Understanding the virtuosity of Reckless Kelly requires the perspective of where the band has been. Cody and Willy Braun grew up in the White Cloud Mountains of Idaho. They moved to Bend, Oregon, and then migrated to that great musical fountainhead, Austin, Texas.
The band’s co-founders and frontmen toured the country as part of their father’s band, Muzzie Braun and the Boys, as children. They performed on The Tonight Show twice. Their father taught his four sons a professional ethic – integrity, persistence, hard work and professionalism – honed over three generations. They overcame hardships, struggled for recognition, and learned the lessons of the trial and error that defined them.
In one sense, it’s remarkable in the way of any musician, athlete, or businessperson who bucks the odds. In another, though, it’s utterly natural that Reckless Kelly, born in the dreams of the two Braun brothers and their heritage but nurtured in the bumpy road of maturity, became the very essence of Americana music in all its far-flung glory.
“We came along in that second wave of the movement,” Cody Braun says. “Son Volt’s album Trace had a major effect on us. People like Joe Ely, Ray Kennedy and Robert Earl Keen were always big supporters. Our goal was to make music that had a country vibe but a solid rock edge.”
In the end, all the recipe required was to just add water. Water facilitates life. It enriches the soul. As Music Row magazine proclaimed, “In my perfect world, this is what country radio would sound like.”
“This” is Reckless Kelly.
The heartland gave the band authenticity. Musical lives honed its skill. Adversity instilled its persistence. Moving to Austin gave it wings to fly.
As kids, the Brauns – Cody, Willy, Micky and Gary – shared a stage with the likes of Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell and Merle Haggard. Micky and Gary Braun now helm their own band, Micky and the Motorcars. In Bend, Cody and Willy added drummer Jay Nazz, who brought with him his own unique experience.
“I had grown up in the Northeast, performing at clubs and weddings with my dad and brother from the age of 13,” Nazz recalls, “so, when I met Willy and Cody, we already had that in common. Both of our dads were musicians with a very similar kind of performing discipline. That helped us bond immediately.”
The band took its name from the legend of Ned Kelly, the Australian highwayman, and the three moved to Austin in the autumn of 1996, where they carved a niche of their own. Early on, Keen, a Texas legend himself, took them under his wing and became their first manager. They listened, watched and interacted with the creative dynamos of the outlaw country scene – Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark and others – and joined them in a redefinition of what contemporary country music had become. Theirs was gritty, hard-edged, uncompromising and convincing. They turned country music real again.
Willy Braun wrote half the songs of Millican, 1998’s self-released debut, in an abandoned school bus, where he had lived for six months in Bend. The effect of that album was to emblazon Reckless Kelly with a reputation as a band of no-nonsense insurgents that could raise the rafters while still retaining a heart and soul of honesty, soul and conviction.
They evolved, adding David Abetya, a graduate of the Berklee School of Music, on lead guitar in 2000. Kansas-bred bassist Joe Miller — who had grown up on a family farm before becoming a broadcaster at his college radio station and migrating to Austin – signed on 2012.
Reckless Kelly’s string of critically acclaimed albums – Under the Table and Above the Sun (2003), Wicked Twisted Road (2005), Bulletproof (2008), Somewhere in Time (2010), Grammy-nominated Good Luck & True Love (2011) and Grammy-winning Long Night Moon (2013) – set a standard of reliable excellence and commitment to an instinctive vision of Americana. No band exemplifies the broad genre better.
Independent? Oh, yeah. Doggedly so. Nothing demonstrates it more than the band’s path through a succession of prestigious record labels – Sugar Hill and Yep Roc, among them – en route to a label, No Big Deal, of their own.
For two decades, the band has toured coast to coast relentlessly. It has demonstrated its longevity in a world where trendy newcomers are proclaimed the Next Big Thing by spinning a couple pop hits. They disappear from the radar, doomed by the very fad that invented them. Not unlike the pioneers who preceded them on the western frontier where the Brauns were raised, they have forged their survival without compromise, combining hard work with a resolve that success is only satisfying when achieved by their own standards and definition.
The group’s most recent studio album, Sunset Motel, is, like all its predecessors, distinctive in its own way while true to form. Self-produced and recorded in Austin’s renowned Arlyn Studios (where Millican was made two decades ago) and mixed by Jim Scott (Rolling Stones, Dixie Chicks, Tom Petty, Sting, Roger Daltrey, Crowded House, et al.), it reflects Reckless Kelly’s attention to craft and continuity.
Twenty years since its founding, Reckless Kelly continues to fight for wider recognition, secure in the knowledge that fans, critics and contemporaries will continue to sing its praises.
The songs hit one emotional peak after another: the infectious “Volcano,” the urgent “One More One Last Time,” the desperate desire that comes full circle in “How Can You Love Him (You Don’t Even Like Him)” and the bittersweet title track. With steady guitar drive and a series of insistent choruses, they all ring with power and conviction that make Sunset Motel a breathtaking listening experience.
“Willy wrote 30 or 40 songs for the new album and we cut about half of them,” Cody says. “We ended up using 13 of them, but there were still some good ones left on the cutting-room floor.”
Cody, Willy and Nazz have been constants since the beginning. Abeyta and Miller add their own wrinkles to a signature sound that remains intact. The populist following grows, but the band has also moved on to play in performing arts centers and listening rooms that provide more focused encounters.
“We’re at the point where we’re not content to be categorized as simply a party band anymore,” Willy says. “We would like folks to really hear these songs, to be able to hear the lyrics and appreciate the musicianship that goes into the arrangements. Yes, we still want our audiences to have a good time, but we also want to show that this is a real band with a cohesive attitude and a muscular backbone, as well. We don’t want to be pigeonholed as simply a Texas-based, beer-drinking, rowdy bunch of party boys. There’s a lot more to it than that.”
“This is a really good place to be,” Cody adds. “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.”
Great bands know good music. They make it the way they like, confident that what they love, what excites them, will also gain traction with thousands and thousands, perhaps even millions, of passionate fans.
Reckless Kelly is, by the best possible definition, a great band.
Freedom to pursue its own destiny has always been at the center of the band’s ambitions. Their fate is as much in their own hands as is reasonably possible.
“We’ve toured extensively over the course of our career,” Cody says. “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.”
That point liberates them to be true to their background, their heritage and, most importantly, themselves.
“We’ve always been hands-on in terms of our marketing and our delivery,” Willy says. “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.”
The fierce self-reliance and independent spirit keeps Reckless Kelly happy, appreciative and charitable. Their annual festival, The Braun Brothers Reunion, in Challis, Idaho, has been ongoing for 37 years now. They reunite with their brothers, Gary and Micky (and the Motorcars). The Brauns run it without major sponsors or outside promoters.
The band also hosts the yearly Reckless Kelly Celebrity Softball Jam to raise money for Austin-area youth charities, putting $300,000 in those coffers over the past seven years.
“It’s a great way to give back,” Cody says. “It’s great to be able to share our success in such a positive way.”
Collectively, they’ve played over 3,000 shows and traveled over 1,500,000 miles to 49 states.
Reckless Kelly is a great band with an apt name. The outlaw’s spirit pervades the ambiance. They are rugged individualists who dedicate themselves to advancing the state of their art.
They’re good guys, too. Their hearts dwell in the right places, and those are where the music follows.