dangerous Amazon stalker unwinds, ponder what it’s like to live in the wonderland that is Junior Brown’s mind:

It’s good to see you baby it’s been a long, long while
We’re both a whole lot older and seen a lot of miles
But thing are different now since the good old days
And you’ve been in some trouble
Since we went our separate ways
Well have to say hello maybe some other time instead
‘Cause you’re wanted by the police
And my wife thinks you’re dead

Somebody spread the rumor that you had lost your life
Least that’s the way I heard it and what I told my wife
Now here you’re showing up again and talk is getting round
And I can see that one of us will have to leave this town
If you think that I want trouble
Than you’re crazy in your head
‘Cause you’re wanted by the police
And my wife thinks you’re dead

You never called or wrote me just up and disappeared
Nobody knew what happened
Where you been for all these years
Now troubles what you’re looking like
‘Cause troubles where you been
And I can see the kind of trouble you could get me in
You better pay attention to every word I said
‘Cause you’re wanted by the police
And my wife thinks you’re dead

So goodbye to you baby I’m glad we’ve got to talk
But I’m faithful to my wife and I don’t ever break the law
I don’t know where you’re headed for
But I know where you been
Were reminisced now lets just go our separate ways again
Go find another ex-sweetheart to hang around instead
Because you’re wanted by the police
And my wife thinks you’re dead

© Jamieson Brown

You get the idea that Tanya Rae, who plays herself here, is a very patient woman. She’s also a great singer and a rhythm guitarist. Some of the tempos JB sets are impossibly fast, but she stayed with him all night, never missing a beat. When she sang her solo, showing off a strong country soprano with more than a note of sass in it, it was a song called “I Wouldn’t Buy A Used Car From Him.”

“Old Weird America,” Greil Marcus’ term, fits perfectly when applied to the twisted vision of Junior Brown. In his hands, it’s both respect for tradition and a chance to do something completely new with it. His rhythm section, a stand-up bass and drummer with only a snare and a crash cymbal, are as stripped down as you can get before you’re playing air instruments. They shine a light on the tricky path his songs take without drawing attention away. Given a moment to shine, the drummer did more with his toy set than most could with a whole kit.

Limits mean love, and Junior with his smart little band, never straying outside their very specific concept, help you understand why. As music becomes more and more about technology, the choices are infinite and decisions, now so hard to make, become a burden. It’s a good time to know who you are and what you want. Junior Brown is a genius at making decisions, and that’s an underrated skill.

One thought on “Sieger on Songs: The Demented Artistry of Junior Brown”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Know who you are and what you want – excellent advice, even outside the music scene!

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