Junior Brown's playing is a hybrid blur of chicken pickin' prestidigitation and salaciously slick slide. It's as if he was channeling Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West simultaneously and couldn't decide which one to pick.
Flummoxed by the dilemma, Brown came up with an instrument that can do both — an instrument that can be played like a guitar and a lap steel. Enter the guit-steel.
The guit-steel looks like something out of "The Jetsons." It's a full lap steel body with a Fender-esque neck up top. Mounted on a music stand, Brown stands behind it and goes to town. Because of his flash and speed as a player as well as the double-takes the guit-steel gets, Brown is a lot of guitar fans' favorite player ... including Junior Brown.
Who's his favorite guitar player, Junior Brown? "Me," he says matter-of-factly. "I don't listen to any guitar players anymore. I'm too old; I just listen to myself. I don't even listen to music anymore. I stopped listening to music about five years ago. I don't listen to anything."
Anything the 64-year-old Brown wants to hear has already been done. He's already heard it.
"It helps me write songs, so I can keep my mind really open," Brown says. "I get all these musical ideas that don't really come from anywhere. So it's not cluttered, you know? When I listen to music, I'm cluttering it; I'm putting information into the computer that is already there, basically.
"I've already heard all the records — most of the country records — that have been released. And I love Hawaiian music. I love all different kinds of things. But everything I care about is already up in the memory banks. I can play them back in my head." Plus it's hard to transfer influence from a player strapped to a standard instrument to someone holding a guit-steel.
Luthier Michael Stevens will build you a custom guit-steel. Yes sir, you can be the proud owner of your very own guit-steel. Brown figures there have been seven or eight made. And though he is proud, he's a little unnerved.
"I don't know anyone that has one," he says. "But when I see a picture, it's sorta like a fella dancing with your wife. It's kind of hard to get used to."
For $14,500, Stevens can give you the twang, but he can't help you sing like Brown whose creamy down-deep baritone drawl calls to mind Ernest Tubb.
In his dark suit and big hat, with his wife, Tanya, chopping away at her acoustic guitar, and a bassist, and one drummer beating on one drum, Brown is pure country from the Grand Ole Opry's glory days. But his pyrotechnic playing threatens that purity to some degree. Junior Brown plays Junior Brown. He's an American original who is forever honing it down to a keen veneer.
"I refine, take out things that don't work; shave it down where it expresses my feelings the way music should," he says. "As I said, I don't listen to any other people anymore. So I make up things on the guitar, and songs in my head as far as lyrics go, and somehow they come together. That's what I'm really into right now. I've been doing a lot of songwriting. My guitar playing has gotten better just out of sheer experience. I'm 64 now, and just playing year after year has gotten me better. I'm not gonna get any worse for a while."
And he's got another invention soon to surface.
"It's a pedal guit-steel," he says. "The neck comes up right out of the body on hinges."
Junior Brown performs Saturday, June 25, at Anthology, 336 East Avenue. 7:45 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. Tickets are $30, or you can use your Club Pass. juniorbrown.com.