There are many moments in the long career of singer-songwriter, guitarist, and pedal-steel player Junior Brown that might be called definitive. There's "Guit-Steel Blues," an 11-minute epic from his 1993 album Guit With It that features Brown tearing up the song's namesake instrument, a double-necked electric guitar/pedal steel hybrid co-created by Junior and designer Michael Stevens. Over the song's stretched-out blues groove, Junior's dazzling fleet-fingered attack is a true thing of beauty, merging Hendrix-style virtuosity with a bit of Merle Travis fingerpicking.
Or perhaps the defining Junior Brown moment lies in one of the popular singles he landed on country radio and CMT in the mid-'90s. A song like "My Wife Thinks You're Dead," which combines Brown's well-deep voice and stinging guitar commentary to tell a sad-sack tale of a husband desperate to keep an old fling from accidentally running into the missus.
Or maybe it's something more recent, like his wildly popular (and hilarious) video for AMC's Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul. In that song, any crime, from jaywalking to arson to murder, can be solved with one phone call.
Well, if you ask Brown, the actual key to what he does might just be track five on his 2001 album Mixed Bag. That song, titled "Cagey Bea," is the perfect combination of the musician's guitar chops (check the balalaika-style main riff) and lyrical skills ("I ain't wearin' that corsage/ Til there's no more espionage/ From double-agent Cagey Bea").
"If we're talking about uniqueness, I think that song explains the originality of my songwriting as well as any one of them does," Brown says.
Songwriting, as it turns out, is far more important to Brown than his guit-steel playing, though he does like to keep his chops up. It's especially important to him right now that he's just finished up his first new full-length album since 2004's Down Home Chrome. That new album, scheduled to be out before the end of the year, marks the end of a long dry spell for Brown.
"There was probably 10 years there where I didn't write anything," he says. "I have little spells where I just kind of dry up, then I'll have spells where I'll write. But I'm writing more songs again, that's the main thing — getting product out there that's new and fresh. I'm constantly trying to come up with new material that I've written myself, and that's what keeps me going. I'm keeping my guitar and steel chops going, but the songwriting is really the glue that keeps the whole thing going."
In fact, Brown sees it as a point of pride that he won't release an album until he's got enough new, original songs to fill one. "We all go on and the decades go by and we do our songs, we do our hits," Brown says. "And there are a lot of times where artists will go back and re-record things. They'll record their old songs, old covers, and old standards. I just refuse to do that. I'm billed as An American Original. Well, I can't be the American Original if I'm not writing any new songs, can I? It's not just the guit-steel that makes me original."
Since his brief flirtation with mainstream country in the '90s, Brown has stuck to his own path, releasing an EP in 2012 on his own and selling it at his shows, which he's pretty nonchalant about. "I think a lot of groups release their own records nowadays, don't they?" he says. "I don't really keep track of where the music industry is going or anything, but I do know it's changed a lot."
Brown seems ambivalent about his own major-label stint with Curb Records, chiefly because his blend of country twang and rock-guitar muscle seemed to confuse them a bit. "Well, first of all, I don't know about 'rock' and 'country,' because I'm not sure that those labels really mean anything anymore," he says. "But early on when I signed with Curb Records, they were promoting me as a country artist, but the whole idea of what a country artist was was changing at that time. I don't think they quite knew how to promote me."
In addition to his Better Call Saul song, Brown has done ads (Lee Jeans, the Gap, and more), though he's not sure if that's affected the size or makeup of his audience. "They seem to know it ("Better Call Saul: The Song") when I announce it, but I don't know if it's affected my attendance or anything like that," he says. "But there are all ages at the shows. We get a wide variety of different folks. I get a lot of very young people and a lot of people who say, 'Oh yeah, I've been watching you for 30 years. My grandfather likes you.' I'm kind of growing old with my audience and picking up new fans at the same time."