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.î
“We scaled back a little bit in that we didn’t use every instrument that was hanging on the wall,” laughed Willy Braun.
In contrastóor perhaps complementóto 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”ótaken 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” (ìYou’reÖbitter 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-upócomplete with a Dixie-fried Greek chorus of girl singersóthat 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 gotÖI been down ’em all before/And baby’s got a whole lot moreÖ”).
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 alt.country could be so much fun?” The (Nashville) Tennessean referred to their “passionate twang-rockÖa striking blend of churlish guitar, acoustic instruments, bluesy rock and memorable melodies.” And Joe Elyówho should knowólauded 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 knowóhow 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 r
2003’s Under the Table & Above the Sun ó their first album for Sugar Hill ó 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. ìItís 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.
Bio written by John T. Davis
: : : : :