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Dubious Achievement

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Junior Brown
Guit With It
(Curb)
12 Shades of Brown
(Curb)

For many people who like country music but can't stand the slick excesses of Nashville in the mid-1990s, Junior Brown seems to be the ideal alternative--a brand-new country artist who writes, sings, and behaves as if nothing important has happened in country music since the mid-1950s. Brown's stubborn honky-tonk traditionalism has long made this transplanted Hoosier a hero in his home of Austin, Texas, a town where country fans pride themselves on their opposition to current Nashville trends. Much of the national rock press joined in the praise last year when Brown unleashed his retro-vision on two Curb albums, 12 Shades of Brown, an American release of a 1991 British import, and Guit With It, a new collection. Some reviewers even explicitly sided with Brown's implicitly anti-Nashville stance: Musician wrote, "Garth sells zillions. Wynonna's a household name, but Junior Brown is touched by genius."

Without defending the formulaic styles churned out by Nashville--possibly the most creatively stifled music center in America--it's about time someone raised the objection that Brown's "alternative" contradicts the whole concept of the word. However much his style may differ from the Nashville norm, it's hard to find anything bold or fresh or challenging in this dyed-in-the-wool cultural reactionary. Granted, it may seem tautological to criticize a country artist for being conservative since country music is conservative by definition. But the pleasure of almost all music comes from the way it balances the task of both meeting and defeating expectations, and Brown does nothing for the latter. Unlike, say, Asleep at the Wheel--who in the mid-70s revived Bob Wills's western swing as a posthippie experiment in laid-back good times--Brown never engages the present in any substantive way. Instead, like Johnny Cash on his recent American Recordings, Brown purposefully closes out the possibility of anything new or original disturbing his careful imitation of a bygone era.

There's no doubt that on the surface both 12 Shades of Brown and Guit With It succeed in recalling the sound of honky-tonk's golden age. To rephrase the title of his first album's first cut, Junior Brown won't play nothing that don't sound like Ernest Tubb, the most purebred honky-tonker of them all. Compared to most current Nashville product, Brown sounds almost stark, or at least he would if he didn't also sound so gosh darn neighborly. On most songs, his deep baritone and crisp guitar lay out relaxed, hummable melodies, and the acoustic bass, rhythm guitar, and brushed drums add some loping rhythms and smooth color. The lyrics usually complete the down-home picture with simple, clever puns on the song titles, like Guit With It's "Still Life With Rose" ("Still, life with Rose / Is better than life with you could ever be"). Sometimes as a final touch he overdubs bits of tinkling honky-tonk piano, or his rhythm guitarist and wife, Tanya Rae Brown, sings background vocals.

The one major exception to Brown's hermetic reproduction is his guitar playing. Occasionally on record, and more often live, he decides to remind you that the 50s never knew an instrumentalist like himself, nor an instrument like his personal creation, the "guit-steel," a guitar that is half six-string electric, half lap steel. During the break in a typical two-step, he might switch from the lap to the six-string and throw out a twangy surf-guitar lead or a quick distorted homage to Hendrix. But as soon as these wild guitar displays finish, he comes back to the lap steel to sing the verses straight and pure, as if nothing unusual had happened. As with his occasional blues songs and rockabilly romps--numbers that are just a small, logical digression from honky-tonk--he's careful not to let his guitar wizardry threaten the sound of "ol' E.T."

Instead of busting open his revival, these anachronistic outbreaks are just formal virtuoso flourishes, and virtuosity has always been the last refuge of musicians playing moribund popular styles (think bluegrass, avant-garde jazz, "classic rock"). For the connoisseur they may hold some technical appeal, but otherwise they're meaningless. Keeping everything else in his imitation so sealed and constrained, Brown likewise diminishes the significance of his reproduction and magnifies how it falls short of the original. His vocals are probably the biggest letdown. His model, as always, is Ernest Tubb, an infamously flat singer who once said he couldn't hold a note for more than a beat. Still, Tubb had that rare and essential gift of getting across a melody by simply singing it, without affectation. Brown has a wondrously mellow baritone; but not only does he sing off-key, he drags the timing, a defect he tries to cover by adding a hint of lounge singer to his tremolo. The results remind us that a beautiful voice doesn't necessarily guarantee a beautiful song.

His other shortcomings can best be appreciated in live performance. First there's the drab brown tie and jacket; then the overlong solos and total lack of interplay with his small backup band; and finally the string of joke songs admonishing his listeners to obey the law and beware of loose women, like "Too Many Nights in a Roadhouse," "Party Lights," and "You Didn't Have to Go All the Way." They may be fun in small doses, but taken together they make his aesthetic conservatism seem a lot like just plain conservatism in general. And that overarching conservatism gives his music a small, constricted feeling that puts it a thousand miles away from the openhearted delight of Nashville's occasional triumphs--clomping, gauche assertions of how big this world is, like Garth Brooks's smash hit "Friends in Low Places" or Dennis Robbins's Man With a Plan, an overlooked album from '92 that closed with "All the Way to San Antone," a fat, wonderful ballad about a broken-hearted drive through a rainstorm as wide as the state of Texas.

In fact, those Nashville performers in some ways seem closer to Ernest Tubb than Brown does--at least closer to the spirit captured on Ernest Tubb's Live, 1965, an entrancing concert recording unearthed by Rhino in 1989. Listening to Tubb happily play 20-year-old hits, trade pleasantries with the audience, and, yes, boast about the size of his home state of Texas, it somehow makes sense that it was recorded during that hopeful, short-lived era when a Texan in the White House laid out his big plans to eliminate poverty in America through nothing more than the nation's unquestioned largess (at the same time, of course, that he squandered that largess in rice paddies on the other side of the globe). Ironically, as "Shrub" Bush prepares to enter the statehouse in Austin and another southern president loses his grip on the White House, Junior Brown's blindered denial of the present and all its concerns is equally emblematic of the spirit of our own meaner, smaller-minded times. Who would have known he could be so downright trendy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Basil Fairbanks Studio.

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