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Junior Brown's "Mixed Bag"

By Tom Netherland, September 2001

Misconceptions and misperceptions surround Junior Brown. For one, he's not an Ernest Tubb imitator. Secondly, while he loves traditional country music and certainly bemoans the direction that country has gone, he's not a traditional country artist.

Just call him country with a twist, as heard on his fifth full-length studio album, the aptly titled "Mixed Bag."

Mixed therein Brown re-interprets Jerry Reed's "Guitar Man," Hoagy Carmichael's "Riverboat Shuffle" along with nine originals. And oh yeah, Brown covers Ernest Tubb's "Kansas City Blues."

"I like Ernest Tubb, but if I was just satisfied with being an Ernest Tubb imitator, I wouldn't get anywhere," Brown says by phone from Alexandria, Va. "You can definitely hear the influence, of course, but there's a lot more going on."

Until now, Brown's closest foray into Tubb's catalog was a song that Brown wrote, "My Baby Don't Dance to Nothing But Ernest Tubb." For the sole reason of developing his own identity, Brown purposely resisted recording an E.T. song until now.

"It's a nice idea for a song, and I'd never recorded an Ernest Tubb song," Brown says. "It was time to do one, but not really for that reason. It's a good song, a good way to show how the blues and country are so close to each other. I purposely chose not to do it in the Ernest Tubb style, except a little bit with the voice. I used horns, and that's things he would have never used. I had a lot of fun with it."

Brown recorded "Kansas City Blues" during a two-song session in New Orleans, which also included a horn-honking cover of Hoagy Carmichael's "Riverboat Shuffle."

"The song 'Riverboat Shuffle' was one that I'd been listening to since I was a kid, and I'd performed it from time to time," Brown says. "I really wanted to figure out a way that the steel guitar could fit into a dixieland horn section."

In lieu of a trombone, Brown's steel merely mimicked the elongated horn's sound.

"I slipped a steel into there and in places it sounds like a trombone, but more importantly the thing feels like a trombone. It does the things that a trombone does. It was just an interesting exercise to do that, plus I loved the song. That was the reason why I called (the album) 'Mixed Bag.' Just because I had so many different things on there."

Not that fans will hear Limp Bizkit-like heavy metal or Snoop Dogg rap from Brown's barrel-chested baritone.

"It's all me. It all has the unifying sound of me, my voice and my guitar playing. It's mixed, a little more mixed than the other albums, but they're all somewhat of a mixed bag, too."

Indeed, expect a mixed bag of ballads and novelties, blues and straightforward country. Here and there, there are tinges of rock, too, along with an instrumental tune, "The Chase," to close out the album.

"You're usually either a player or a singer," Brown says. "There's not too many that do both. There's still some of the older guys, like B.B. King, that are equally good at both."

That Brown included an instrumental highlights his power in choosing material, as they are few in number during today's closely monitored and manipulated recording sessions.

Furthermore, Brown also produces his albums. As such, he assembles the musicians he wants, picks all the material and decides in full how the album will sound. From lyric one to the final note, Brown's the boss on his highway.

"I'd already made two records when I signed with Curb, and my production ability was evident. You either get it, or you don't. Bringing in another producer I didn't think would improve what I was doing, and apparently they agreed, so it was all just an understanding that we had. I don't think I've let 'em down as a producer. I think my production ability has gotten better. As far as how commercial that is, I don't know, but I do think the production has improved."

With production duties, freedom follows. How many artists would ever have been allowed to record something like "My Wife Thinks You're Dead" or even "Highway Patrol"?

"It's an added responsibility, too. You've got to work harder. I remember hearing another artist saying recently, 'well, now I can go home after a day's work of recording. I finally got a producer that can sit around and go through vocals all night.' I thought, 'I wonder what that would be like?' You know, I like the work, and I work hard."

For evidence, listen no further than the album's opening track, a cover of Reed's masterful "Guitar Man."

"It tells my story, about a kid going around town trying to make his living as a guitar player, and he finally gets his own band," Brown says. "I thought it would be a good way for me to put my own little brand on that song because I think it's a good story. I didn't really like some of the versions I'd heard on it, including mine. I think it's a really good song, but I could have done it better. People seem to like it, though. They seem to think it's Okay."

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