Cody and Willy Braun of Reckless Kelly, Idaho’s homegrown country music stars, play with their musical father and brothers on The Tonight show in 1993. The boys started their careers playing with the family band. Reckless Kelly come home to Sun Valley for one night only at the Sun Valley Pavilion, Friday, September 6. (Rewind the video to watch the whole interview).
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Cody Braun’s lonely harmonica introduces the strains of the final track on Reckless Kelly’s newest album, Long Night Moon. “There’s a river tumbling down the mountainside,” sings Willy Braun, the band’s lead singer/songwriter. “I can feel the north wind blow, through the trees and over to the other side, carrying me down to the valley below, when I’m on the road, bound for home, back to what I know, back to Idaho.”
Described by Willy as an “accidental traveling album,” Long Night Moon leads the listener through the band’s 17-year journey as a successful country rock band. That journey started in the mountains of Idaho under the “snow-capped peaks where I was born,” and, if the lyrics of the new album are anything to go by, is one that will end in the mountains they call home.
“About halfway through writing this record, I noticed that almost all of the songs I was writing, whether they were songs about the road, life, or love, had something to do with traveling,” said Willy. “It started as an accident and I decided to just go with it. Before we knew it, there was a definite theme.”
Despite living full-time in Austin, Texas, Willy wrote a large part of the album on his property in Mackay, just north of Sun Valley. Consequently Idaho permeates the lyrics, sometimes to the detriment of their adopted city. “Sleepless nights where the stars above are drowned out by the city lights,” Willy sings in the album’s title track (catch a preview here.). “And I wonder why I keep torturing my soul beneath this urban sky. But in my mind I’ll be home soon, surrounded by the winter, beneath the long night moon.”
Reckless Kelly’s music has always stood out for its honesty and real connection to the lives of its artists. Willy writes what he knows, he writes from his experiences. These are not songs by committee, intricately designed to please an increasingly fickle mass-audience, this is Red Dirt country, distinctly different from the polished, commercialized sounds coming out of Nashville today. While this may explain why the band hasn’t hit it truly big – yet; it also explains why Reckless Kelly fans are so passionate about the music – it’s authentic.
In anticipation of Reckless Kelly’s gig at the Sun Valley Pavilion on September 6, I got a chance to chat with big brother and vocals/fiddle/mandolin/harmonica man, Cody Braun, about the new record, set for release September 3. The band’s 10th studio album, Long Night Moon was recorded at Cedar Creek Studios in Austin. An old farmhouse situated on 10 acres smack in the middle of South Austin, Cedar Creek provided the perfect setting for these country-boys turned city-dwellers to reflect on life, love, the open road and Facebook.
So there’s a song called Idaho on the album, there’s no hidden meaning in that one. It sounds like you are little homesick. Is there anything to that or does it just make for good lyrics?
“No, I think definitely we miss it – we talk about it all the time. Even though we’ve been in Texas for 17 years now we’ve always called Idaho home. We visit a lot. All of my brothers have places up there now, I’m the last one to break, but I figure if they all have places why do I need one?”
As a whole, the album has a more mellow country feel than some of your previous efforts, the traveling theme Willy talks about particularly lends to that atmosphere.
“This record really is a concept record, in that sense it’s about leaving home and getting out there a bit and then getting back home. It’s about the journey and everything in between. We spend so much time on the road – that’s our life – so that tends to take center stage in a lot of our music. It’s Willy writing about what he know and what’s going on in our lives at the time.”
Willy and Cody Braun, were both born in Sun Valley, along with their younger brothers Gary and Mickey, who have achieved considerable success with their own alt-county band Mickey and the Motorcars. The family grew up between Challis and Stanley in Custer County, spending much of their youth playing gigs with dad Muzzie Braun of Braun Brothers Fame, out at Sun Valley’s Trail Creek Cabin.
As soon as they were old enough, the two eldest brothers, Cody and Willy, took off to Oregon to start a band. After nine months in Bend they shifted paths, arriving in Austin in 1996 as a trio named Reckless Kelly. “We stole the name from Ned Kelly, an Australian bank robber,” Cody said. “‘They called him Reckless Kelly.’ We were in Oregon trying to figure out a name for the band and we were going to use that one for a couple shows and then find a really cool one. But it stuck.” Now known as an Oregon band they took the burgeoning Austin music scene by storm and today are considered a ‘true local success story’ in the city. But indisputably it’s Sun Valley that lays claim to the boys, after all they were born a few hundred feet away from where they will play next month, in the old Moritz Hospital, now staff housing for Sun Valley Resort.
Are you excited to be playing in the Sun Valley Pavilion?
“It’ll be the first time I’ve been to the Pavilion. I’ve seen it from the road, the first time I saw it I thought ‘Wow, what a neat venue.’ We’re really excited, it’s always fun to come home and play anywhere, but to get to play such a beautiful venue is going to be really fun. We’ve got a cool show worked up for this summer, with nine records to choose from we’ve got a ton of material.”
No question it will be a great show, Reckless Kelly’s reputation as the Real McCoy when it comes to performing on stage is well-earned and with this gig coming just 3 days after the release of the new album, the boys will be excited to show off the new tunes to a real hometown audience.
“We’re really exited about the new album, it was a really fun record to make, a lot of fun songs on it. It’s a little bit more mellow than some of the other records we’ve done in the past, but it’s got a lot of really cool vibes. I get to play some different stuff on it, including a tenor guitar – that was a lot of fun.”
Reckless Kelly has always been known for the honesty of its music, you clearly pour a lot of meaning and connection to your lives into your work. But with 2008′s Bulletproof, in particular American Blood, you dived head-first into the whole political/country music mele. It was a bit of a shock to some of your fans. How’d that go down?
“Yeah – we got a little bit of backlash from American Blood. But we got a lot more positive than negative. Pennsylvania Avenue [a get-the-vote-out single released in September 2012] was a real-middle of the road kind of thing, it wasn’t one side or the other. But we’ve never really been afraid to go out there and talk about it. I’m personally not super political, none of the guys are, but Willy gets to a point sometimes when he’s sick and tried of writing about love gone wrong and wants to write about what’s happening around us. With the war overseas going on for 15 or so years now it’s hard not to be influenced by that.”
Reckless Kelly’s 2012 Pennsylvania Avenue Music Video. (Video not displaying? Click here.)
2011 saw Reckless Kelly’s first Grammy nomination, for Album Art. That must’ve been really exciting for you guys.
“Yeah, that was awesome, and this record also has some really exciting art work. We got a bunch of surprises in store. A lot of stuff that ties the songs together with the art work. It’ll be fun to see people’s reactions to that.”
Can you give us some insight into what’s in store?
“Well, certain parts of the record artwork will be glow in the dark, you’ll get a little LED black light that comes with the packaging so you can see all of the different stuff that’s hidden in glow-in-the-dark ink. There are also some hidden messages throughout the packaging. We’ll be giving fans clues as to how to find those on our website.”
Does this inventiveness with the CD packaging come from an impetus to get people to buy the physical media rather than download the music? Reckless Kelly has been through the heart of the digital music revolution, is this part of how you’re navigating that monumental shift?
“Yeah, we’ve definitely embraced the digital thing, we’ve noticed that the digital sales have been up considerably. Every time we put out a record they go up 20 to 30%. Last year it was closer to 50%, so it’s definitely the new way people are getting music; you have to embrace it. But at the same time we’ve always really enjoyed making records that are a whole piece of art, art work included. It’s fun putting a whole record together and having it be interactive. We’re definitely kinda going crazy with this one, it’s going be really cool and I think people are going to like it.”
Another giant shift during your tenure in the ‘biz’ has been the advent of social media. As a brand, Reckless Kelly seems to have fully embraced social media, but as a songwriter it sounds like maybe Willy is not so keen. One track on Long Night Mooon is called Be My Friend (In Real Life), and takes a direct hit at the current Facebook and smartphone obsession. Do you all have iPhones? Is Willy always telling you to put them down?
“We don’t leave home without them, we’re just as stuck as everybody else! That’s definitely my favorite song on the record, I think it’s a fun message, more of a reminder to people to just put it down. If you’re having dinner with your friends just have a conversation instead of checking whatever it is every 5 minutes. Again, it’s just what’s going on around us right now, it’s a fun tongue-in-cheek little song.”
Are you personally on social media? Do you do the whole Twitter and Facebook thing?
“I do Facebook and Instagram, those are my two main deals. I have a Twitter account but I can never remember the password, and then when I do get on it’s like, I just had a cheeseburger, big deal. I can’t imagine anybody wanting to follow me through my daily routine.”
You’d be surprised… It’s amazing what people will gobble up. But social media has had a positive impact for the band?
“Absolutely. It’s been wonderful. It’s a full-time job just updating and keeping up with everything. But we started our own label a couple years ago and as far as promoting the band you can do so much on your own now. You can get the word out that you have a new album or tour without spending any money. That was impossible years ago, we used to collect addresses from people and mail postcards. It’s a bummer that Facebook changed the way they’re doing stuff though, now they charge to reach all your fans so it’s not as effective as it used to be for us. We’ve got 160,000 followers, so for us to pay for an entire blast would be $10,000 or something stupid, it’s really crazy.”
The 2011 album Good Luck & True Love was the first release on your new label, No Big Deal Records, and you’re now self-managed. What was the impetus for such a big change?
“This last record is our 10th and we just got to a point where we were at the end of a record deal. Instead of re-signing we sat down and talked about starting our own label; what it would entail, how much extra work it would be – it’s been quite a lot. The last record was a real learning curve, this one was easier on a lot of different fronts. It’s great, we’ve loved every second of it. We’ve learned a lot and we have total control, we don’t have to run anything by anybody or talk anybody into what we want to do. If you were to try and talk a label into the packaging we want to do on this record it would have been like pulling teeth. On the cover it says Reckless Kelly, but it doesn’t have the title of the record until you shine the light on it. No way would a record company have let us do that. And then when you have management that’s three other people you have to email and include and get their opinion. At the end of the day we’re going to do what we want to do anyway.”
It sounds like the move was less about reinvention and more about sticking to your roots. But there’s been a huge shift in the country genre since you first broke onto the scene, and mainstream country music is enjoying an unprecedented heyday. Where do you see Reckless Kelly fitting into today’s music scene?
“I think we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing, keep trying to build our fan base, doing the shows, touring the country, making records that we’re happy with, that we’re proud of and that hopefully people like. I don’t really see us trying to fit in with the Jason Aldeans and the Taylor Swifts at this point, we’re still quite a ways off from what they’re doing. We’ve done quite a few shows with country artists and the crowd just kind of looks at us and says ‘What’s going on? This ‘aint country music?!’ The country fans tend to not get it most of the time. But there are a lot of people out there that really like this music and the Americana genre. Another great thing about social media is that people looking for our style of music can find it a lot easier; find it, check it out and download it.”
Clearly, Reckless Kelly are more than comfortable in their own skin, happy being real artists rather than commercially manufactured superstars. But in today’s music industry where the fans quickly ferret out any whiff of inauthenticity and have a real voice in the conversation, it’s no stretch to predict that maybe, just maybe, there’s superstardom in their future.
“We just carry on and enjoy what we’re doing, we’re really luck to get to play exactly what we want to play and set our own schedule. There’s not a lot of people that get to do what they love to do and do it totally on their own terms. If we can just keep building up a fan base and making a living doing what we’re doing then we’re going to be pretty happy.”
And so will their fans.
Details: Reckless Kelly take to the stage at the Sun Valley Pavilion on Friday, September 6. Doors open at 6.30 p.m. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. The band will be supported by The Trishas. Buy tickets here, priced $35 to $55.