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POP MUSIC

Traveling His Own Road

Junior Brown loves old-time country music, and he's stubborn enough to stick with it no matter who might object. Now, at last, he's winning.

May 19, 1996|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

In his music and videos, Junior Brown exudes the sweet, simple feel of someone who would be right at home on a bus bench next to Forrest Gump.

The singer and guitarist, 43, gazes at the world through slightly bugged eyes and dresses in the Western hats and suits favored by country singers in the '40s. He could fit right in, as himself, in a TV remake of Andy Griffith's old Mayberry show.

It's as easy to smile at Brown's music as at his manner.

He can write straightforward love songs, but he leans to lyrics with a humorous edge, songs like "Gotta Get Up Every Morning," from his new album, "Semi-Crazy," on Curb Records. (See review, Page 70.)

In the tale of a man's complaints about the way his party-minded wife stays out all night, Brown sings:

My alarm clock rings and there you are

Fallin' out of someone's car . . .

The break of dawn is your best friend . . .

I've gotta get up every morning,

Just to say good night to you.

What you see and hear, however, is not the full Brown story.

We're not talking country bumpkin here. Brown's father earned a doctorate in musicology and taught music at prestigious St. John's College in Annapolis, Md. His grandfather was a symphony violinist.

Brown's embrace of old-time country music isn't a pose, however. It grew out of a deep-seated love of such country singers as Ernest Tubb, Hank Thompson and Ray Price.

His passion was fueled equally by his rebellion against his parents and country music's drift in the '60s toward a slick, pop-rock synthesis. For years, Brown felt bitter over being rejected at home, where he didn't live up in school (and in his musical tastes) to his parents' standards, and later in country music, where his peers said he was wasting his time with such a dated style.

After hearing his story, in fact, one can just as easily picture this outwardly carefree man sitting on a bus bench somewhere with punk and rock rebels Henry Rollins and Trent Reznor.

"I don't want to paint this picture of a bad childhood, but it really was," he says, a touch reluctantly, when pressed about his background.

"I mean I loved them, but I was an outsider who spent a lot of time alone in my room. I seemed to do everything wrong in their eyes: I was terrible in school, ran with what they called the wrong crowd and played the wrong music.

"There wasn't any more acceptance once I got started in music. People kept asking why I wanted to play that old kind of music. I was so bitter in some ways that I did and said stupid things. A part of it is just being young, but another part is standing up for what you believe in when no one else shares your beliefs. You have to be tough just to keep your dream alive."

*

Brown is in a philosophical mood as he sits at a rear table at a Thai restaurant in Hollywood. It's the night before the Academy of Country Music Awards, where his "My Wife Thinks You're Dead" has been nominated for best video.

He wouldn't win the award, but he was pleased just to be nominated--just as he was thrilled to have his "Junior High" nominated as best country album at this year's Grammy Awards (it too lost, to Shania Twain's "The Woman in Me").

The nominations are signs of a growing acceptance for a music that was long out of bounds. During the last year, Brown has also appeared on scores of TV shows (Letterman to "Saturday Night Live") and toured with the red-hot Mavericks (they'll be together May 30 at Humphrey's in San Diego and May 31 at the Greek Theatre).

Brown is polite in conversation, but he has strong opinions about the music business. It's this firmness--some might even call it stubbornness--that has enabled him to achieve his goals.

"I think you can trace a lot of the [problems] to the that fact my folks didn't think I really applied myself in school, and that upset them a lot," Brown says about his youth over a dinner of barbecued chicken and assorted vegetables.

"What they didn't understand is that I did try to apply myself, so I don't know what went wrong. I don't know if there was a learning disability there or something. It doesn't really matter at this point. The musical differences just added to the whole thing."

Brown has been so closely associated with the Austin music scene that most people assume that he was born in Texas, but he's actually from Cottonwood, Ariz. The family moved when he was young, however, so he doesn't remember much about the place.

Blessed with a feel for music, Brown was playing piano by the time he was 4 and living near Bloomington, Ind., where he heard lots of country music at neighbors' homes. But the big discovery, not long after, was the electric guitar.

As the family continued to move, going from Indiana to Maryland to New Mexico, Brown turned increasingly to the guitar for companionship and escape. He had to borrow instruments from friends because his parents refused to buy him one. They didn't want to encourage him to play that music.

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