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Junior Brown stirs up some country

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He calls his sound free-range country, a hayride that takes you from Hendrix to Hawaii via Nashville. Junior Brown is old-school country, following the precepts idol and mentor Ernest Tubb instilled in him -- it's OK to experiment, but "keep it country, son." Brown's take on that advice includes some original country-fried novelty tunes showcasing Brown's twisted sense of humor, some Hawaiian steel guitar and a dash of Hendrix.

Brown made a name for himself extolling the virtues of the highway cowboys in "Highway Patrol" from his '93 sophomore release, Guit With It.

"I got a star on my car and one on my chest/ A gun on my hip and the right to arrest/ I'm the guy who's the boss on this highway,' Brown growled. He punctuated the lyrics with the unique sound of a guit-steel, a device he invented that combines a six-string electric guitar welded to a lap steel guitar. The instrument allows Brown to get a slide sound akin to a pedal steel without having to sit down and play.

The pedal steel sounds he cranks out are equally at home in Hawaiian music as well as country. Brown went to Hawaii in the '70s to soak up some Hawaiian steel sound, but says he plays Happa Haole style. "Happa Haole means half-foreigner, kind of a derogatory term." But his mix of Don Ho and the Pahanui brothers mixed in with some Dick Dale surf sounds are enough to satisfy his audience's cravings for Hawaiian style guitar.

But Brown's initial chart strength came from his quirky novelty songs. 1995's "My Wife Thinks You're Dead" and the accompanying video that shows Brown being harassed by a deranged escaped con ex-lover who's come back for seconds won CMA's Music Video of the Year in '96.

The guitarist felt the attention was somewhat misdirected. "It did start to bother me a bit to be put in a bag that I didn't put myself into," Brown says of the public's inclination to classify him as a novelty act. He resorted to novelty songs because although he loved the sound of 1960's country and wanted to emulate it, he didn't like the lyric content. "They're poison -- a lot of 'em," he said recently by phone from the road. "My uncle's sleeping with my wife's best friend. I'm sick of that," he says of the Jerry Springer-ish aspect of country music songwriting. The closest Brown's come to the Springer school is 1996's "Venom Wearing Denim." "She's pretty but she's poison/ like a copper-headed queen/ she's a nightmare, not a dream," he admonishes potential victims attracted to the Levi-clad demoness whose tight-fitting jeans are all she needs to put the bite on you. The song was adopted as a redneck anthem, making the soundtrack of 2003's Blue Collar Comedy Tour Movie.

Brown's guitar skills have saved him from being typecast as a novelty act, but those same skills have also pigeonholed him as a Hendrix replicator. "No, No, NO. I just did one Jimi Hendrix song in my whole career. I recorded that song 'Foxy Lady'," he laughs. "That's the only one I've ever done and probably the only one I ever will do. One is enough. Jimi Hendix is like The Beatles, he does his own stuff better than anybody else does."

Despite his protestations, his Hendrix skills are such that he was invited to play "Stone Free" with Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell at the 1998 Bumbershoot Rock Festival in Seattle.

True to his word, except for an occasional "Foxy Lady" outbreak in concert, Brown has moved on from psychedelia, dabbling in the surreal underwater cartoon world of Spongebob Squarepants, playing pedal steel on a 2000 episode. He also has plans for the Junior Brown Show, a country music TV show based on '60s models like the ones by the Wilburn Brothers and Porter Wagoner featuring guest stars each week.

He's taken his guit-steel concept even further, converting a pedal steel to an instrument he can perform on while he remains vertical. "I'm still standing," he says. "I like standing up when I perform, so I had to do some fancy designing to make that work." But fans of his sleight of hand on his original double-necked electric six-string and lap steel fusion contraption needn't worry -- the stringed pyrotechnics will continue. "I'll use my other one also," he reassures fans. "I'll see where it takes me."

Junior Brown plays the Neighborhood Theatre on Oct. 24 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20.

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