There’s no better way to celebrate 20 years as a band than to put out the best album of a two-decade career. At least that’s the philosophy of Reckless Kelly.
With frontman Willy Braun and his multi-instrumentalist brother Cody Braun producing and appearances by — among others — The Mastersons, Bukka Allen and Rosie Flores, along with their younger brothers, Micky and Gary, the Texas band’s ninth studio album, “Sunset Motel,” is their top recording yet.
“It’s always the goal to top what you did last time,” Cody Braun said in a recent phone interview. “It’s definitely a good representation of the band. We try to get better every year and learn new tricks in the studio. The cool thing about this one is we got to go back to Arlyn Studio, where we made our first record. It was just really comfortable, a good time in the studio.”
The record is filled with music that refines Reckless Kelly’s mix of rock ‘n’ roll and country into a swinging, twangy sound that doesn’t fit easily into any category or genre.
“We’ve always been a country rock band,” Braun said. “We’ve always wanted to push that edge. It’s hilarious to me to see where country radio has gone. Ten years ago, they were telling us we were too rock ‘n’ roll. Now it’s going completely to the other side with the rap and they’re still not playing us. It definitely goes to show if you’re not in the right pockets in Nashville, you’re not going to get played on the radio.”
Reckless Kelly addresses just that on “Radio,” a “Sunset Motel” song that kicks off with radio static, then rock ‘n’ rolls through a making-it-in-the-business tale anchored lines like “you want the money and the fame and the sold-out shows, you’ve got to get on the radio.”
Well, maybe not. That’s what Braun and Reckless Kelly have discovered and what fellow country music artist Sturgill Simpson has, of late, been proclaiming in interviews.
“(Simpson) says it plainly — we don’t need Nashville anymore,” Braun said. “We don’t need Music Row. We’re selling records and getting people out to our shows. It’s great to see people like Sturgill, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton doing what they’re doing — kind of sticking it to them. There are people out there hungry for real music. But that music isn’t getting played on the radio.”
That, in part, is because Texas music doesn’t fit easily into the commercial country format — it’s too country for rock radio and is too rock for Americana.
“Musically, it’s a mix of country, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, Southern rock — that’s what I like about it,” Braun said. “The staunch Americana Nashville scene is more dipped in bluegrass and traditional country. I see the Texas sound as being more progressive and built on songwriters like Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely, Steve Earle. Billy Joe Shaver is another one who really influenced us. Those are the guys we’ve looked up to.”
They’ve done so since they moved the band from Oregon to Austin.
The Brauns grew up in Idaho and learned about music playing in their dad’s Western swing band that not only was a regional draw but landed appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”
In the mid-1990s, the brothers put together the first versions of their band, which takes its name from the famed Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. They spent about six months in Oregon before moving to Austin.
“We moved here in ‘96 and have always been a part of the scene,” Braun said. “But we don’t have any songs about Texas. We’re not from here and we’re not going to try to sing about something we don’t know about.”
Winning the Austin Music Award for Best Roots Band three years running while making a series of well-regarded records, Reckless Kelly also was relentless, getting out of Austin, then out of Texas, spreading its music across the country, one show at a time.
“We’re lucky when we first moved to Texas we got a booking agent who said, ‘You go out and play these places, even though it sucks. You’re going to play to bartenders and cocktail waitress, but you’ve got to do it,’’’ Braun said. “I’m so glad we did. Now we can go out and come home with money in our pockets.”
The band’s still out all the time. That’s just part of doing business for the band, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.
And the band will be coming back to their native Idaho this month, playing at Whiskey Jacques in Ketchum at 9 p.m. Dec. 29 and Revolution Concert House and Event Center in Garden City at 8 p.m. Dec. 31.
“I didn’t think it would happen this fast,” Braun said. “We never had anything to fall back on, any other plans. It can be a grind like any other job at times. But we really enjoy what we’re doing. It’s easy to look up and go, ‘Shoot, 20 years have gone by.’ It’s harder to remember them.”
But he does remember some things — highlights like breaking through with big shows for the first time in each market the band plays, its annual Braun Brothers Reunion Festival held in Idaho and its charity events that have raised $300,000 to rebuild baseball fields and help with Austin’s Little League programs.
The Brauns, you see, are “baseball geeks,” who started singing the National Anthem at major league parks together, then added the band. They’ve now performed at a dozen stadiums.
“Our goal is to do every one of them in America,” Braun said. “There are a lot of ballplayers who are from Texas and fans of Texas music. We’ll get to the ballpark to do the anthem and they’ll go, ‘So and so wants you down in the dugout, they’re fans of your music.’ We’re like ‘Huh?” The best way to get a good seat is to sing the National Anthem.”