Americana is a broad and often overused term these days, one that can be interpreted in any number of ways, whether it’ s applied to country, rock, rhythm and blues, honky tonk, a Texas two step or western swing. At some point though, categorizing becomes a moot point, especially when reverence for one’ s roots is a constant in the music. In that sense, Reckless Kelly was an Americana outfit well before the term became a catchphrase. Bred in the heartland, the band naturally boasts an authentic style that many bands only aspire to. It’ s a sound that can't be faked or played half heartedly. Yet in Reckless Kelly’ s case, that commitment has always been there. They are, in fact, the very real deal.
For the band’ s frontman and co-founders, brothers Cody and Willy Braun, that intent has always been there from the outset. In fact, it’ s actually in their genes. Born and raised in Idaho, they gained a love of music from their dad, a professional musician and band leader. As kids, they played in his band, Muzzie Braun and the Boys, an experience that gave them their first taste of professional showmanship. They learned those lessons firsthand from the opportunities they experienced, whether it was opening for Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard or playing on “The Tonight Show,” in the latter case, not once but actually twice. Taking to the road while still youngsters, Cody and Willy developed a discipline that contrasted dramatically with the freewheeling lifestyle they adapted to early on.
They can still raise hell with the best of them -- and they generally do -- but even with only a couple of hours of sleep, they still show up on time and ready to play and entertain their fans. Early on, they came to realize that an insurgent attitude should never come in the way of the music. While still in their teens, they recorded five albums that were released on their father's record label, and by the time they earned their GEDs at age 16 and 17, they were ready to move out of the house and kickstart their own band. Taking their handle from the nickname given the legendary Australian highwayman Ned Kelly, they moved to Austin in 1996 where the two brothers quickly carved out a niche of their own.
Inspired by the outlaw country scene -- musicians like Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Billy Joe Shaver, Robert Earl Keen, Guy Clark, and others who helped redefine the notion of contemporary country -- they took an approach that reflected that unapologetic attitude, underscoring it with a gritty, hard-edged delivery that was as compelling as it was convincing. “We came along in that second wave of the movement,” Cody Braun notes. “Son Volt’ s album Trace had a major effect on us. People like Joe Ely and Robert Earl Keen were early supporters. Our goal was to make music that had a country vibe but a solid rock edge.”
Beginning with Millican, 1998‘ s self-released debut, Reckless Kelly emblazoned a reputation as no-nonsense insurgents capable of raising the rafters while still retaining the heart, soul and sentiment that can only come from honesty, soul and conviction. With every album that followed -- Under the Table and Above the Sun (2003), Wicked Twisted Road (2005), Bulletproof (2008), Somewhere in Time (2010), the Grammy nominated Good Luck & True Love (2011) and the Grammy winning Long Night Moon (2013) -- they’ ve affirmed that
commitment, not only in their devotion to essential Americana, but by emulating its very definition as well. No individual or any ensemble, and certainly no poser or pretender better exemplify what that broad genre is all about than this band called Reckless Kelly.
For the past two decades, they’ ve toured coast to coast relentlessly, a remarkably long time by any measure, especially in a world where the next big wonder can boast maybe one or top pop hits before disappearing from the radar. Not that it's been easy. Like the early pioneers that preceded them in the western frontier where the Brauns were raised, they've been forced to forge their survival without compromise... combining hard work and resolve in a determined effort to succeed by their own standards. Nowhere is that more evident that on the group’ s new album Sunset Motel, an effort that effectively sums up their strengths while marking a new milestone as well.
It’ s been 20 years since the group's founding, and while they’ ve had to fight for wider recognition, fans, critics and contemporaries have been quick to sing their praises. As Music Row magazine proclaimed, “In my perfect world, this is what country radio would sound like.”Indeed, that’ s the way it should be. With songs that hit one emotional peak after another -- the irresistibly infectious “Volcano,” the urgent and intensive “One More One Last Time,” the desperation and desire that comes full circle with “How Can You Love Him (You Don't Even Like Him)” and the bittersweet title track. With a steady guitar strum and a series of urgent, insistent choruses, each of these offerings ring with the kind power and conviction that makes Sunset Motel an affirmative listening experience. “Willy wrote 30 or 40 songs for the new album, and we cut about half of them,” Cody explains. “We ended up using 13 of them but there were still some good ones left on the cutting room floor.”Despite some occasional shifts in the line-up, Willy, Cody and the other founding member of the band, drummer Jay Nazz have remained the core and constants since the beginning.
The other two members of the band, guitarist David Abeyta and bassist Joe Miller, add their input and ensure that the band’ s signature sound remains intact. And while they retain their populist following, the band has also moved on to more impressive venues in the form of theaters and listening rooms that allow for a more focused musical encounter. “We're at the point where we're not content to be categorized as simply a party band,” Willy explains. “We want folks to really hear these songs, to be able to hear the lyrics and appreciate the musicianship that goes into the arrangements. We want our audiences to have a good time...but there’ s a lot more to it than that.”“This is a really good place to be,” Cody notes. “We've built a solid fan base which gives us a nice safety net. At the same time, we can take things at a more leisurely pace because we can control our own destiny.”
That freedom Cody alludes to has to do with the fact that the band has always believed in guiding their own destiny. After past associations with record companies like Sugar Hill and Yep Roc, they currently release their records under the auspices of their own label, No Big Deal Records. Their fate remains in their own hands and no one else’ s. “We've toured extensively over the course of our career,” Cody reflects. “We've traveled front and back, up and down across this country. Happily we're at a point where we're not killing ourselves to pay the bills.”“We've always been hands-on in terms of our marketing and our delivery,” Willy adds. “The labels always gave us the freedom we asked for, but an A&R person doesn’ t always know what's best for the band.”That hands-on attitude and fiercely independent spirit has been with the band since it's inception 20 years ago and with the release of Sunset Motel, it is clear that isn’ t about to change . In both music and mindset, Reckless Kelly leads by example. And as always, they continue to do it on their own terms.