Junior Brown: Long Walk Back

Junior Brown
Long Walk Back
Curb

JUNIOR BROWN COMBINES Hendrix's ax, Johnny Cash's baritone, and the honky-tonkin', gear-jammin' persona of a Red Simpson or a Dave "Six Days on the Road" Dudley. That's the concept, anyway, and a heady one it is. But if Junior doesn't always overwhelm, he's so humble and good-natured he gets by anyway. And this might be why old fans didn't complain earlier this year when Brown traded in his very modest fame and "aw, shucks" Jerry Clower features and took a gig hawking Lipton Iced Tea.

Inventor of the guit-steel, a regular electric guitar and a steel guitar combined into one instrument, Brown is the rarest of country performers, one who's gained a reputation as a player rather than a songwriter or a vocal stylist. Long Walk Back is his fourth album since debuting in 1990 and, throughout, it sticks to a set formula: standard-issue honky-tonk spiced with his now semilegendary guit-steel excursions and at least a couple of straight-up novelty tunes. The one departure is the only misfire: Former Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell sits in on a couple of cuts, giving Brown an excuse to wank Hendrix-style in an attempt at cementing his technical prowess. "Keepin' Up with You" is a four-minute throwaway chock-full of lifted Hendrix riffs that sets up the album-closing "Stupid Blues"--nearly nine minutes of really dull, acid-drenched blues-rock. Aw, shucks, indeed.

Such experiments are perhaps better saved for the stage. More interesting on record is the instrumental "Peelin' Taters," which features some hyper-speed steel guitar held in place by a straight, bare-bones drummer, and a cover of the rockabilly classic "Rock-A-Hula Baby," on which Brown cuts up the groove like a space-age Scotty Moore.

But all of the hype surrounding Brown's guit-steel pyrotechnics may do a disservice to his overlooked accomplishments as a singer-songwriter. Though he lacks the chops to put across a George Jones-style slow one (e.g., "Read 'Em and Weep"), road-ready tunes like the breakup-bound "Long Walk Back to San Antone" and the celebration of domestic bliss "The Better Half," are keepers. Here his skill for songcraft is as impressive as his acclaimed instrumental fury. If his guit-steel playing on other songs roams and wanders like a tumblin' tumbleweed, it finds purchase on these cuts. Let's hope he sticks around and cultivates his gifts.

 
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