Doing What They Do at the Sunset Motel
By Kevin Broughton
It might strain credulity that a couple guys shy of their fortieth birthdays would be considered elder statesmen of a music scene. Unless, of course, their last name is Braun. Reckless Kelly’s Cody and Willy Braun have a musical pedigree that’s genuinely hard to fathom. Grandpa Musty was a roadhouse piano player & singer in rural Idaho who in his childhood learned to play accordion from a neighbor named Lawrence Welk. Father Muzzie toured the Mountain West with his brothers before forming Muzzie Braun & The Boys, a western swing band featuring his four sons.
Practically before they were out of short pants, brothers Cody, Willy, Micky and Gary had played the Opry and Johnny Carson, and opened for the likes of Haggard and Cash. So, yeah, it makes sense that Reckless Kelly – two decades into a professional music career – are viewed as an institution in the (pick one) Red Dirt/Texas Country/Roots Music scene.
Sunset Motel, the band’s 11th album and their first on the Thirty Tigers label, premieres Friday, and it’s what anyone familiar with them has come to expect: tight instrumentation and arrangements; damn near perfect lead vocals from Willy that fit just as snugly in a plaintive ballad or driving rocker; and the kind of comfort level found in a pair of 10-year-old Justin ropers. It is – like seemingly all their records – vintage Reckless Kelly. It’s what they do.
We caught up with Willy (young for a musical greybeard at 38) while he chilled in Austin in advance of an upcoming East Coast tour. Topics included longing for the days of big-hatted musical clichés, a new record label and the state of the country music industry, and the virtues of turning off the water whilst brushing one’s teeth.
Your brother Cody mentioned through your publicist that you wrote “30 or 40” songs for this album, y’all recorded 20 of them, and 13 made the final cut. Sounds like at least another album’s worth of tunes are at the ready; is there any chance of y’all going Physical Graffiti, so those outliers are on a future album?
Yeah, there’s quite a few that we ended up recording that weren’t too bad you know, that turned out good, and we just had too many to put on one album. That’s kinda the first time we’ve ever really done that. We’ve had a couple leftover songs in the past, we’ve never had that many. There’s probably gonna be a collection of kinda outtakes, demos and stuff like that somewhere down the road. We’re not sure. We were kinda thinking about doing it for our 20th anniversary, but that’s this year, so we missed that boat. (Laughs) We might do it in a few years or something like that. There’s some stuff that’ll probably get seen.
Over what time period did you write these songs?
Well, let’s see. I started writing I guess maybe not long after Long Night Moon came out which was September 2013, so between then and about a year ago, I was writing kind of up until we went into the studio this spring but I wasn’t doing a lot after maybe last summer. Kind of got the bulk of it out of the way.
Reckless Kelly is one of those bands with an unmistakable sound. I mean, within a couple of measures of the intro, then a couple more with your voice, it’s “Well, that’s a Reckless Kelly song.” Y’all have your own distinct style. How, if at all, would you say Sunset Motel is different?”
Man, I think it’s probably just a little more the modern version of the band. We’ve been doing it for about 20 years and we never really wanted to stray too far from what the people liked about us in the first place. But you can’t go making the same record over and over, so you have to slightly reinvent yourself every time; try to write about different things. Like I said, you don’t want to go too far off the rails because you know that’s what got people involved in the first place. I don’t know, it’s kind of hard to put your finger on that Reckless Kelly sound, it’s just 5 guys who’ve been playing together for a long time, it’s just something that’s evolved over time. It changes a little bit every year, probably, but nothing really too fast.
I want to get into a couple specific songs and then jump around some. First, “Radio.” There are some brief snippets of songs at the very beginning before things crank up, and they’re just too quick for me to pinpoint. Are one or more of them y’all, sounds like there may be a girl too? This is uber-trivial, but I’m curious.
Actually, none of them are us. It’s the people that came into the studio, we had a few guest musicians on the record. A couple of people came in and we recorded some stuff that didn’t end up making the album. We thought it’d be cool, we wanted to do like a radio thing… we thought it’d be cool if we used our friends who were kinda on the record so …it’s a Mickey & the Motorcars song “Tonight We Ride.”
Mickey and a couple other guys from the Motorcars came in and played some acoustic guitars on a couple of the tracks. Then there’s a Rosie Flores tune on there. She didn’t end up actually being on this record, but we cut a version of “Wild Horses” with her and Keith Gattis ‘cause they bopped by one day and we were just messing around. So the Keith Gattis song on there too, his version of “El Cerrito Place,” I think it’s the first one you hear. And Chris and Eleanor Masterson also, Eleanor played a bunch of strings and fiddle stuff and Chris did a guitar part on “Sad Songs About You” so there’s a little piece of a Mastersons song on there too.
I should probably know this, and a better reporter would have researched this better, but where did y’all record this and who produced it?
We produced it ourselves. My brother Cody, and Dave, our guitar player, and I have pretty much produced the last 3 or 4 records we’ve done. We recorded it here in Austin at Arlyn Studios. That’s the studio we made our first record at 20 years ago…they were kind of… they weren’t closed down but they were doing more like editing and video production for a long time and they just reopened the studio as a recording studio. It was kind of cool to go back there and kind of revisit the past a little bit.
I interpret the song as somewhere between tongue-in-cheek/good humor and a big ole middle finger to Nashville. Where would you put it on the continuum? Or am I just missing it completely?
No, you’re right, it’s tongue-in-cheek and …it’s not really so much of a middle finger to Nashville. It’s kind of more, it’s making fun of people in Nashville but not just Nashville, kind of kids today, for lack of a better expression. Any genre you want to talk about, there’s gonna be kids who don’t really do their homework, didn’t really put the time in that it takes to become a really good musician. A lot of people these days think you can learn 3 or 4 chords, and write 10 songs, and make a record and then you’re a rock ‘n roll star.
Well, they’ve got a bit of a point. Sad freakin’ thing…
(Laughs) Yeah. But the guys that we looked up to looked up to guys before them, and they did their research and learned about…you know… we’ve played in jam sessions with people sometimes and they don’t know any Merle Haggard songs, and we’re like man how did you even get to this point where you’re playing guitar in front of people and you can’t play anything but like the six songs that you wrote. Just kind of blows my mind.
I heard somebody one time, I wish I could remember who it was, on the Buddy and Jim Show on Outlaw Country (Sirius XM). It was an old songwriting hand and he said “You know, it used to be you’d go to Nashville and they’d audition you with a tape recorder and now it’s like they’re doing it with a video recorder.” I thought that summed it up pretty well.
Yeah, it’s kind of amazing, there’s just so much competition and so many people out there these days, YouTube and things like that, where it seems like the bar has been lowered really far. It’s weird for guys who grew up playing music and really respecting the people who came before us …and worked really hard to learn how to play and write and sing, and I’ve been doing it for a long time and then to see people who don’t really have the respect for history – the craft…
Seems there are certain facts of life for acts like Reckless Kelly. Does it still just rub y’all the wrong way that bands with actual integrity and quality songwriting aren’t gonna see the airwaves, but for Sirius XM?
Yeah, that’s a bummer you know. It’s been going on for a long time. Our first album Millican, I wrote a song called “Hat Acts” about the Nashville ‘hat acts.’ That was 20 years ago and it was kinda focused on what I used to call cliché country when people were writing a song all based on a pun on a cliché, which seemed like the thing. Twenty years later I wrote another song about it and that’s “Radio.” Looking back, it’s kind of funny, the guys that I wrote “Hat Acts” about seem like awesome artists at this point. I’m always like “Man I’d take those guys over the crap that they’re putting out now.”
Now it’s like you ought to do one called “Backwards Ball Cap Acts.” You can use that, by the way.
I might, might have to update that one. You know, you really can’t get too annoyed with it. The bummer is that there’s a lot of guys in Nashville, everybody kinda picks on Nashville, but there’s so many great musicians and songwriters and artists in Nashville that you’ll never hear of, just because the mainstream thing is getting crammed down everybody’s throats. Kinda bugs me when people say “Fuck Nashville” or “Nashville sucks” because you’re only seeing like five percent of what that town has to offer. There’s some similarities between that and the Texas scene. The more and more people that start to play music down here …the cream’s gonna rise, but sometimes the people that are making more money are going to get more attention than guys that have more talent.
Y’all recently found a new home with 30 Tigers, a label that just keeps stockpiling more and more quality talent. How important was the label’s stability and commitment to y’all retaining your independence when y’all made the decision to sign with them?
We started our own label a couple years ago and got a couple records out on it now. We took everything in house for a long time because it seemed like the way the industry was moving, and the fact that we could do a lot of stuff on our own, and keep a little more of the dough is why we did that. But this record, we early on recognized that we’re kind of proud of it and thought there were some good songs. We’re getting to the point where it’s, you never know when people are actually going to stop making records these day. ‘Cause people aren’t buying music anymore and we’re kind of thinking this may be one of our last opportunities to make an actual record that people will buy a physical copy of.
We might be able to get a couple more out of it, but who knows? So we were thinking that this might be a good opportunity to give one more try with a major distribution deal. Those guys have a great track record with bands like us that are sort of outside the norm. The guys that they’ve got on their roster had some real good success with people like that that fit into the same ‘straddling the fence’ category that we’re in. We figured it’d be a good fit so we’re gonna give it a shot and see how they do. Won’t know until it happens, but so far so good. They’ve been on top of everything and they’re easy to work with. I think it’s gonna help us out.
And you’ve mentioned that the band is now in a place where y’all aren’t “killing yourselves to pay the bills.” Can you point to a time in your career that you realized that was the case? When did you know y’all could relax a little bit?
It kind of happened over a long period of time. Back in the old days, we’d play every night, six or seven nights a week. The older you get and the more miles you get traveling around… really we were trying to just tour smarter, so we’re not going out and beating our heads against the wall playing gigs that really weren’t paying off, whether financially or exposure-wise. It took us a while to figure out how to do it, but we basically just wanted to cut those gigs out, or as many of them as we could and focus on the ones that mattered, the ones that got us in front of people or some exposure or paid well. It’s kind of a tricky thing to do, and it’s a lot easier said than done. We’re still working in that direction to try to play less and make more and kind of maximize the exposure and make every gig count. It’s a long process that we’ve been working on for years so it wasn’t anything that we wanted to do overnight.
I have a couple of fan boy questions to get out of the way. First, can there ever be a better murder ballad than “Crazy Eddie’s Last Hurrah?” I mean, it’s perfectly sectioned off: Cheatin’ and leavin’; drinkin’ and drunk-dialin’; and killin’.
I don’t know, that’s such a funny song to me. I probably wrote that thing in less than an hour. Never in a million years would’ve guess that that one was gonna be the big hit, the one that people talked about. It still kind of blows my mind that people like that song as much as they do. It’s kind of a throwaway song to me. I still like playing it, never really disliked it, but I feel like I’ve got a lot better stuff.
There’s no doubt, but when Sugar Hill put out the Best of Americana Series, I don’t think it’s insignificant that the one live cut they put on there was that one. I just think it’s fantastic.
Thanks man. Ragweed recorded that and that made it more popular than we ever would’ve. They had a lot going on at that time. When they put that on their live record , that gave us a little boost.
I noticed that too and …you guys to me are like kindred spirits and you and Cody even sound alike I think, singing. I think there are worse comparisons to be made. Also, has there been an instrument invented that your brother can’t play? The Gourds had Max Johnston, Son Volt’s always had a multi instrumentalist. It’s like y’all have two. How big an asset to the band is he?
He’s irreplaceable. He’s a great fiddle player, he’s a great mandolin player, he can play harmonica and he’s learning piano and B3 right now. It’s kind of surprising it’s taking as long as it is, because usually …like, he doesn’t play guitar but sometimes he’ll pick up my guitar when it’s just sitting there and then play better than I can and he doesn’t even claim to play guitar and he doesn’t know any chords.
If he wants to pick out a solo, it sounds like he’s been playing it for 20 years and it kind of pisses me off. Also, I think one of his biggest assets, one of the things he brings to the table most is he’s such a great harmony singer. He and I being brothers and singing for such a long time, he can kind of fall into the pocket with me without even trying at this point. He’ll put three or four parts on some songs. You know, whatever the song needs, he really good about finding that right part or parts and not overdoing it, and knowing when to overdo it. He’s definitely the best harmony singer I know.
|Muzzie Braun, JR Cash, and future members |
of Reckless Kelly & Micky and the Motorcars,
"at some county fair in Oregon many moons ago."
We always knew we were going to be musicians. That’s what the family business is, and we started playing music in dad’s band before we even realized it. We did home schooling so it was kind of concentrated, so that’s why we were able to get out of school a couple years early. Mom (or her tutors) were only dealing with a couple of kids instead of 35. We were able to do it a little faster than everybody else was. Our main goal starting out, and still is, was to making a living at it.
Our dad always made a living doing it, and my grandpa did and my uncles do, so it’s always just been something that …it’s more important to us to make good music than it is to make money. Basically, our goal and our focus is to make records we’re proud of, and put on good shows, and just be able to make a living at it. And anything that comes on top of that is just kind of gravy, you know. Then, there’s a bucket list of things of course. You wanna play Madison Square Garden and Saturday Night Live and go on tour with Bob Dylan, things like that. You never know if they’re gonna pan out but it’s never too late to accomplish little things like that along the way.
K: Is there a band out there whom y’all have opened for or toured with where you said “dadgum, we’re opening for (fill in the blank)” and it was just awesome?
Yeah, we used to go out and do a lot of shows with Robert Earl Keen and he kind of took us under his wing when we got to town, and I remember thinking about that. When we were going up the east coast with him on this 3 or 4 week run, hanging out with all those guys, and becoming friends and every once in a while we’d get up and sing an encore with them or something. At that age too, it’s quite a while ago, just kind of being in awe of their company and their talent.
There’s been a few times where we got to record a couple songs with Steve Earle one time. I remember listening back to the tracks, we backed him up as the band on a couple of tribute tracks for a Warren Zevon tribute and an Alejandro Escovedo track. Once we got done with that, we recorded them in one day in Nashville. I never listen to our music very much just because once it’s done, I’m kind of sick of it, but I sat and listened to those two songs all night. Like I can’t believe we backed up Steve Earle, he’s always been one of our biggest influences.
Sunset Motel has that traditional Reckless Kelly balance between rockers and ballads, but the bulk of the songs are about relationships. Is this something you set out to do purposefully, or an organic thing?
You know, this record in particular I just had so many ideas for songs that I didn’t get to use on Long Night Moon ‘cause about halfway through Long Night Moon, I realized it was all songs about traveling and I took that route and made a little bit of a theme out of it. So I ended having a bunch of left over ideas and half-written songs that were good, but were just in a different theme. I actually had a bunch of leftover stuff that I wanted to use, and so I decided while I was writing that I wasn’t going to push it in any direction whether it be ballads or rockers or country, love songs, or break up songs, anything like that.
So there’s all sorts of different subject matters. I just wanted to have all the best songs right off the top. We picked about 20 of those, worked them up, and just kept whittling it down until the best ones were the ones that made it on the record.
And let’s talk about “Volcano,” (and I hope you don’t hang up on me or anything) your nod to the issue of climate change. It’s about as subtle as a punch to the throat…
..and one of the reasons I asked about the time for writing these songs is that we’re in an election year, and a stranger and more polarizing one than normal…
…it’s nuts, man…
…so did that have any bearing on the release of this song?
Actually, I’ve been working on that song for quite a while. I’ve probably had, not even joking, like 15 versions of it, four different melodies, and four different chord progressions. I kept tinkering with it for a long, long time because I always liked the idea, and I loved the sound of the word volcano. My place up in Idaho where I do a lot of writing is right across from the tallest mountain in Idaho, Mt. Borah. There was an earthquake back in the 80s when we were kids and you can still see this big fault line that runs across the bottom of the mountain where the valley floor dropped like 8 feet and the mountain rose a foot or two.
So that’s where I got the idea for it and it kind of became this song about climate change. Honestly, we’ve done a couple songs that were political in the past and this …at the very last minute we decided to put it on the record because I wasn’t sure I wanted to have this conversation over and over and over. We knew if we did put it on the record, it was gonna happen, that people would be asking us about it. The funny thing is we don’t really want to be known as a political band, but you can only write so many songs about …love songs, or breaking up with a girl, and “Volcano” just ended up being …it sounds cool and I think the song is cool and it’s also a conversation that I think people need to have. We kinda bit the bullet and decided to put it on there and now that it’s out there, I’ve come to peace with the fact that this is probably going to be just one of many political conversations we have to have over the next six months or so.
With that in mind, let’s break this down a little. It’s a catchy as hell song. At the beginning of the song you say, “Not to question your beliefs, not to be rude,” then in the second verse you take a lyrical blowtorch to anyone and everyone with an opposing view. I mean, you seem to openly mock Christians with talk of “God’s plan;” a “flat earth” mentality; “monkeys into man;” and imputing homophobia to anyone not on the same side as you. That’s a pretty broad brush, isn’t it?
Yeah, I think so. I kind of opened the song with the punch line from the old joke, you know, “the water’s cold, and deep too.” It’s saying about this election, it’s literally a pissing contest. I feel like it’s probably gonna piss a few people off. I remember when I was a kid, people used to just throw their beer bottles out the window and that was just totally acceptable. And now 30 years later, you can’t believe that people used to do that. Some people would just dump their old cars in the river. I feel like may in another 20 or 30 years down the road, we’re gonna be talking about this same issue and people will be saying “Well God, I can’t believe people used to use plastic water bottles.” A million different environmental issues that we could go into. I just feel like, a little at a time, over the course of the next few years, or several years even, people will probably start become more aware of it as the problem keeps growing. Whether or not it’s a man-made thing or it isn’t, there’s no harm in, you know, turning the water off while you’re brushing your teeth.
(Laughing) I’ve done that since I was six, I’m from Alabama, and a lifelong Republican.
So just in case, you know. Who knows if it’s gonna help or not, but man. One of these days if we run out of water, you’re probably going to think back on a lot of water that you wasted. Just for an example, you know what I mean?
Is politics/policy a big part of your life, and if so, has it always been? Or did it maybe rub off on you, living in an enclave like Austin?
It definitely rubs off on you. This day and age with Facebook especially, and Twitter, and that kind of stuff where that’s where people get their news. Myself included, most people my age watch John Stewart and John Oliver. I don’t consider myself a really political guy, mostly because I don’t really like having political conversations with anybody that doesn’t agree with me. It’s the same with religion, you’re never gonna change the other guy’s mind. Never seen anybody have an argument about politics or religion where the other person walks away with a new opinion. It’s always a fight. It’s one of those things you’ve just gotta chip away at; you’re never gonna changes somebody’s opinion with just one Facebook post, but maybe if they hear the song 30 times they might start turning the water off when they brush their teeth.
You mentioned in the bio that y’all were part of the “second wave of the movement,” and that Trace by Son Volt had a big impact. That’s a top-5 all time album for me, irrespective of genre. A couple questions along that line. First, can you name a couple other albums for you that are so impactful you’ll never stop listening to them?
Trace is definitely one of those. Guitar Town. That’s always gonna be one of my favorite records. I was like 10 years old when I heard that album and I don’t think I’ve ever been that impacted by a record since that day. Still listen to it. Our old bass player Shifty and I sat in back of our tour bus one day a few years ago and we – he had his bass and I had my guitar – and just for shits we decided to see if we could play every song on the record and without even thinking about it, we did. All of Guitar Town.
We’d played a few of them before of course, but we knew it that well. We’d heard it that many times. We didn’t even have to look to see what song came up next. It’s like that important of a record to us. That one, and then Billy Joe Shaver’s Live at Smith’s Olde Bar was another one we listened to a ton when we started the band. That combination between Billy Joe’s lyrics, and his country voice, and Eddie’s just rock ‘n’ roll guitar made it like hearing a rock band play country songs, like it’d never been done before. That was another huge record for us when we got started.
And if a generation is roughly 20 years, I guess we’re in and around a new one right about now. Who are some of the emerging artists, particularly in the Red Dirt/Texas Country scene, who’ve grabbed your attention?
Let’s see, there’s a guy named Parker McCullom who’s, he’s got one record out and I’ve only seen him play a few times, and met him a time or two. He’s really good. I think he’s gonna make some waves. He’s a really good songwriter, and he’s young, got a lot of talent, good singer, and all the ladies love him …so I think he’s gonna go places. Let’s see who else is out there right now… there’s a great band called Sons of Bill. They’ve actually been around for quite a while at this point, but I still kinda consider them up-and-coming. They’re great; I think they should be a lot more famous than they are. Really great songwriters, and I love their production and the whole ball of wax.
In the past couple years there’ve been some artists getting mainstream acclaim and awards with virtually NO airplay, and decent sales to boot. No thanks to Nashville, in other words, Isbell, Sturgill & Stapleton are defying convention. Are these apparent outliers reason for hope for the likes of Reckless Kelly?
Yeah, absolutely. It gives you hope to see somebody say with no real support from the mainstream at all come and makes such big splashes. You know, one minute, Sturgill Simpson was opening up for us out in L.A. and now two years later, you’re watching him on Jimmy Kimmel, and Fallon.
Letterman, yeah. Watching his songs climb up the charts and selling records, and selling out huge shows; doing two nights in a row at the biggest venue here in Austin. It’s awesome. It’s great to see guys who have some integrity and musical chops buck the system and make it work. And that comes back to one of the reasons we decided to give Thirty Tigers a shot, because they did so well with guys like him and Isbell. It’s good to know it still could happen, you know.
What did you think by the way, because you’re a pretty savvy social media guy… about Sturgill dropping elbows? First about the naming an award after Merle, and then on Garden and Gun… I thought it showed not only balls, but absolute integrity for him to say, you know, what the hell?
It’s a ballsy move to say something just that out there and honest, you know. I really respect what he said and how he said it. I think he’s right when he says these guys, the same people who wouldn’t play Merle Haggard on the radio or wouldn’t give him his last moment in the sun before he passed away, are all of the sudden, you know it’s kinda like seeing all the Cubbies hats all of the sudden. The Cubs are doing really well and everybody’s wearing the hat.
You know, Merle Haggard dies and everybody’s playing Merle all of the sudden; and some of us have been listening to him and playing him our whole lives. It’s not annoying really because it’s great to see him get recognized and obviously everybody’s bummed out that he’s gone, but it’s kind of a little late to the party and then to take an award and put his name on it and hand it to some of these people that he openly trashed.
And by the way I saw Jason Isbell, his first tweet, he’s like I don’t know what Sturgill said but I agree with him 100%. Then an hour later he’s like oh, I saw what Sturgill said and I still agree with him 100%.
(Laughs) That’s funny. I think he’s right on, and it’s a ballsy thing to say, especially when he’s probably in line to win some of those awards. He’s kind of biting the hand that feeds him but that’s kind of what being an outlaw’s always been about. It’s what Merle would have done.
Finally, your new album is out Friday. What’s in the works for a tour to support this record, and what are you doing next?
The first big tour we’ve got coming up after the album drops is going up the east coast with Mickey and the Motorcars for a couple weeks. And then right after that, Wade Bowen and I are going across the pond to England for about 10 shows in November, just the two of us. That should be interesting. And then, man, when I get back from that, I probably start writing again. We’re not exactly sure what our next project’s gonna be; it’s either gonna be another album or maybe a collection of outtakes and old stuff, like we were talking about earlier. We kinda need to circle the wagons again and figure out what we’re gonna do next ‘cause we’ve got a lot of ideas but just need to pick one.
*photos courtesy of Willy Braun's twitter account, Missing Piece, and ???