Junior kicks off Ogden fest

Junior kicks off Ogden fest

Story by Linda East Brady , Standard-Examiner staff - Jun 3 2011 - 9:44am
Junior Brown performs June 3, the opening night of the three-day Ogden Music Festival in Liberty.

OFOAM Ogden Music Festival

with Junior Brown, The Clumsy Lovers, Corky Siegel & Chamber Blues, Anna Wilson & Monty Powell, Leslie and the Badgers, more. VENUE CHANGED.
7 p.m. June 3, noon June 4-5.
North Fork Park
6413 N. Fork Road
One day: $20. Three-day pass: $40/adv., $50/day of.

Junior Brown, who is headlining the Ogden Music Festival opening tonight, always liked to feature both a little steel guitar and conventional six-string onstage.

More to the point, he liked to play both himself.

So, he created a missing link, evolving both instruments into a single two-headed beast called the guit-steel.

And he absolutely rips on the thing -- country, surf, old rock, highly humorous originals -- you name it, Brown can twang it with a plethora of pyrotechnics.

The genesis of his Frankenstein guitar came to Brown in a dream in 1985. He went to luthier Michael Stevens to help him realize his vision in actual wire and wood.

"That thing does put me in a little unique sort of category," Brown said, speaking from a traffic jam in his hometown of Austin, Texas. "The idea of being able to switch quickly during the same song was the appeal of it.

"You then have an extra instrument in the band. I wanted to do both jobs, play steel and guitar, not have another guy. I didn't like unplugging the thing after every song."

Brown moves with fluid grace between the two necks -- singing in his deep baritone while he does.

It took some doing. The two instruments are played at opposite angles to the body, with the steel normally being played sitting horizontal, on a platform, and the six-string held to the body in vertical alignment.

"There was a little bit of a curve, because I didn't have a stand at first. You could use a strap, but then you would have to lean over into an awkward position to play the steel. So I came up with a stand that split the difference. It is tilted -- not completely flat and not completely vertical or horizontal. You give a little for each instrument, basically."

The first night he brought it out at a gig in Nashville, a number of heavy hitters were eyeballing Brown in a curious way.

"Peter Rowan was there and Mark O'Connor and Jerry Douglas -- a bunch of those Nashville folk-country guys. Vince Gill was there, too. So the pressure was on. And I had never played it before, never rehearsed. I got up there and just winged it. It seemed to work right off."

He laughed. "There was some stares then, and there have been stares ever since. But I have really learned to make the thing work."

Plug in and play

Brown's parents always loved music. They had a mind that their son might have some talent and so encouraged him to become a classical piano player.

"But I never took to it," he said. "Now, I took to the guitar immediately. I listened to everybody in the culture when I was growing up in the '50s and '60s."

The big voice of the electric guitar swept Brown off his feet.

"It had a different sound and it made you feel powerful when you played it, because it had so much power behind it. It had some guts. I was always chasing that power."

Brown's parents, classical fans, were not pleased.

"To them, it represented, well, not so much lowlife, but certainly not actual, legitimate music. It just seemed too cheap to them. It was not thought of as something you wanted your kid to get into. But I found a real emotional outlet in it."

Brown spent the '70s honing his craft in various bands. By the '80s, he had also become an instructor at the Hank Thompson School of Country Music, an affiliate of Rogers State College in Oklahoma.

There, he met the woman he introduces from the stage as "The Lovely Miss Tanya Rae," a guitar student he would eventually make his backup vocalist/rhythm guitarist and his wife.

"I was the designated professor." He laughed. "And yeah, I kept her after class many a time -- extracurricular activity."

With guit-steel and a rhythm-player-for-life by his side, Brown started a Sunday night residency at Austin's famed Continental Club.

It was a musically beneficial partnership. He became a much-ballyhooed draw in Guitar Town, causing a buzz that helped the old club out of the doldrums and made it into what is today considered one of the great American music venues.

"Playing that place is kind of a tradition for me. We helped each other out. And we try to get down there and play most Sundays when we are in town."

A sense of humor

Not only is Brown known for his hoodoo on the guit-steel, he is also a fine songwriter with a wry sense of humor. Cuts like "My Wife Thinks You're Dead" and "Venom Wearing Denim" draw grins from the crowd.

"I like clever writing," said Brown. "And obviously, there are other clever ways to write, too, but humor is something you are not hearing much these days in songs."

Brown also finds too much repetition in most pop and country.

"A rehash of a rehash of a rehash. I don't want to sound too negative, but that is what I think of a lot of modern music. So I write the songs I can get some sort of little jolt from, and sometimes with me, the best way to do that is humor. Then you can get a reaction to the words, as well as putting the guitar playing and the steel playing around that."

Brown remains fairly peerless on his instrument, though you can get one custom-made from www.stevensguitars.com starting at just under $15,000.

Even with the rock-star price tag of the guit-steel, and the musical skill it takes to play such an instrument, Brown said he has seen a number of videos where musicians are giving the guit-steel a go.

"My wife will bring up a picture to show me, and I must admit it is very strange to see someone else playing one." He laughed. "It is somehow just a little uncomfortable for me -- like watching someone else dancing with your wife! But it would be nice to know that when I am no longer around, that I got something going."


June 3

  • 5 p.m. — Utah State Instrument Champs
  • 7 p.m. — Sister Wives
  • 8 p.m. — Driven
  • 9 p.m. — Junior Brown

June 4

  • 8:30 a.m. — Utah State Instrument Champs
  • Noon — Bill Vernieu & Joanna Joseph/Brad Wheeler harmonica workshop
  • 1 p.m. — Urban Monroes
  • 2 p.m. — Driven
  • 3 p.m. — Kap Brothers Band and the Don Baker Award
  • 4:15 p.m. — Leslie Stevens & the Badgers
  • 5:30 p.m. — Anna Wilson & Monty Powell
  • 6:45 p.m. — Corky Siegel & The Chamber Blues Band
  • 8 p.m. — Kenny & Amanda Smith
  • 9:15 p.m. — Clumsy Lovers

June 5

  • 8:30 a.m. — Utah State Instrument Champs
  • Noon — Red Desert Ramblers
  • 1 p.m. — Urban Monroes
  • 2 p.m. — Kort McCumber & High Road
  • 3 p.m. — Dicky Martinez & The Little Big Band
  • 4 p.m. — Kenny & Amanda Smith
  • 5:15 p.m. — Clumsy Lovers

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