Craig Brown, easily one of the city's best guitarists and something of an entity unto himself, has emerged from the fast and weird sonic realm with a new band in a style that's not actually new to him, but now exists in its most polished form yet: country rock.
Brown is Detroit's latent cowboy, and supported by his dive-bar-ragtag band, he is here to deliver us from oversaturated bullshit with the stripped down, heartfelt songs on The Lucky Ones Forget, out on Third Man Records on Friday, March 31.
Brown, 32, has been slowly but surely making a name for himself since the mid-2000s, when the whirling dervish punk of Terrible Twos began tearing through the local scene and eventually carving out a little niche in the national scene too. Since then, Brown has logged time in multiple bands based elsewhere, including New Jersey's Liquor Store and Vermont's King Tuff. Here at home, apart from Terrible Twos, Brown also plays in Kelly Jean Caldwell Band and the Mahonies, though you're just as likely to catch him tending bar at PJ's Lager House or El Club, giving guitar lessons at Third Wave Music, or hanging out at Sneakers Pub with bandmate Eric Allen.
Although Brown has dabbled in country before with his group the Brownstown Gals, The Lucky Ones Forget is by all respects his first wholly realized expression of country rock, and it's a stunner. Straightforward without being boring; as composed as it is relaxed; a touch of folk and heartland rock, just enough to remind us a little bit of Tom Petty here and a dash of Nashville Skyline-Dylan there, with the influence of the Byrds and their 1968 full-blown country rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo looming over it all. (Careful listeners will hear multiple Byrds references in the lyrics; we'll leave those for you to find yourself.)
Deeper within the lyrics, though, are clues that we're not dealing with your typical country songs: lines like "I stare into the sun for fun" ("I Wondered What"), "Don't you know sleep's for daytime anyway" ("Anyhow"), and "My van still works but she's breaking a lot/ Not doing much braking, the pads are shot" ("The Planet Song") are ditch poetry, the words often as unintentionally pretty as the guitar licks and female voices intentionally are.
"Glad You Came (Happy You Left)" is the album's longest track but also maybe its best, an Allman Brothers-esque treat for those of us dying to hear some extended guitar. Brown takes his sweet time bringing the song back around to its star-chiming conclusion, punctuated as it only could be by the blissful beauty of the Drinkard sisters' voices.
Caitlin and Bonnie Drinkard — who also perform under the name Drinkard Sisters, as a duo as well as accompanied by a full band — might just turn out to be the secret weapon of Craig Brown Band; Brown himself points to this when he says, "They set this shit apart. They are sisters who have been singing together their whole lives. You can't compete with that."
It's a lucky thing that last January, Brown asked the duo to join him for a solo show at Northern Lights Lounge. They only practiced once, but it was during that first practice that they realized they had something special in the combination of all their voices. "Bonnie and I both love figuring out harmonies so it was really fun to learn Craig's songs and see what we could add to them, how we could color them in and fill them out," Caitlin told us.
Craig Brown Band also includes Eric Allen (Loose Koozies) on guitar, Andrew Hecker (Tin Foil) on bass, and Jeff Perry (Terrible Twos) on drums, all dudes that Brown has worked with for years. Brown's musical evolution is well-put by Allen, who has been close friends with him for nearly a decade and playing with him for probably half as long: "Where I have seen the most change in Craig is in his songwriting. He's lived more. The songs on the new record really capture some emotional moments that I feel like people wouldn't think he's capable of having. Craig's grown enough to assess the things he does in real life and transfer it successfully into beautiful, heart-wrenching songs."
A Detroit record through and through, The Lucky Ones Forget is truly "homegrown," to repeat a word used by Roe Peterhans, who oversees operations at Third Man and is one of several people who worked closely with Brown in the past year to bring this album to fruition.
Dave Buick (the Go, Feelings, Italy Records) — one of Detroit's hardest-working supporters of the local Detroit scene (and an early hire to Third Man's Cass Corridor location) — recalls that it all began through "a combo of Jack [White] championing [Brown] after he saw an early UFO Factory show, us knowing [Brown] was doing cool solo stuff, and Roe and myself trying to get an opener for Negative Approach that didn't make sense musically, but made total sense at the same time."
The band's first show featuring the Drinkard sisters ended up being that opening spot for Negative Approach at Third Man, and it's been a bit of a whirlwind ever since. Originally only a single was planned, but with Buick and Peterhans here in Detroit to support, the project eventually grew to become the full-blown album we get to hear come Friday.
It's not just Brown himself and the Detroit division of Third Man that make it all such a homegrown affair. When deciding who to record with, Brown asked the minds at Third Man for some advice; when Buick suggested Warren Defever (His Name Is Alive), it was another case of a situation that made perfect sense because it didn't quite make sense. "You couldn't have two more different personalities," Peterhans added with regard to Brown and Defever. "What Warren did for the whole band in the studio is give them a different kind of education in recording, and how to do things."
The resulting recording is perhaps best summed up in the expression chosen by Caitlin to describe Brown himself: bona fide. "Craig's a really genuine person, true to himself, and his vision for this music, regardless of what other people might think or expect from him," she says. On The Lucky Ones Forget, that vision is augmented by Brown's world-worn songwriting, a deep love of country bends, and the warmth and fullness of the sisters' voices to create what might just be Detroit's first true country rock album.
"Whether or not you dig country music, hearing a solid three-part harmony is something that hits you in the guts and pulls you in for a closer listen," Caitlin says. "It's a powerful thing."
As of publication, the band will have just played a probably legendary, perfectly paired show with power pop hero Dwight Twilley, on the heels of a whirlwind nine performances in five days, including SXSW. A longer summer tour is in the works, and although nothing further is concretely planned for Detroit, expect a show to pop up sooner or later.
In advance of Friday's release date, Metro Times spoke with Craig about how The Lucky Ones Forget came to be, his own winding musical path, and more.
Metro Times: How long have you been playing guitar and why did you start?
Craig Brown: For 22 years, since I was 10 years old. I liked Alice Cooper since first grade, and then I started actually playing in fourth grade. But I really started because of my third-grade teacher, Mr. Workman. Dave Workman taught me about the Rolling Stones. I said I wanted a guitar and he kept telling me I should get one.
MT: Did you take lessons?
Brown: I took lessons from the best guitar player I have probably ever seen in my life. It just so happened randomly at the place where I got my guitar from, called Music Villa, at 8 Mile and Farmington in Livonia. [It's no longer in operation.] His name is Todd Best and I took lessons on and off with him from when I was ten to 16 years old.
MT: Who are some of your favorite guitarists?
Brown: Glen Buxton from [the original] Alice Cooper [band], Keith Richards, Randy Rhoads, Dimebag Darrell, Pete Anderson from Dwight Yoakam.
MT: Can you tell me about your guitars and what you used on the album?
Brown: I've played my second guitar I've ever owned since I was 13 until now. It's an American Standard Stratocaster from 1996. I also used a shitty bootleg Telecaster from a Korean company called SX and I used a fucking insane '53 Goldtop Les Paul that Warren had. That's all I used on the record.
MT: People know you from Terrible Twos but this is totally different. When did you realize you wanted to write music that was more country, or at least record it?
Brown: I've been recording stuff like this, even some of what's on the record, since maybe 10 years ago, in Brownstown Gals. Basically, I wanted to be a four-piece all-girl bluegrass group, so I recorded a tape and sped it up, but it just sounded like a guy with weird voices. That became Brownstown Gals, which later became a full band. When [bandmate] Fast Eddie died, I stopped doing it altogether. Then Eric Love, who runs Urinal Cake, started his Western Where label and asked me to do a single, so I recorded one with Fred Thomas [Saturday Looks Good To Me]. Then Jeff Fournier [Timmy's Organism] asked me to play at the Labor Day Festival and I said, "I don't have a band. I recorded everything on that single." He goes, "Well, get one." So I have a band solely because of Jeff Fournier.
MT: What does your background in punk bring to these songs?
Brown: It's more about the live show for my fast crazy influence — just not bullshitting around, and how to streamline a set without stopping. I don't sing about whiskey and shit.
MT: What does inspire your lyrics?
Brown: Mostly girls; I'd say 80 percent.
MT: What influences your music besides girls?
Brown: Driving a lot, thinking about what would be good to listen to in a car. What's weird is that so many bands I've been in in the past, I love playing in, and it's the funnest thing to play live especially, but it's not something I would put on to listen to. But I think that's also because I'm getting older. I listen to a lot more wussier shit now than I did four years ago.
MT: Can you tell me a little bit more about your country influences?
Brown: What started the whole thing is the Byrds album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which got me into Gram Parsons. Then I got big into '90s country like Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Garth Brooks. I really like the guitar in it because I never learned that style before and it's really fun to play. I could play regular songs, but then I would add bendy shit over it, to mimic pedal steel. Dwight Yoakam is my favorite of all, but he is not what I discovered first.
The Lucky Ones Forget will be released Friday, March 31 via Third Man Records; thirdmanrecords.com.