Junior Brown and his world-famous guit-steel — a hybrid of an electric six-string guitar and a steel guitar that Brown invented — are returning to Baton Rouge on Thursday, June 25, for a show at the Manship Theatre.
Brown first envisioned the guit-steel in 1980. Texas guitar maker Michael Stevens completed the first guit-steel in 1985.
“It was something I needed,” Brown said from his home in Missouri. “For performing playing, it really makes a difference. I do the work of two guys with one instrument.”
Of course, Brown sings, too, usually with humor included. His better-known songs include “Highway Patrol” and “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead.” His latest release, “Volume Ten,” includes “The Phantom Of The Opry,” “Apathy Waltz” and a modern-day protest song, “Hang Up & Drive.”
Brown’s beyond-the-mainstream country music and his guit-steel prowess are not what his musicologist daddy envisioned for him.
“I took to the piano real young,” Brown said. “Before I could talk, I was making up little melodies. My parents thought, ‘Well, he’s going to be a classical piano player.’ It didn’t work out like that.”
Brown found his calling when he discovered an old guitar in his grandparents’ attic.
“I just took to it,” he said. “I rebelled against classical music and all that. I never really liked that. I spent a lot of time in my room plunking away on an old guitar.”
In those years, the 1950s and early ’60s, guitar was frowned upon.
“Rock ’n’ roll, electric guitar and juvenile delinquency all went together, at that time,” Brown said.
Country music became another form of rebellion for Brown — a rebellion against rock ’n’ roll.
“I alienated people who liked rock ’n’ roll,” he remembered. “You weren’t supposed to like country. So I didn’t tell a lot of people about my interest in it.”
Luckily, his parents were less bothered by country music than rock ’n’ roll.
“It was easier for my parents to swallow country than rock ’n’ roll,” Brown said. “My dad, for instance, liked (Lester) Flatt and (Earl) Scruggs. You almost couldn’t not like Flatt and Scruggs during their heyday. They were so musical that you couldn’t discount it.”
Country music TV programs of the 1950s and ’60s, starring the likes of Ernest Tubb, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jimmy Dean and Porter Wagoner, also inspired Brown. He first saw a performance featuring a pedal steel guitar on TV. He loved the sound of the instruments but didn’t understand how the sound was produced.
“I thought it was an electric table,” Brown said. “It looked like the guy was ironing a shirt.”
About 1970, Brown began performing in clubs as a guitarist for hire. He gradually started singing.
In the early ’70s at a club in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Brown noticed someone had forgotten their steel guitar.
“I stuck that on my lap and played it,” he said. “I just took to it and brought the house down. So I started thinking, ‘I oughta play steel.’ And I was fascinated with it. I started watching steel players and picking up what they did. Then I bought a pedal steel.”
Following a move to Austin, Texas, Brown and his singing, rhythm-guitar playing wife, Tanya Rae, launched a weekly gig at The Continental Club. He later signed with Curb Records in Nashville. His Curb recordings brought him a Country Music Association Award, a Bluegrass Music Association Award and three Grammy nominations.
By the time Curb released Brown’s “Greatest Hits” album in 2005, he’d moved on to Telarc Records, which released his “Down Home Chrome” and “Live at the Continental Club: The Austin Experience” albums. “Volume Ten,” released in 2012, is his 10th album.