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Sticking His Necks Out 

Guit-steel pioneer Junior Brown doesn't fret about defining his sound.

Junior Brown gives 'em guit-steel at Saturday's Dollar Bank Jamboree.
  • Junior Brown gives 'em guit-steel at Saturday's Dollar Bank Jamboree.

Right about the same time Jimmy Page unveiled his double-necked guitar for live performances of "Stairway to Heaven," Junior Brown was on the road as a session player for various country bands. Twenty years later, Page's twain-shafted instrument had become an overused symbol of rock and roll excess, and Brown created the "guit-steel," country's version of the two-headed ax that serves as both a steel guitar and traditional guitar.

"Maybe it's become a cliché," he says of double-necked guitars. "But mine is one of a kind."

More than just an onstage convenience, Brown's guit-steel is an outward manifestation of his schizophrenic style, which has toed the line between rock and country since his solo career began in 1993. Usually described as alt-country or western rockabilly, Brown has felt equally at home playing at bluegrass festivals and opening for Dave Matthews, the String Cheese Incident, and Ray Charles. This weekend, he'll be part of the Dollar Bank Jamboree country festival.

"A lot of the stuff I do is country," he admits. "It comes out of that, but then there's other influences that I throw in, too. I just go with whatever sounds good."

On his latest album, Mixed Bag, slated for release at the end of this month, Brown has embraced his varying styles to a greater degree than before, switching between straight country, Dixieland jazz, and rockabilly with equal zeal. But while the music may change, Brown's smooth, cowboy-crooner baritone infuses every song with an indelible 1950s western rockabilly style. What worries Brown isn't that fans can't keep up with his varied musical moods, but that they'll get the wrong impression.

"I'm very concerned, because the alternative country thing seems to be a parody of old-time country," he says. "They get the old baggy clothes and the big hats, and they play dress-up. I don't choose to sound like an old record, but I feel there's certain techniques of playing to where, if it were done any differently, it wouldn't sound good. In that sense, it sounds retro, but I don't set out to sound retro."

Mainstream country radio may miss the point -- Brown admits that he's never really been a part of "that whole Nashville thing" -- but he says his crossover songs have done more for him than radio ever could. "I attract a much wider audience. I haven't really attempted to do anything but play good music, and the world around me has done its thing -- and then I'm forced to be compared to it.

"I just consider myself an American music artist," he laughs. "Country really doesn't tell the whole story about me."

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