About four or five years ago, Willy Braun had an epiphany. “You can only write so many songs about the road, drinking and girls,” he now recalls thinking. He has been a professional musician since he was in elementary school, and he’s been the lead singer of Reckless Kelly for 25 years. Because a large percentage of a working musician’s life is taken up by travel, intoxicants and romantic relationships, it’s easy to write about those things.
But Braun wanted to tackle some different subjects. After all, his heroes like Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and Bruce Springsteen didn’t limit themselves to those rock’n’roll staples. So Braun gave himself the assignment of writing an album of what he called “American songs about American characters.” He wrote about immigrants in the 19th century, immigrants in the 21st century, soldiers and their wives, a lonely traveler in the Western wilderness and an aging fireman. There were even songs about Tom Petty and Jackie Robinson.
“I’ve always liked concept records like The River or Sergeant Pepper,” Braun says, “albums that have a recurring theme and some ambition. I dig records that fit everything into the same box. I didn’t want to do a ‘God Bless America,’ ‘rah-rah-rah,’ Toby Keith kind of thing. I wanted to show what America is really like—both the heroes and the skeletons in the closet.’”
But a funny thing happened along the way. This would be the first album that Braun would produce all by himself, so he booked extra days at the Arlyn Studio in Austin, where he lives, just to give him a cushion if things went south. But things went smoothly, and the band finished the record before the days were used up. Rather than let the remaining days go to waste, he pulled out his other unrecorded songs and cut those with the band. And these were mostly about girls.
So now he had a problem. He had 16 finished songs that he really liked. There were two main options. He could ditch the concept-album idea and just pick the 10 best songs, but he had been dreaming of his “American” album too long to let it go. He could stick with the concept album and save the non-concept songs for another year. But he liked his albums to have “a cohesive sound, so when you hear it you say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s what Reckless Kelly sounded like in 2019.’”
So he came up with a third option: He wrote four more songs and went back into the studio to record them. He sorted the results into two piles—concept-album songs and non-concept-album songs—and released them simultaneously as two separate albums: American Jackpot and American Girls respectively (read our review).
“They don’t sound too different from the other records we’ve made,” Braun says, “because we don’t want to stray too far from what got us here. You can’t make the same record over and over, but neither can you change so much that your fans get confused. It’s a delicate balance, but it can work as long as you stay true to what you set out to do in the first place. For us that was a country-rock thing. My favorite records were always rock records that sounded like country and country records that sounded like rock, and I especially connected with those that had a strong foundation in the lyrics.”
American Jackpot got started when Braun was co-writing with his Canadian friend Corb Lund about six years ago. At one point, Lund said, “Being born in North America is like hitting the genetic jackpot.” They never pursued that idea, but the phrase stuck with Braun. Though he or she has done nothing to deserve it, a young child born in the U.S. or Canada at the end of the 20th century immediately has a big advantage over, say, Americans born in the 19th century, over Congolese born in the 20th century or Yemenis born in this century.
Braun turned the phrase into an anthemic chorus: “Seems we hit the jackpot, baby, you and me; we were born in North America in the twentieth century.” He liked the chorus, but he didn’t like the verses he was writing about his grandparents. So Braun sent the chorus, without the verses, to his fellow Idahoan, Jeff Crosby, a singer-songwriter and bandleader himself.
Crosby sent back an opening verse about immigrants arriving in America by “different roads and different oceans,” on the Mayflower and on airplanes. That inspired Braun to write a second verse that borrowed from Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty: “Send your tired your huddled masses; send the homeless and the poor. With open arms she offers all this new world can afford.” But the verse ends in sadness as Braun watches “the fading lamplight that once lit the golden door.”
“I consider myself lucky,” Braun says, “because I’ve had a steady job as a musician since I was a teen, living the dream. But a lot of people here in America aren’t living the dream. So it’s a double-edged sword. If you’re going to write about this country, you’ve got to acknowledge both sides—the good and the bad.”
During those same co-writing sessions, Braun and Lund came up with a catchy chorus about leaving the splendors of the Rocky Mountains and heading home. The original version went unrecorded, but Lund rewrote it as a song about touring in the United States and returning home to Alberta. He recorded this second version as “Goodbye, Colorado” on his 2015 album, Things That Can’t Be Undone.
Braun wrote a third version of the song, this time turning the narrator into a migrant farm worker, who is forced to leave behind the farms of the West because he’s being deported to Central America. Once again Braun borrows from the Lazarus poem, describing the narrator’s fellow fruit pickers as immigrants “yearning to breathe free.” Reckless Kelly recorded the song as “Goodbye, Colorado #3,” an album-closing bookend to the album opener, “American Jackpot.”
“When I was writing this record, immigration was a big topic,” Braun recalls. “I can’t imagine coming here at two or three years old, going to school here, growing up as an American, and then getting kicked out because you weren’t born here. I can’t wrap my head around that. To me, that’s not a political issue; it’s a humanitarian issue. Living down in Texas, I know a lot of people who have a different opinion, and I finally said, ‘I’m not going to sit here at the bar arguing about it all night; I’m going to write a song about it.’”
The songs about Petty and Robinson are unusual in that their stories are not about the two legends, but about two young fans who admired their heroes so much that they grew up to become a professional musician and a professional athlete themselves. In the case of the young musician, that’s clearly Braun himself.
“I’ve liked Tom Petty since I was 14,” Braun says, “and he crept his way up to becoming my all-time fave. I think a lot of people felt like I did when he died—that they’d lost a buddy even though they were never within 100 feet of him. What sealed it for me was playing a Tom Petty Tribute show in New Braunfels, Texas, about four years before he died. We had to learn 21 of his songs, and I was surprised that the songs you’d think were complicated were easy to learn, and the songs you’d think were easy were difficult to learn. He’s influenced my songwriting all along. As he once said, ‘Don’t bore us; get to the chorus.’”
Braun’s original inspiration, though, was his father, who led Muzzie Braun and the Boys, one of the top country bands in Idaho. As Muzzie’s four sons became old enough, they one by one filled vacancies in the band until it was renamed Muzzie Braun and the Little Braun Brothers. Cody, the oldest son, could play anything with strings and soon became his father’s fiddler and mandolinist. Willy, the second oldest, was a singer and guitarist. Gary, the third oldest, learned the mandolin and harmonica. Micky, the youngest, was another singer and guitarist.
When they became teenagers, Willy and Cody were itching to play some rock’n’roll, so they left the family band and moved to Oregon to form a country-rock band called the Prairie Mutts. When that sextet broke up in 1995, four of them regrouped with a new drummer, Jay Nazz, as Reckless Kelly, named after a movie about Ned Kelly, Australia’s version of Pretty Boy Floyd. The movie isn’t very good, Willy admits, but he really liked Peter Carey’s novel, True History of the Kelly Gang.
Reckless Kelly moved to Austin in 1996, followed in 2002 by Gary and Micky who had formed a band called Micky and the Motorcars. Every summer, they regroup in Challis, Idaho, for the Braun Brothers Reunion. In 2019, the line-up included not only the brothers’ two bands, but also friends such as Jeff Crosby and the Mastersons, Red Dirt acts as Randy Rogers, Wade Bowen and Cody Canada and heroes such as Steve Earle, Muzzie Braun and Uncle Gary Braun. Muzzie, Gary, Crosby, Bowen and the Mastersons all contribute to American Jackpot and American Girls as do Suzy Bogguss, Rosie Flores, Shawn Sahm, Charlie Sexton and Gary Clark Jr.
“When we were kids, we were home-schooled,” Willy recalls, “because we drove around in my Dad’s van, playing shows all over the country. Our home schooling was driving to monuments, battlefields and parks, so when I think of America, I don’t think of dates and names in a book, I think of places we actually visited, and I think of songs we actually sang.”