Beyond a barebones notion of practicality and tradition, clothes have little to do with the cowboy way. It seems wrong then, wrong and counterproductive, to begin with a description of apparel, but one look at old Junior will tell you that in his particular case clothes surely … surely! … do not make the man.
The hat first. Imagine an 18-by-14 inch taco. Flour shell. Thin little black ribbon right where the hamburger ought to be.
Now the suit. Brown, like Junior’s last name, but a bad sort of brown, threatening to turn at any minute off toward the beginning of something yellow. A plain-cut suit, Bulgarian in its lack of anything suggesting the smallest pretense of style.
The man’s shirt is white, an ultrathin white. White slipping into gray, white clutching and stretching, its warp and woof expanding here and there in the dead certainty that any chest hair at all will form a bowling ball of a shadow between the second and fifth buttons.
A necktie hangs in front, a brown necktie, also thin and unreliable, a hangman’s rope of a necktie, ready for one last drop.
Look down here at Junior’s feet, trying without success to tap halfway as fast as probably they should. Junior’s shoes give new meaning to the word “nondescript.” Plastic may very well be involved in their construction. But in the case of Mr. Junior Brown, the man who wrote “You’re Wanted by the Police, and My Wife Thinks You’re Dead,” it’s not the feet, not the clothes that matter after all.
It’s the fingers and the face.
He doesn’t wear it exactly. He doesn’t put his guitar on really. Rather, he walks smack into it just before it detonates, a nanosecond before it turns into a musical wayback machine. This Junior, he assumes his instrument and no one here, its inventor least of all, knows what might happen.
He calls it a “guit-steel.”
It came to him in a dream and, when he woke up, he went off to Alpine, Texas, to Michael Stevens Guitar Shop. Michael Stevens built the world’s first guit-steel and then the world’s second guit-steel, and suddenly Junior Brown could switch back and forth on the twin vehicles of his virtuosity, six-string above, pedal-less steel below. The first guit-steel is “Old Yeller,” the second “Big Red.” And Junior discusses them as a bigamist might his wives.
It’s wrong to speak poorly of a man’s spouse, but it must be said that these guit-steels are odd-looking small acreages. Spaceage materials and some NASA electronics around two sets of strings that nature never intended for such proximity. Junior did not invent the guit-steel for its handsomeness, however. And so now he stands just inside the sphere of guit-steel influence, and something otherworldly happens.
Remember the old Andy Kauffman routine? The bit where the plain, anonymous everyday guy transforms himself into the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll? His guit-steel in front of him, Junior gives voice to transfigured words, basso perfectimundo sounds born the same day as Ernest Tubb. Junior is hard into “Highway Patrol,” his hymn to uniformed law enforcement, and he stands tall and straight, a weird-hatted Texas Ranger himself. He’s finished the first chorus now, and he’s dropped to a slouch, suddenly looking so much more like the headlight-lit felon than the arresting officer. His mouth is working somehow, puckering, now contracting, now bulging to half the size of his seeking eyeballs. He leans over the guit-steel, and he cranes his head up and down that fretboard. The face is obviously connected to the fingers. Those fingers, digital blurs, they find notes and chords born the same day as electricity.
Go now to a Saturday afternoon at three o’clock in a hotel in downtown Wichita, Kansas, and he does have a major problem staring him in the face and transfixing his fingers, alright. Asked to sign a photograph of himself, asked to address it to a little girl of the fourth-grade persuasion, he seems flummoxed, absolutely unsure of what to do with the black felt-tip pen shoved like a red-hot pick into his right hand. He ponders and he pauses, does this Junior, and he frets, and then at last he writes. “To Ellie, Your Friend, Junior Brown.”
He coughs. He ahems some, and then he points to the troublesome noun he has written. “I don’t really know your daughter,” he reasons and he says to me, “but I went ahead and said, ‘Your Friend,’ anyway.”
Not twenty minutes away from a four-hour sleep in the back of a bus just in from Tulsa, Junior Brown has produced a salutation for a little sweetheart who likes his way with a guitar, and there has once more slipped forth from this lovable genius a deep-down freshness born on the same day as innocence its old lost self.
Ellie says to dress warmly out there, Junior.