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Junior Brown's "Mixed Bag"

By Tom Netherland, September 2001

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That's an understatement. Brown's pulled off many a strong solos with his guit-steel (a contraption of a guitar and steel guitar on different necks attached to the same body) through the years, and this one ranks right among his best. As he's want to do, Brown varied the song's arrangement to better accentuate his six-string slingin' style. Instead of a short solo, Brown buries deep and digs out one blazing barrage of notes.

"I had a hard time with that solo," Brown says. "One of my fingers split wide open when I played that. I was in a lot of pain. I kept trying to Crazy Glue it together, then I'd go back, and I'd rip it right open again, so I just figured if I'm gonna make this record I'm gonna have to play with it ripped open. It's very difficult. It's that flesh right underneath the callous. The new skin under there, which is bright red. You start sticking a guitar string into that, and it's very painful."

Brown, blood on the strings and one wailing "Guitar Man" result. Then again, that's nothing new for the dark-suited singer.

Say you're writing a song. Lyrics don't just tumble forth onto an empty page, adorned with notes and a how-to list of instructions. Blue collar laborers sweat on the outside; musicians sweat from within. With each drop, may come a line. For each song, most any writer must sweat a river.

"I think in the writing you just have to work, work, work and select the very best material you can," Brown says, who despite the perception that he records mostly covers, instead pens most of his songs. "Don't be afraid to record some tunes and throw 'em away, throw 'em away in favor of some better tunes."

He adds that no one brand of song is harder than another. Love songs, novelty songs - no matter.

"Getting a good idea is the hardest thing because there's no good formula for that. You either get a good idea, or you don't," Brown says. "You can't set out to get one. If you have a weak line in there, you have to know where it is, and make it stronger.

"I work real hard to get the sounds I hear in my head. Sometimes I get closer than on others, but I got pretty close on this one. The sound that I've heard over the years is because of the experience that I've had listening to tunes that I enjoyed, and I always kept that in my head. Then you finally get a chance to do it, and you work your tail off. When you finally get it, it's a feeling of accomplishment."

Back to "The Chase," as accomplished an instrumental as Brown's burned the barn with to date.

Few country fans worth more than two cents would fail to recognize the name and works of famous finger-pickers Chet Atkins and Merle Travis.

But fleet-fingered Buck Trent reserves a spot almost exclusively among the musical palates of the more astute followers of country . The innovating Trent made a name for himself while playing the electric banjo as a member of Porter Wagoner's Wagonmasters during the 1960's. Brown numbers among the musicians who call themselves a fan of the somewhat eccentric Trent.

Just listen to "The Chase."

"You got it. I interpreted that on guitar at a pretty young age because I loved the way he played so much," Brown says. "It's only an interpretation. All of the guitar licks are completely different, different picking style, but it's camouflaged to sound like that, to give you the feeling of a banjo. It's an example of how an influence can be used not as an imitation, but taken to the next level. I took the electric banjo style to another level. I made it a guitar thing."

Friends, that's why Brown's a musician and the imitators are something just short. Imitation, Brown says, is a good starting point for any musician, but without some style of your own, you'll always fall short of those who do.

"That's what I used to do. I couldn't copy singers as well as I could guitar players. I could make it sound like that guy was right there, but big deal. So what? Hank Garland, the great guitar player, the same thing. He played me a tape of him singing "Slippin' Around," the Floyd Tillman tune, and you would have sworn that that was Floyd Tillman. It was that close. Big deal. You think he wanted to do that? That was just something he did in the old days for a few bucks."

Such distinct stylists as Merle Haggard and George Jones are some of the best vocal imitators you will ever hear. Mel Tillis, too. But they knew as Brown knows, that such ways aren't the ways to stardom.

"There's some good examples. Merle Haggard started imitating Lefty Frizzell and changed it a little, adapted it to his voice and threw in a little Jimmie Rodgers and mixed it all up," Brown says. "So, he took the Lefty influence and the Lefty sound and added his own thing to it."

And that's what Brown does with Ernest Tubb. Hear just about any Junior Brown tune, and Tubb chimes in as well, though only as an influence.

After all, Tubb never recorded with horns, didn't play lead or steel guitar and would never have been mentioned in the same breath with rock legends Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

"There's nobody who would say that Merle Haggard isn't an original," Brown says.

Same goes for that guitar slingin' son of a gun Junior Brown.

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