by: Thomas D. Mooney
When I think of Reckless Kelly, the first word that comes to mind is consistency. It seems as though every few years, you’re going to get an album from Reckless Kelly that’s packed full of songs that are worth something. At nearly 20 years in, you’ve grown to expect it.
There’s substance and maturity to just about everything they’ve done throughout their career. In a time in which seemingly every band wants instant gratification and succumbs to having at least a handful of songs that are easily digested by Texas teens, frat cowboys, so-called sorority gypsies, and weekend warrior club hoppers, they’ve never cratered to the pressures of becoming a pop country band–in Texas or the Top 40 world.
Sure, you’re going to find Reckless Kelly songs on various radio charts, but it hasn’t anything to do with catering towards an audience, compromising their sound, or the mythical “selling out.”
Lead vocalist and chief songwriter Willy Braun is one of the most unheralded writers in Americana and Texas music. He’s rarely a name that’s brought up when the discussion of best current songwriter ever occurs–in bars or the Twitterverse. And really, that’s something, that’s to an extent, understandable. You never think of Reckless Kelly as the engine in which Braun uses to share his songs. Rather, you think of Reckless Kelly as a band. It’s Not Willy Braun & The Reckless Kelly Band or something trivial as that.
With their ability to virtually come at you from all directions, Reckless Kelly has sonically been a pioneer. Essentially, they’re an alt-country band–but it’s more than just that. At times, it’s a garage rock band with mandolin, fiddle, some pedal steel, etc. At others, it’s a country folk band with driving electric guitars. And now, you’re really starting to see their impact on the next batch of bands who listened to their music in their learning years.
Last week, we were able to catch up with Reckless Kelly’s Willy Braun to talk about their impact on music, 20 years as a band, and what’s coming up in the near future for the band. Reckless Kelly will be playing The Office Grill & Sports Bar tonight, Friday February 20th. Texas country singer-songwriter Kimberly Dunn will be opening.
Watch/Listen to Reckless Kelly perform “The Last Goodbye” on Texas Music Scene below.
New Slang: I hear that you’re on Day 28 of your annual Black February. So what’s the first thing you’re doing at midnight?
Willie Braun: [Laughs]. Yeah, it’s something we do every year. We don’t drink for 28 days. There’s a bunch of us who do it. Today is Day 28, so around midnight, I’ll probably have a glass of wine, a stiff cocktail, or a beer, or a shot. Something like that–who am I kidding, I’ll probably do all of that.
NS: [Laughs]. How’d this get started with you guys?
WB: Our drummer Jay [Nazz] and I, we started it probably 10 or 12 years ago. We needed to take a little break and see if we could do it. So we did the month of February, because it’s the shortest month–that wasn’t an accident [laughs]. So we decided to make it an annual tradition and called it Black February. We don’t necessarily do it in February any more; you can do it whenever you want. Most of us start right after Steamboat. It’s Steamboat, New Year’s, Christmas–all that adds up and you’re ready for a break.
NS: So I feel that a lot of what people call Texas Country and Red Dirt–we don’t have to get into what is and isn’t, but for the sake of this question, we’ll go with what masses consider Texas Country–I think a lot of the bands are going towards a more roots rock and folk sound. It’s a roots music movement. You guys, you’ve really been that blend since the get go. You feel like you guys were ahead of the curve?
WB: Like you said, we’ve always sort of done that. When we moved to Austin almost 20 years ago, there was a lot of blues going on. There’s always been a bunch of country-rock in Texas, but I think this new generation of guys, we were one of the first to start doing that again in the late 90s. We’re originally from Oregon and Idaho and all met down here, we were listening to a lot of Steve Earle, Son Volt, and Billy Joe Shaver. There was people doing it already, but right here in Austin, I think we one of the first to bring that stuff back. It’s kind of cool to be pioneers in a way with that. But it’s nothing that hadn’t been done before [laughs].
NS: Yeah. So you guys did something that Steve Earle did as well a few years back. He released that Townes album of Townes Van Zandt covers. You guys released Somewhere in Time which was an album of Pinto Bennett covers. I’m sure something like that doesn’t just get decided to be done overnight. How long had you guys been thinking about that? Who had the idea first?
WB: We actually talked about doing an album of all Pinto’s songs for a long time. We had to wait for the time to be right. Obviously, we couldn’t do it right off the bat. We had to establish our own identity first. Then also, we had to find the right label who would allow us to do that. I was one of the last things we did with Yep Roc. They were cool enough to let us do that. You know, Pinto is one of our heroes and he’s such a great songwriter. No body has really heard of him outside Idaho, so we wanted to kind of show the world his songs and put a little bit of our spin on it.
NS: You mentioned earlier that you guys are nearing that 20 year mark as a band. Do you guys have anything in the works to celebrate the occasion? Any kind of special release collection or anything?
WB: Yeah. We’re talking about doing an anthology thing. We’re not sure what kind of content we have just yet. We’re just starting to dive into old boxes of tapes, CDs, and demos. We’re going to try and release a collection of demos, some unreleased tracks, and some live stuff. Some bootlegs and maybe some video content. Maybe a scrapbook of sorts. Like I said, we’re not exactly sure what it’s going to be because we don’t exactly know what we have. It’s jus shoeboxes full of stuff at this point. We’re also going to try and put out a new studio record to go along with it. It’ll take us a little while to get that to happen, but next year we should have one, if not two new projects out for people to check out.
NS: Yeah. Obviously this is the first time you guys are trying to put something like this together. I’m just assuming none of these shoeboxes are conveniently all at one spot.
WB: [Laughs]. I wish we had it all in one spot. There’s been a lot of calling around. “Hey man, do you remember that one live show in 2004 at Gruene Hall we recorded? Do you have it?” Somebody might have the masters of Millican in their closet. Somebody has demos from this and that. It’s really like a treasure hunt at this point. I’ve been recently going through boxes of old cassette tapes. That’s how I used to record songs. I’ve got tons of those and I’ve been transferring them over to digital. Which, that’s done in real time, so as you’d imagine, it takes a long time. It’s fun though. You listen to a bunch of things you forgot about. I’ve heard a bunch of songs that I’d forgotten I had written. Different versions of songs that are now kind of our standards. You hear a completely different version of them from back when they were just in their baby phase. That’s really been fun for me. I hope the fans and people who have followed us over the years think it’s cool too.
NS: So when you’re writing and you have these different versions of lyrics here and there, do you go back and cherry pick things that didn’t make it to fill in and start new songs?
WB: Oh yeah, absolutely. My dad, he’s a songwriter, and when we first started writing, he told me to never through anything away. So I really haven’t. I’ve got napkins and scraps of paper–boxes and files full of that kind of stuff. You can go back, and even if a song was a total piece of crap, you can maybe steal a line or a piece of the melody. Even just a word or two. There may be one good line in a song that’ll never see the light of day. So I do that quite a bit actually.
NS: Yeah. So what’s–I don’t even know if you’d know–but what’s one of the memorable lines where that’s happened?
WB: That’d be hard to say. I guess with “Desolation Angels,” that was one that’s a good example. I had three different songs going with three different melodies, but they were all kind of about the road. They had three different hooks, but none of them were strong enough on their own so eventually I realized they were similar and took all three and put them into one song. It took me a long time to write that. It’s cool to see how something like that gets put together where it’s taken years to do and then all of a sudden it clicks. Two hours later, you have a good song after five years of it going no where [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. Yeah, I guess that makes it worth it though. So your last album, Long Night Moon, I’ve seen it described as the most polished album in the Reckless Kelly discography. It’s a little bit quieter and more intimate than other albums have been. Was that something you guys discussed and wanted to do before actually recording the album or was the entire thing more organic than that?
WB: You know, every time we make a record, it comes together by what songs are the strongest. That album, a lot of the songs were about traveling, hitting the road, and about going home. The songs we felt were this really nice and cohesive batch of tunes. A lot were more on the mellow side. We hadn’t ever made a record that mellow before. It was something different for us. I don’t think it was something we really planned on doing, but once we started seeing them take shape, we went with it.
NS: A few years back, you wrote a song called “American Blood.” And on Bulletproof, there were some other songs with social commentary. A lot of artists down here, they don’t really go into sociopolitical spectrum of songwriting that often–unless it’s really pro-American or have a deep nationalist point of view. Did you guys catch any flack at the time for having a critical point of view on some polarizing subjects?
WB: We did, but the good outweighed the bad for sure. There were a few people who took it the wrong way. I had to do a little explaining on what the song meant–mostly on the internet [laughs]. But the majority were pro. I’ve had many more soldiers come up to me and thank me for that song than who complained. I’m glad I wrote it. It was a different subject matter, and like you said, not a lot of people in this scene write about that kind of stuff. It was the first political statement I had really ever made in a song. It was kind of an eye opener. It’s on record. People are going to ask you about it and you have to be willing to talk about it.
NS: Yeah. First off, I think it’s a great song. And obviously, I’m sure you don’t want to talk about politics after a show and with everyone, but I think it’s a song that can start discussions about something that’s important outside of music. And like you said, you have to be willing to speak about it.
WB: Yeah, I’ve never been a big fan of having giant political discussions–and I’ve never been in one in which you walk away and have changed the other person’s mind [laughs]. You just go at each other for half an hour and then decide to agree to disagree and move on. But I wrote a song that was political–I learned the hard way [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. Yeah. Which, I guess this’ll be a smooth transition. You wrote a song with Todd Snider called “I Never Liked St. Valentine.” He’s obviously never been one to shy away from writing a political song. How was writing with Todd? What’s that experience like?
WB: That was cool. He’s really, really good at what he does. I knew we were going to get together and I had that idea. I had the line “I never liked St. Valentine” and the concept and thought it’d work really well in his style. He’s really serious and funny at the same time. He liked the idea a lot and we knocked it out in a couple of hours up in Nashville. It’s great seeing him work. He kind of gets right down to it. I don’t do a whole lot of co-writing. Some people are slow about it, but he’s quick. He’ll have an idea and just run with it. Like the first version of what he says, that’s usually what ends up on the song. Where, with other people, it’s really chiseling away at an idea. With him, he’ll say something and you’re just like “Wow. That was perfect. Let’s go with that [laughs].”
NS: [Laughs]. I’ve interviewed him a few times and in just that, you feel a certain cadence to his storytelling and conversation. It’s like he speaks in poetry or something.
WB: Absolutely [laughs].
NS: You mentioned earlier that the band will be getting another album out hopefully this next year. I’m assuming you’ve been working on songs. What’s like the last thing you either finished up or worked on?
WB: I was in Idaho all of last week. I’ve got a place up there where I go whenever I can. I try to write a bunch of stuff up there. I just started writing for this next record so everything is really just in the baby phases. I’ve got a few that are pretty much finished and a lot that are somewhere in the middle. What I like to do is to get a bunch of songs that I think could make the record and then just really start nitpicking at them. Just changing words here and there and taking out lines that just aren’t strong enough. So right now, it’s all just in that phase–the beginning stages.