Anything But Reckless
Anything But Reckless
A Q&A with Willy Braun
Of Reckless Kelly
By Geoff Gehman
Willy and Cody Braun run Reckless Kelly, their 22-year-old band, as a family of humanity. The brothers and their three comrades perform roots-music branches–country, country rock, alt-country, outlaw bluegrass–with clarity, spontaneity and kick-ass fun. Willy plays robust guitar, Cody threads the needle on fiddle and mandolin, and they harmonize beautifully. Most of their numbers are written by Willy, who glides over peaks, valleys and plateaus, On Reckless Kelly’s latest record, “Sunset Motel,” released in 2016 on the group’s No Big Deal label, he addresses climate concerns (“Volcano”), songwriter wannabes (“Radio”) and seriously misguided girlfriends (“How Can You Love Him [You Don’t Even Like Him]?”).
The Brauns are fantastic fans, too. Their 2010 album “Somewhere in Time” (Yep Roc) features songs minted by one of their role models, Pinto Bennett, leader of the Famous Motel Cowboys and a poetic, psychedelic honkytonker. They’ve eulogized Chuck Berry, Tom Petty and other pivotal musicians with hearty, meaty sets; their version of Prince’s “Purple Rain” explodes with fiddle fireworks. They’ve shared a stage with their heroes—Chris Hillman, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark—at the Braun Brothers Reunion in their native state of Idaho and they’ve raised over $300,000 for Little Leaguers through their Celebrity Softball Jam in their adopted state of Texas. They learned the importance of giving back as youngsters, playing Western swing in an ensemble with their other two brothers and their father, whose father was a professional honkytonk pianist who studied accordion with a neighbor named Lawrence Welk.
On June 14 Reckless Kelly will turn the Mauch Chunk Opera House into a global road house. Below, in a conversation from a concert pit stop in Hickory, N.C., Willy Braun discusses his debts to his brother, his father, his mother, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen and those kind listeners who have married to his song “Love in Her Eyes,” overlooking the painful rhyme: “Her soul wide open, I can see right through/Wears her heart on her sleeve, but it’s all for you.”
Q: We share a major-league jones for baseball, which leads me to wonder: (a) In how many major-league ballparks have you and Cody sung the National Anthem and (b) what position or positions do you play in your Celebrity Softball Jam?
A: We’ve sung in 11 or 12 ballparks, so we’re a third of the way toward our goal to sing the National Anthem in all of them. We keep missing teams’ games; for some reason we’re a week or two behind or ahead of their schedule. We’re off our game; we need to get back on track.
I play a little bit of everything in the softball games: catcher, first base, the outfield, wherever I’m needed. If no one is playing shortstop, I’ll grab a glove and get out there. They call me the manager but there’s not a lot of managing going on. My job is to make sure we have nine guys on the field and someone is in the on-deck circle.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that floored and flattened you?
A: My song was [Steve Earle’s] “Guitar Town.” I was 10 years old when I first heard it riding in the back of a red Firebird convertible in Sun Valley, Idaho. It came on the radio and I asked my dad if he had the record. He did and I borrowed it and he never got it back. For some reason it seemed like déjà vu; I thought, man, I’ve heard this song, or sound, in my head before, somehow. It all made sense because [Earle] put these styles together in a way that was different from country rock at the time. It sounded more like old country rock, like the Flying Burrito Brothers, only with a little more edge. I still listen to “Guitar Town” to this day. Every song is great, front to back.
Q: You and Cody cut your teeth as traveling musicians in a band with your brothers and your father, who cut his teeth in a band with his brothers. What was your dad’s best tip about making a living at making music?
A: He tried to instill in us at a real young age that you can make a living at making music. He never got famous and we’re certainly not as big as the Beatles, which we wanted to be when we were kids, but we can make a living that we enjoy. He told us: Make sure you make music you like; make records you enjoy performing. It’s a lot easier than making music you don’t like, going out and singing songs you don’t like. We consider ourselves lucky that we’ve made records we still like, that we haven’t made too many compromises. We don’t have to go out there and sing some lame song we can’t get behind. As Ray Wylie Hubbard has said, when you write a song, make sure you like it, because you may be playing it for a long time, maybe even forever.
Q: Sibling bands, especially brother bands, are fabled for their rollercoaster rivalries, on and off the stage. Has your relationship with Cody changed significantly during Reckless Kelly’s 22 years?
A: I don’t think our relationship has changed a lot. Remember, we’ve been playing together for a long, long time–really, since we could walk and talk. Cody’s fiddle playing is one of the things that makes Reckless Kelly a little different. He didn’t grow up playing traditional hoedowns or classical kinds of pieces. He figured out his own style; he borrowed from old timers who would pull him aside and teach him a few tricks. His mandolin playing is different, too, partly because he plays an electric Rickenbacker. I found it in a music store in Portland [Ore.]. At the time Cody was in a bar and I crossed the street and told him: You have to come and play this [mandolin]. He loved it right away and had to buy it. He was short of cash, so he had to borrow a couple hundred bucks from the guys in the band.
Cody is such a great harmony singer, too. Singing harmony with your brother is something you can’t recreate; it’s exclusive to brothers. We follow each other naturally, without asking or thinking. We sometimes say the exact same thing at the same time the same way; it’s the same thing onstage
Q: Did you and your bandmates take any dramatic new directions while making your latest album, “Sunset Motel”? Where there any new routes that spun your compass?
A: It was the first time we didn’t spend a lot of time arranging; we pretty much winged it in the studio. We didn’t know ahead of time where the solo was going to go, or whether to put on fiddle or mandolin, or how to end a song. We let the songs evolve naturally; friends stopped by and we handed them a guitar and just let them play. We kept it pretty casual and cool.
Q: One of the album’s standout tracks is the slashing, burning, very catchy “Radio,” where you take issue with greenhorns obsessed with getting airplay for their generic tunes, who want to be famous before they’re talented. Has “Radio” had decent exposure on the radio?
A: Actually, it’s gotten decent airplay. It may be because people like the word “radio”; Robert Earl Keen once told me that “radio” works well in a song because it’s easy on the ears and easy to sing. In the song I’m poking fun at people who learn three or four chords and consider themselves songwriters. I’m encouraging them to spend more time in the woodshed, where our heroes [Merle Haggard, Townes Van Zandt, Keen] spent a hell of a lot of time.
Q: You’ve shared the stage with some of your heroes during the Braun Brothers Reunion in Challis, Idaho. Can you think of any out-of-body experiences, any indelible thrills?
A: I’d say the main thrill has just been bringing people we idolize–Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark and Asleep at the Wheel and Robert Earl Keen–to share their music with a little town in Idaho. We were certainly thrilled to bring Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen. We‘ve known Chris’ son Nick for a few years and Chris saw us play in California, so he knew who we were. He was doing his show during the Reunion when he invited my brother Mickey and me to come onstage and sing with him. He asked us if we knew “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” from [the Byrds’ album] “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” We knew it real well: in fact, we had closed the Reunion for, like, 20 years with that song. Singing with him was pretty surreal because Chris was in three of our favorite groups: the Byrds, the Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band. It was really special to close that circle.
Q: In 2016 you memorialized Prince with a big, juicy version of “Purple Rain,” proving that it works extremely well as a guitar-and-fiddle torch-and-fireworks tune. Who else have you honored in public shortly after they passed?
A: A lot of our heroes have died recently; Guy Clark and Merle Haggard and Tom Petty and Chuck Berry. When Chuck Berry died we probably played 10 or 15 of his songs, most of which we had never played before. We did tunes like “Rock and Roll Music,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode.” We probably didn’t do the greatest versions; we just wanted to play some Chuck.
We include a Petty song or two in our set pretty much every night. We’ve been playing “Free Fallin’” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Orphan of the Storm” off the “Mudcrutch” album. “Runnin’ Down a Dream”: we’ve been closing the show with that one for a long time. Playing Petty’s songs gives everybody a real release; it’s a reminder that music will always be there even if the musician is gone
It was Prince’s birthday yesterday [June 7], which I forgot until we got onstage. We didn’t do “Purple Rain” because we hadn’t done it in a long time and I couldn’t remember all the words. So we did [Reckless Kelly’s] “American Blood” instead and I butchered it. I think we’ll try to slip in “Purple Rain” tonight.
Q: I’m always fascinated by the unexpected travels of songs after you release them to the world, how they zag when you expect them to zig. Is there a song of yours with a truly surprising afterlife, one that became a staple at weddings, funerals and even bar and bat mitzvahs?
A: “May Peace Find You Tonight” has been played at quite a few funerals. I played it at my grandpa’s funeral and our guitar player Dave [Abeyta]’s mother’s funeral, too. It’s nice because it gives people a little bit of comfort, a little bit of ease. It’s cool connecting to people in a deeper way, connecting with them the rest of their lives; it makes you feel that your songs have more meaning. People have told me they’ve walked down the aisle to “I Still Do” and “Love in Her Eyes,” which is ironic because it’s more about stealing someone’s girlfriend [laughs]
I didn’t think “Crazy Eddie’s Last Hurrah” would be as popular as it is until Cross Canadian] Ragweed recorded it. I was surprised because I wrote it so fast, I counted it as more of a throwaway tune. I got “Crazy Eddie” from a writer in Idaho named Patrick McManus, who has a character in his books named Crazy Eddie [Muldoon]. I didn’t spend too much time on the title since I didn’t think the song would go anywhere.
Q: Is there a subject, a topic and/or a character you’re dying to turn into a song but haven’t because you haven’t found the right setting?
A: There’s a song I want to write about my grandma and grandpa, who met in the Army. I’ve had the opening line in my head for six or seven years: “Grandma Mary packed her suitcase and headed off to war/”That’s right,” I said, “Grandma, they don’t make ’em like that anymore.” The song is important to me, so I want to take my time with it; I don’t want to rush it. I have a feeling that one day it will write itself and I’ll wonder why it took so long to come out of its shell.
Q: So, Willy, what tops your Bucket List?
A: Man, I would love to sit down and write a song with somebody like McCartney or Springsteen, somebody out of reach (Petty used to be on that list, too). Choosing between McCartney and Springsteen would be a pretty tough call.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: People who only think about themselves. People who trash their hotel room. People who don’t bring back their shopping cart; it drives me nuts to see a shopping cart in the middle of a parking lot. People who don’t worry about the consequences of their actions. An old buddy of mine from Idaho once told me that his dad once told him, when he was a kid: Few things in life are free. Manners are one of them.
[Pauses} Man, I hope no one reads this interview and thinks, well, you just described yourself [laughs].
Willy Braun: The Scoop
In 1989 he and his three brothers performed with their father twice on “The Tonight Show.”
He lived six months in a school bus converted into a “hippie mobile home” with a wood-burning stove. It became his songwriting lab, where he finished “Hat Acts,” a swipe at country musicians whose personality is as unoriginal as their headgear.
As a member of Reckless Kelly he’s played over 3,000 shows, traveled over 1.5 million miles, and visited every state except North Dakota.
He and his Reckless Kelly peers drank champagne and other adult beverages from the record-packaging Grammy award for the band’s 2013 album “Long Night Moon.”
His mother gives him jars of her home-made spaghetti sauce and salsa as long as he promises to return the bottles.
Asked by batteredandbrewed.com to pair a favorite song with a favorite meal, he matched Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” which he performs, with “Cream of Johnny Walker Blue Soup,” which he makes.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He digs the opening line of Willy Braun’s song “Loving You Is the Dumbest [Fucking] Thing I’ve Ever Done”: “Ever since I was kissed on,/I’ve been more than slightly pissed on.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.