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Pickin' on Junior Brown
J.B. at home

Not much chance anyone will argue with this pronouncement: Junior Brown, who'll appear Dec. 8 at Randy Wood Guitars in Bloomingdale, is one of the hottest hot-shot guitars players in all of country music.

On the fretboard he's half James Burton and half James Hendrix (and another half Clarence White), he's got a bravado baritone singing voice like Ernest Tubb on steroids, and his songs are both cool and funny — see "Highway Patrol" and "My Wife Thinks You're Dead."

Wait till you see him play his custom-made instrument, the two-necked guit-steel. Backed by the lovely Tanya Rae Brown (the missus) on rhythm guitar, Jason on bass and James on the snare drum, Junior Brown makes honky tonk music as fierce and defiant as the baddest-ass rock 'n' roll.

His major-label successes came in the 1990s, and even though commercial country music today consists almost entirely of cookie-cutter pop knockoffs, Brown's still making records and making a good living writing, playing and singing to those of us whose jaws first dropped to the floor when 12 Shades of Brown introduced him more than 23 years ago.

"I feel like I'm doing better than I ever was," the Indiana native tells me. "When I got into this thing, I had this self-confidence and a fantasy of becoming successful. Well, that self-confidence and fantasy hasn't changed any. I'm older now, but I can still cut the mustard. So that's good; if I wasn't writing songs that were any good, or if my playing was starting to slack off, or my voice was starting to sound thin, I wouldn't maybe be as confident — as cocky — as I am! But I still got something goin' on."

That voice, it's nothing if not distinctive. "I played for a lot of years as a sideman — as a guitar player, or a steel player — and didn't do much singing," Brown explains. "Until I started writing songs. Mid '80s is when I swung into it. And by the '90s I was making the major-label records, and little by little by little my voice started opening up. And it's just now coming to where I want it to sound.

"If you listen to the first couple of records, like 12 Shades of Brown and Guit With It, listen to the voice on that and then listen to the voice on the newest record. It's richer, you know? It's not like I'm just-a doing my job, I'm the Highway Patrol .... You don't have any nasal in there. It's opened up from the bottom end. That's a good thing."

The legendary Austin luthier Michael Stevens created the guit-steel specifically for Junior Brown, and although Stevens had made more than one, for other musicians, Brown is the only player to use it extensively. It has been his trademark for his entire career.

"In 1980," Brown says. "I got the idea to come up with this instrument that I could play the guitar and steel guitar both, a doubleneck instrument. And I could switch quickly between the two.

"I had to unplug the guitar and plug into the steel. That was always a problem, because I liked to play both on the same song, and sing at the same time. This made it easy to do that, and get it all in one song at the flip of a switch."

Brown recently released his tenth album, the obviously-titled Volume 10. A year or two ago, he was talking in the press about an album he was cutting with two other great electric pickers, James Burton and Albert Lee.

The prize-pickin' trio never got around to finishing the sessions, he tells me. "I love both of 'em to pieces," Brown chuckles. "We all have a ball every time we get together. But we don't see each other that often, because we're all out making a living."

Showtime on Dec. 8 is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35 through