Livers of Steel Tour featuring Reckless Kelly

Reckless Kelly

The five members of Reckless Kelly didn't undertake any grand act of musical reconciliation when they went into the studio to record their fifth album, Wicked Twisted Road. But, to hear them tell it, it just sorta worked out that way.

"There is a lot of the most country stuff and a lot of the most rock stuff we've ever done on this record," said guitarist and songwriter Willy Braun.

"We were trying to make a record that went from country to country-rock and back to country, with maybe some classic rock in the center," added Willy's brother Cody Braun, a triple threat on fiddle, mandolin and vocals.

Listeners can feel free to parse the new album however they choose; talking about it, as is so often the case with the best music, doesn't really do it justice.

Wicked Twisted Road has echoes of both the Eagles and .38 Special within its tracks, but it mostly bristles with the muscular, idiosyncratic energy and inventiveness that has led the band (which also includes guitarist David Abeyta, bassist Jimmy McFeeley, and drummer Jay Nazz) to become one of Austin, Texas' most dynamic and relentlessly entertaining live acts.

As was the case with their previous album, Under the Table & Above the Sun, the Texas quintet journeyed to Nashville for another collaboration with producer Ray Kennedy (whose other credits include albums by Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Jack Ingram and Nanci Griffith, among others).

"One thing about recording with Ray this time was the relationship we'd already established with him," said Jay Nazz. "That was a real advantage.”

"We scaled back a little bit in that we didn't use every instrument that was hanging on the wall," laughed Willy Braun.

In contrast—or perhaps complement—to the immediate visceral pleasure of cranking up Wicked Twisted Road on the car stereo or the iPod, the multiple facets of the individual songs come into focus one at a time: the lashing adrenaline rush of "Sadie Got A Six Gun" (which sounds as though someone handed Quentin Tarantino a guitar instead of a camera); the melodic bravado of "These Tears" ("[You] ain't a tough enough memory/To compare with what I've been through"); the small-town melancholy and ennui of "Dogtown"—taken from the Brauns' actual history, as was the wistful "Hiram and His Old Lady"; the Steve Earle-ish bad girl imagery of "Nobody Haunts Me Like You" (“You're…bitter and sweet as a death row last meal"); the picaresque, boozy travelogue that is "Seven Nights In Ireland" (the Emerald Isle may never be the same); the Southern rock send-up—complete with a Dixie-fried Greek chorus of girl singers—that is "Wretched Again"; and the hard-won wisdom that infuses "My Baby's Got A Whole Lot More" ("The highway's got what the dirt road's got…I been down 'em all before/And baby's got a whole lot more…").

Of Reckless Kelly, a critic for Music Row magazine wrote, "Rootsy, jangly country-rock, with all its punch in place. In my perfect world, this is what country radio would sound like." The Reader's Poll, conducted annually by the Austin Chronicle, named the group Best Roots-Rock Band for five years running (and they captured the award once more last year). The Detroit News and Free Press inquired, "Who knew could be so much fun?" The (Nashville) Tennessean referred to their "passionate twang-rock…a striking blend of churlish guitar, acoustic instruments, bluesy rock and memorable melodies." And Joe Ely—who should know—lauded them as "My kind of band: Hell-raising, hard playing, kick-ass songwriting, feet firmly in the present but with an amazing knowledge of where it has all come from. What," he asked reasonably enough, "else is there?"

Well, lots. At least, lots of history. Willy and Cody Braun were raised as heirs to a musical tradition. They grew up touring and playing with their father's band, Muzzie Braun and the Boys, across the Big Sky country of Idaho and Montana. They opened for the likes of Merle Haggard, played the Grand Ole Opry and even appeared twice on The Tonight Show in the Johnny Carson era. Family friends like singer-songwriter Chris Wall (who would later introduce them around Austin) and Pinto Bennett (whose band, the Motel Cowboys, would prove a huge RK influence) watched Willy and Cody learn about life from a rolling motor home, and saw their innate love of music begin to blossom.

"Dad's lyrics were always real and down to earth, day-to-day language," recalled Willy, "and I learned a lot about songwriting from him. And growing up on the road, he taught us pretty much everything we know—how to play, how to sing harmonies, taught us all about the business." (Muzzie Braun still performs as a single act for 70-100 nights a year in and around Idaho).

Eventually, as Horace Greeley advised, the young men headed west and grew up with the country. They wound up in Bend, Oregon in 1996 or so, in the faded-flannel twilight of the punk rock era, and formed a band called the Prairie Mutts. Their effervescent take on country and rock made them a poor fit for the scene. "The general consensus was, 'Take your happy country music and go somewhere else'," Willy Braun told the Dallas Morning News.

"Somewhere else" turned out to be Austin, Texas, a locale far more congenial to the band's emerging aesthetic than the damp and cloudy northeast. The beer was cold, and the musical atmosphere was downright inspiring.

The band arrived in 1997, at a time when the local music scene was beginning to segue from Stevie Ray Vaughan-era blues and R&B to a raucous Texas-centric fusion of country and rock at the hands of Pat Green and Jack Ingram.

Re-christened Reckless Kelly by this point (after the folk-hero Australian outlaw), the young band began hitting the honky-tonks and listening rooms in the Texas capital. Robert Earl Keen, one of the deans of the booming Texas country-rock scene, took them under his wing.

Most important to any developing young act, Reckless Kelly found a home: Lucy's Retired Surfer Bar was one in an endless strip of shooter-and-Jello-shot bars up and down Austin's Sixth Street district, but the joint let the band play acoustic shows every Monday and Friday night. In between, the band members tended bar, made inroads on the bar inventory and damn near received their mail there.
The group released its first album, Millican, in 1997; it sold over 20,000 copies, a formidable sum for a debut album on an indie label by a fledgling band. Acoustic: Live At Stubb's followed in 2000, as did The Day the same year.

All three albums found the band refining their sound; Millican was infused with country and folk influences, while The Day layered on cranked-up electric guitars (Acoustic, with its 16-minute version of "Whole Lotta Love," was more a souvenir for the fans, but fascinating in its own right).

2003's Under the Table & Above the Sun—their first album for Sugar Hill—found the band reconciling the disparate elements of their musical personality and it showcased Reckless Kelly at the top of their increasingly formidable game. The following year, they worked again with producer Ray Kennedy and artist Steve Earle, contributing tracks to the critically-acclaimed tribute albums for Warren Zevon and Alejandro Escovedo.

Now, Wicked Twisted Road is a bid to take everything up to a new level. Although they frequently perform on the same stage as Robert Earl Keen, Kevin Fowler, Jack Ingram, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Pat Green and the rest of the A-list of Texas country-rock, the members of Reckless Kelly don't feel themselves unnecessarily confined by the "Texas Music" label. Their vision is coast-to-coast.

"We do more gigs out of Texas than we do in," said Willy Braun, citing Reckless Kelly hotbeds in Oregon and Washington, New York, Connecticut, Chicago and Florida.

Be that as it may, last summer the band got to go on the road with some true Lone Star icons, opening a series of shows for ZZ Top. The opportunity gave the band a glimpse of one possible future. “It’s inspiring to see Billy Gibbons still going out there and kicking ass after doing it for 35 or 40 years," marveled Willy.

"I think for me, it was just seeing those guys up there playing," added Cody. "They're just such pros. They had it down and everybody loved it. I have a lot of respect for anybody that can hang in there that long in the music industry and still walk out onstage and have the crowd in the palm of their hand."

The Braun brothers, who were literally raised on the road, and the rest of Reckless Kelly, know that such careers are built one Saturday night at a time. Wicked Twisted Road documents a band that's ready to go the distance.

Written by John T. Davis

In the fall of 2010, thirteen years to the day after launching his career at Stubb's Barbecue in Lubbock, Texas, Wade Bowen started recording this self-titled album, his first for a major country label. Those years had seen Bowen rise from collegiate greenhorn to the top of the Texas music and Red Dirt circuit. His colleagues and friends the Randy Rogers Band, Pat Green, Jack Ingram, Eli Young Band, Cross Canadian Ragweed and others had already made the major label leap, helping to take a vibrant regional sound to the rest of America. Now it's Wade Bowen's turn to bring some Red Dirt and independent spirit to country music at large.

This isn't a debut, more like a fresh start on a bigger stage. Working with Justin Niebank, a master mixing engineer and Vince Gill's producer of recent years, Bowen cut new versions of four of his most popular songs along with seven new tunes that reflect his evolving vision as a songwriter. Longtime fans (and there are quite a few of them) will hear the Bowen they've known and the next steps on his journey. They'll get better acquainted with the ballad singer who doesn't often get a chance to show himself in honky tonks. Newcomers will hear a head-turning country artist with range, road-tested hits and one of the best male voices in the business.

That voice truly jumps out of these 11 tracks. Wade's baritone is dense and concentrated, with traces of whisky and smoke and an autumnal warmth. Bowen takes command of his songs, cutting over the top of Niebank's sculpted guitar-scapes. The sound is one hundred percent country, rife with pedal steel and vivid emotion, but it's also music could easily find a home with fans of Bowen's non-country idols - folks like Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne. Take a few passes through this project and you'll hearing a singer's singer and a focused songwriter who's adding layers to his music all the time.

"All this work and the care we've taken with this album just falls in the category of trying to get better," says Bowen. "When it comes to my intent as a musician, I've not changed anything since day one. I've only tried to mature and tried to get better, and I think this record is representative of that." On a live circuit where the overwhelming mandate is to stir up a party, Bowen has aimed to leave folks with a memory. As a writer, even one from a state with some tall literary traditions, he's not trying to earn a PhD in poetry; he's trying to communicate. "My style," he says, "is more to try to evoke an emotion. I'm more about trying to leave a mark on people."

Growing up in Waco, Bowen's exposure to the music of Texas was limited to whatever made it on FM country radio. George Strait was king. Guy Clark was a name he'd not have recognized before getting to college. There, in Lubbock, he discovered the iceberg below the surface, starting with Robert Earl Keen. "He was a big changing point in my life," says Wade. "I realized by listening to him that there was way more out there than I ever knew. So I started getting into Guy Clark and other great Texas music. But I was obsessed with Robert Earl. When we started the band we were sort of a Robert Earl cover band."

That band was called West 84, and they found that with their large posse of friends who'd always show up for a good time, it was easy to land gigs. Bowen meanwhile began to channel a life-long love of writing into songs, and when college ended he made two major decisions. He took on the role of solo artist under his own name, and he moved to Austin. By then, about 2001, fellow Waco native Pat Green had busted out to national prominence and the Texas music phenomenon was the buzz of Nashville. It was part of Wade Bowen's inspiration to charge ahead.

Try Not To Listen is the album Wade regards as his true debut, the project that kicked off a life and living made of 200-plus nights a year on the road and patient grassroots fan development. Then with Lost Hotel in 2006, things really began to click. The opening track "God Bless This Town" reached No. 1 on the bellwether Texas Music Chart, and over the next six years, he released six more chart-toppers and three additional top fives. He achieved another landmark when he was invited to add his name to the roster of great artists who've made a Live At Billy Bob's CD/DVD combo at the iconic club in Fort Worth. With a decade that good, it was inevitable that Music Row would become interested.

The origins of Bowen's new record deal can be traced to his music publisher, Sea Gayle Music. It's where Brad Paisley, Radney Foster, Jerrod Niemann, Chris Stapleton and other do their songwriting, and in 2010, it was the first indie company to be named ASCAP Country Publisher of the Year since 1982. Sea Gayle has a track record of investing in artists and helping them reach their potential, and that's how they've worked with Bowen, ultimately backing this album and introducing its independently made sound to Sony Music. Step one in that process was to find a producer who could preserve Wade's vision yet find the sweet spot that would help his music have its best chance at country radio. "Of all the producers we talked to, Justin Niebank was the only one who said 'I need to come down and see you live,'" says Bowen. "Well after 13 years of doing this I'd hope someone would want to see what we do, why we have fans. He totally got it and based the whole sound of this record around that."

That live immediacy certainly throbs on "Saturday Night," which tracks the internal monologue of a lonesome hombre sitting on his stool, nursing his drink and thinking about "that sad goodbye." As the album's first single, its chiming descending guitar riff will be the first thing many audiences will hear from Wade, his calling card. Also likely to grab listeners early is "Patch Of Bad Weather," a brisk, rocking take-down of a treacherous lover. It paints dramatic pictures of a stormy Texas landscape and it kicks like a gun.

Bowen has also taken advantage of his recent songwriting sessions and the comfortable studio environment fostered by Niebank to develop his love of ballad singing and the emotional side of country music. "All That's Left" brings strings into the mix, and it works. Bowen sounds at home. In "Say Anything," a guy can't think of a thing to say to a girl he's just met except gush on about the one he let get away, so he shuts up and listens. Its chorus will surely make some leading male country singers wish they'd been given a shot at the song. "I love those songs like that. Sad ballads," says Bowen with an apologetic shrug. "That's where my passion is. 'Say Anything' is one of my favorite tracks on the record."

Bowen was extremely pleased that the offer of a deal from Sony's BNA Records included an invitation to re-work his best material. "It was a huge opportunity to make these four songs a little better," he says. "We've played them lives for a long time, and we learned from that. We changed some tempos and tried to animate them a little bit. We created more dynamics and more signature hooks. That's stuff Justin has taught me as a producer."

Among these, "God Bless This Town" is probably the closest Bowen has so far to a greatest hit. A Texas No. 1 in 2006 and a popular music video with tons of CMT and GAC play, it's got stories layered in its stories and its characters feel familiar and alive. The narrator is torn between cynicism and attachment, and the song is all the more affecting because of it. The new version has a clean, coiled energy that ought to propel it into the hearts of a new wave of fans. Also re-worked is the smoldering "Trouble" and a breezy song written by Paul Thorn called "Mood Ring" that uses a dime-store novelty as a device to get the narrator to reveal his conflicted feelings.

Now one last note, because Bowen knows it's going to be interesting to roll out a "Nashville" album to his fans. A contingent of them have preemptively made it known that they live in mortal fear of Bowen being eaten by the Music Row machine. Yes, Wade did record this project in Nashville, with Nashville session players. But study those previous albums, and you'll see that's exactly where and how he's made them all. Bowen's been making regular writing trips for years as well, working with an expanding circle of masters and taking advantage of the town's expertise and experience. Wade will tell anyone who has a low opinion of Music City that for him, it's the home of Guy Clark and Todd Snider and Rodney Crowell, of the greatest guitarists on Earth, the finest studios and producers.

And of course Nashville was the origin of those radio dreams instilled when Wade was growing up in Texas and hearing country legends on his FM radio. The calling he felt was toward authentic music that reaches people, and that's not unique to Austin, Lubbock, Waco or Nashville for that matter. It lives in the heart and the work of the artist, and those who've believed in Wade Bowen all along will find in this album and the many albums and tours to follow, plenty more reasons to keep the faith.

Micky and The Motorcars

Micky and the Motorcars, with their own band of Americana rock, bring an optimism and integrity only acquired after performing so long the only thing left to tell is the truth.
Eleven years and six albums after MMC was founded in Challis, Idaho, the band still writes more than 90 percent of its music as it defines the lives of brothers Micky Braun (vocals, acoustic guitar) Gary Braun (vocals, guit
ars, mandolin, harmonica) Joe Fladger (bass), Dustin Schafer (lead guitar) and Shane Vannerson (drums, percussion).
Micky and the Motorcars may be self-described as "a little rough around the edges," but with its rocking sound, MMC shares real thoughts, is full of depth, and has a honest, raw emotion and energy bleeding through Micky's heart straight out into the crowd. Anyone who has ever loved and lost or loved and drank or loved at all knows exactly where he's coming from and what he's talking about in a sincere, piercing way.
It's also made Micky one of the most sought after songwriting collaborators on the scene, and consequently MMC songs have credits to brother Willy Braun, Randy Rogers, Cody Canada, former Jack Ingram bassist Robert Kearns, as well as Kevin, Dustin and Savannah Welch. Throughout its tenure, MMC's Braun front men have been quoted repeatedly as "just wanting to play good songs."
For Micky and Gary, whose genetic musical legacy precedes them, playing and singing is damn near the only life they've ever known. The boys grew up in the Western mountains, playing music with their family: older brothers (Reckless Kelly's Willy and Cody Braun) and father (full-time musician, Muzzie Braun). The boys' paternal grandparents were both were full-time musicians as well, and the boys watched their father play in his own Braun brother band with their uncles Billy and Gary.
For MMC's Braun brothers, they hope to create their own legacy — of doing what feels good, what sounds right, and hoping it pays off. So far, it has. MMC has come a long way from playing for free and sleeping on random floors and couches.
Now, travelling nationwide more than 200 days year, the most rewarding thing for MMC is watching the raw emotion of the crowds. There's an excitement, Gary says, never really knowing how everything is going to work out. But the ups and downs of the road somehow make it all worthwhile for the Motorcars, who don't have any plans of slowing down.



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