Raised in a remote frame house without electricity or running water in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, Micky, Gary, Willy and Cody Braun had never heard of “The Tonight Show” until they appeared on it in 1989. Micky, the youngest, was 8 at the time. Oldest brother Cody was 12. The band’s lead singer was father Muzzie Braun, himself a member of an all-brother band when he was growing up in Idaho. Muzzie and the Little Braun Boys, all decked out in Stetson hats and matching Western shirts, so charmed the national audience with their old songs of the New West that Johnny Carson had them back a few months later.
“We were a lot more nervous the second time,” recalls fiddle player Cody, now 36. “The first time it was just surreal.”
Twenty-four years later, that shot on the biggest national stage seems even more removed from the real world, as Cody and Willy hit the highways hard and heavy with their Austin-based band Reckless Kelly, while younger brothers Gary and Micky are usually off in the other direction, carving up a following for Micky and the Motorcars. Out on the road, away from sweet home Austin, is where bands like these make their bones. Their blue-collar country rock is made for the barrooms, where such songs as “Break My Heart Tonight” by Reckless and “Careless” by the Motorcars intensify with each liquored whelp.
It’s fun, dragging your sound all over the country, but it’s also a lot of work and often frustrating. You’ve got to believe in your music or the road just doesn’t make sense, Willy says, as the band’s tour bus idles loudly, expensively, in the parking lot of a strip mall in Utah.
Tonight’s gig is in Park City at Suede, a former dance club gone jam-band haven. Reckless Kelly has never played here before, and it’s a Tuesday night, so walking to the back entrance of the sparsely populated venue, the members mimic the club owner excuses they’ve heard for 10 years: “We need to get you back when the students are in town,” says guitarist David Abeyta. “Should have been here for penny beer night – the place was packed,” adds Willy. “Tomorrow’s a home game. Everybody comes here after the game.”
Mama said there would be nights like this. But when the band hits the stage, they lock in tight and the 50 or so in attendance perk up. Hey, these guys are good.
“My first love was a twisted, wicked road,” Willy sings early in the set. “I hit the million mile mark at 17 years old/ Never saw a rainbow, much less a pot of gold.” Later on they get everyone on their feet with a boisterous hayride version of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Reckless Kelly eats the miles and motels like cherry pie.
“I think one of the main things I passed onto my sons is that you’ve got to play sometimes when you don’t feel like it,” Muzzie Braun said from the Clayton, Idaho, bed-and-breakfast he and wife JoAnn built in 2000 with their sons (who each have a guest room named after them.) The White Cloud Mountain Inn is just a mile up Slate Creek from the primitive house the Brauns rented for 24 years, less as a lifestyle choice than a necessity in the beginning, when the young couple with a baby on the way couldn’t find anyplace else in the area.
“They’ve been professionals from a young age,” Muzzie said of his sons who lived in mountain seclusion for about seven months a year and toured from Montana to California the other five months.
Because they were home-schooled by their mother, Cody and Willy got their GEDs at age 16 and moved away from home in 1995. Inspired by Steve Earle, the first Son Volt record and “Unshaven” by Billy Joe Shaver, they set out to pursue a more alternative country sound.
As younger brothers Gary and Micky stayed on with their father’s band, Cody and Willy were recruited to join the Prairie Mutts, a new country rock outfit from Bend, Ore. The Mutts rehearsed every day for nine months, but when it became apparent that their manager/producer was keen on molding the next Diamond Rio, the Brauns resisted and were fired, as were guitarist Casey Pollock and bassist Chris Schelske. The night of their dismissal, the angry quartet went to an open-mike jam to bash away and they asked if there was a drummer in the house. Jay Nazziola’s hand shot up and he was beckoned to the stage. “Jay’s left-handed, so he had to change over the whole drum set,” Cody recalled with a laugh. “He were all just rarin’ to go and we had to stand around and watch Jay set up for 10 minutes.” It was worth the wait, as Nazziola, a Connecticut native who had just moved to Bend on a whim, gave a fresh snap to Shaver’s “Hottest Thing In Town.” Reckless Kelly was born.
It was Muzzie Braun who suggested a move to Austin. “A DJ up in Idaho had turned me onto Robert Earl Keen’s first album,” Muzzie said, “and I wanted to record his song ‘Willie.’ ” During a visit to Austin in 1985, Muzzie found Keen playing at the Waterloo Ice House and asked his permission to record the song. The two became friends and when Cody and Willy were looking to move to a place where they could take their music to a level unattainable in Idaho, Muzzie asked Keen if he could help them get settled in Austin. Soon, Keen’s wife Kathleen was managing the young country heartthrobs from the Northwest.
It didn’t take Reckless Kelly long to stir up the Austin music scene when they hit town in 1996. They had it all: the looks, the songs, the musicianship, the attitude.
Every Monday night, Reckless Kelly packed Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar on Sixth Street with college guys who didn’t know they liked country music until they saw all those pretty girls standing around. After a Reckless gig, the action usually continued at a rented house on Milton Street in Travis Heights. When the neighborhood association threatened to sue the building owner for excessive noise, the band was evicted, but it quickly found another party house, which they dubbed “the Shed.”
The younger brothers kept hearing great things about Austin from their siblings, who in 1997 released the critically-acclaimed debut “Millican,” which sold an astonishing 30,000 copies from the merchandise table. Austin was a place you could play five, six nights a week. And you didn’t get carded if you were in the band.
Had to watch out for the ex-girlfriends, though. One jiltee sent an anonymous fax to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission tipping them to the fact that Willy and Cody, 18 and 19 at the time, were serial swillers.
“The agents showed up before a show,” Cody recalls with a laugh. Luckily for the band, they had recently held a come-to-Jesus meeting about too much drinking before shows and they were all holding soft drinks. “If the TABC had showed up at 1 a.m., they’d have gotten us good.”
Club owners on Sixth and Red River streets let out a collective sigh the day Willy Braun turned 21. They would feel the same way about Micky Braun’s 21st birthday three years later.
Although Willy and Micky try to write together as much as possible (regional hit “Nobody’s Girl” was a collaboration), and the two sets of Braun brothers have a garage band side project for grins, they don’t get to see each other as much as they’d like to. In recent weeks, most of their hanging out together has been on the Roots Music Report chart, where the Motorcars’ “Careless” recently dethroned “Reckless Kelly Was Here” at No. 1. Cody and Willy have been on the road this year promoting the new “Reckless Kelly Was Here” three-disc DVD/CD set, a wonderful summation of their 10 years as a band, while Micky and Gary have been out pushing “Careless.” It’s become increasingly rare for all four Braun brothers to be in Austin at the same time.
Every August, however, the Brauns all return to the Sawtooth Mountains for the Braun Brothers Reunion festival, which Muzzie and his brothers Gary and Billy have organized since 1979. It takes place in a spectacular mountain setting that makes Zilker Park look like the infield of a motor speedway.
Reckless and the Motorcars brought such musical brethren as Cross Canadian Ragweed and the Greencards along in August 2006, the year I attended, but just as many people came to see Muzzie, who’s pretty much the Jerry Jeff Walker of Idaho, and his brothers.
The crowd of about 3,000 included parents who brought their kids and kids who brought their parents. Several young men wore ball caps bearing insignias of their colleges back in Texas, but there were also townspeople of all ages. A bunch of kids played Red Rover at the end of the converted driving range, while the bass bounced off the cliff that served as the back wall. Young mothers changed diapers and grandparents two-stepped when someone finally played a Bob Wills song. It felt like Texas and Idaho at the same time.
Nowhere was the feeling of kinship more powerful than onstage, where the setting sun threw nostalgic light on the original Braun Brothers – Gary, Muzzie and Billy, who mixed Everly Brothers chestnuts with some Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and old campfire tunes such as “Streets of Laredo” and “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds.” Then the kids came up to back their father and uncles and the whole place went crazy.
With Willy masterfully holding down the Western swing beat on drums, while Gary blew the harmonica, Cody rosined up the bow and Micky thumped the bass that was once as big as him, the band ran through the old repertoire as if they’d been touring together all along. Texas country standards such as “San Antonio Rose” and “Faded Love” alternated with Muzzie originals such as “Proud To Be From Idaho” and “13 Miles Up the Yankee Fort,” while guest performers crowded the wings to watch the years come flying back.
Roots of the family band
It all started with Eustacious “Musty” Braun, a musician from North Dakota, who moved his family to Twin Falls, Idaho, in the ’50s to make a living playing the Nevada lounges that dotted the state line. Musty eventually parked his Hammond B-3 organ at Club 93 in Jackpot, Nev., where he played six nights a week.
Hearing his sons’ budding musical talent, Musty built them a stage in the basement of their house. Their first band was a rock outfit called the Syndicate, which played teen dances. Eventually, the Braun trio concentrated on Western material and became faves on the local rodeo/fair circuit.
Sadly, Musty and his wife Becky were killed in an automobile accident en route to a gig in Jackpot in 1980.
None of the Austin-based Braun brothers was old enough to know their grandparents, but Musty’s legacy was all around, like the instruments they would pick up off the floor and play for hours and hours. With no school, no neighbors and no TV, playing music was the favorite pastime up on the mountain.
“Growing up, we didn’t wish we’d had a more normal life,” says Cody. “We didn’t know any other way. We thought our life was normal.”
When Muzzie gigged with his brothers, JoAnn and the kids would get in the Champion Motor Coach and travel with him. A sure crowd-pleaser was when 7-year-old Cody would come out for a fiddle breakdown and Willy would play a drum solo.
After JoAnn gave birth to a bass player and a guitarist/ harmonica player, the quartet was complete and Muzzie and the Little Braun Boys, later billed Muzzie Braun and the Boys, took to the road. “We were really the only friends we had,” Cody says of the four brothers.
The family band was discovered in 1989 by a “Tonight Show” talent scout at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev. “The guy said he was with ‘The Tonight Show’ and I asked him if he had a card, but he didn’t, so I was pretty skeptical,” Muzzie says. But the airplane tickets to Los Angeles arrived two weeks later. A limousine picked the Brauns up at the airport. When they arrived at the “Tonight Show” studio, their name and a star was on the dressing room door.
“All we knew was that we were doing some TV show,” says Gary, who was 9 at the time. “But we were looking at each other, like, uh, maybe this is a bigger deal than we thought.”
The two national TV appearances went so well that the Brauns were courted by national booking agents. They signed with one based in Nashville, but Muzzie says that turned out to be a mistake. The agency promised the moon, but just ended up pricing the Brauns out of the circuit of fairs, rodeos and dance halls Muzzie had carefully cultivated through the years.
Willy Braun said that experience has helped shape Reckless Kelly’s caution towards the music business. Most young bands would jump at the chance to play arenas opening for Rascal Flatts, for instance, but Reckless turned down the slot because they didn’t think Rascal’s middle-of-the-road audience would go for their insurgent brand of country rock. “When we first met with (current managers Fitzgerald Hartley Co.) we made it clear we wanted to do it our way, no matter what,” Willy says. “They told us, fine, but we should know that route’s going to take a whole lot longer. We’re totally cool with that.”
Reckless Kelly hit Austin like it was just a pit stop on the way to Nashville stardom, but 17 years later they’re still clawing. Micky and the Motorcars came five years later as the new contenders in the lucrative collegiate country field and yet their music has only gotten more aggressive, more punkish.
These Braun boys came down from Idaho, leaving that gorgeous mountain home because they had more ambitious musical peaks to climb. The Big Sky Country has been good to them, but, as the song goes, their first love is a twisted, wicked road.