Photo by Rodney Bursiel

Photo by Rodney Bursiel

From the Idaho mountains to the Live Music Capital of the World, from scrappy new-kids-in-town to seasoned elder statesmen of the Texas music scene, and from Millican to Long Night Moon, Willy and Cody Braun and their Reckless Kelly brothers have stuck to their guns for longer than most bands even manage to stick together. This is their story, as told by the two Brauns who have been playing music together from the time they were barely bigger than their instruments. 

By Mike Ethan Messick

(LSM Sept/Oct 2013/Vol. 6 – Issue 5)

LSM Sept/Oct 2013 Photo by Rodney Bursiel

LSM Sept/Oct 2013
Photo by Rodney Bursiel

There’s a new addition to the Reckless Kelly family this September. Metaphorically, anyway; we’re talking about a new album called Long Night Moon. But like any newcomer to the world it carries the joy of arrival, the weight of expectation, and the immediate connection and inevitable similarities to the ones that came before it — along with all the differences, subtle and otherwise, that make it special.

If 1998’s Millican and 2000’s The Day were the lovable rascals that came about before Reckless Kelly was even old enough to know what to do with a kid, and 2003’s Under The Table & Above the Sun and 2006’s Wicked Twisted Road were the thoughtful kids that’ll probably be valedictorian someday … if 2008’s Bulletproof was the socially aware one unafraid to get under your skin and 2011’s Good Luck & True Love was the earnest, workmanlike one with the firm handshake, then Long Night Moon is the brand new kid who was sort of born an old soul. The one who reaches for the book before the ball, who’d rather watch a sunset than a cartoon, the one who’s quiet on long car trips because there’s so much to see out the window and who’s happiest when moving anyway. It’s not afraid to let a phrase linger over a subtle acoustic guitar run and a set of brushes on the snare, cast a rueful eye on the miles behind and a hopeful one on the miles ahead, and never has to shout to get noticed — but when it raises its voice you perk up because you know it means something. “These songs kept maturing, and so on this record there were things I wanted to make sure had some sonic weight to them, and even a little drama, if that’s not too strong a word,” offers lead guitarist and more-or-less head producer David Abeyta.

The connective tissue between the many fine records that make up Reckless Kelly’s body of work branch, twist, and crisscross among the larger ties of brotherhood between Willy Braun and Cody Braun, the sons of a talented, under-the-radar Idaho songwriter who nurtured the boys’ talents until they took on a life of their own. As they grew into the teenage versions of the square-jawed, dark-haired singer-songwriter and the barrel-chested, bearded fiddle/mandolin/guitar-slinging wild man, they amicably departed the immediate company of their folks for a new honorary brother named Jay Nazz (himself already a veteran of numerous family band gigs, backing up his rockabilly-singing dad). His go-for-broke drumming chops, which the Brauns discovered by chance when Nazz’s college-buddy roadtrip led him to the same small-town Oregon open-mic that the brothers were playing, complemented their deeply rooted country-folk leanings to make something entirely new. “We had a great chemistry, onstage and offstage,” Nazz recalls. “And then one day they said, ‘Hey, we’re moving to Texas, and our goal is to play every single night until we get better.’”

Some band members were barely old enough to drive when they drove all the way down to Texas in a move that turned out a lot more permanent than anything probably seems when you’re 18. “If Willy and Cody weren’t the kind of quality guys that they were and are,” says Nazz, “I don’t think I would have had that passion to blindly follow them down here.”

RECKLESS BROTHERS OF THE ROAD: (from left) Cody Braun, David Abeyta, WillY Braun, Joe Miller, and Jay Nazz. (Photo courtesy of Reckless Kelly)

RECKLESS BROTHERS OF THE ROAD: (from left) Cody Braun, David Abeyta, WillY Braun, Joe Miller, and Jay Nazz. (Photo courtesy of Reckless Kelly)

Sometimes optimism is the best policy. Within a year or two of hitting Austin they were the precocious young favorites of more seasoned peers like Robert Earl Keen, Chris Wall, and Joe Ely. Somewhere along the way the Braun brothers and Nazz settled on (but hardly settled for) the aforementioned hot-rod guitarist Abeyta, who could sling it with buzzsaw ferocity or Bowie knife precision. It wasn’t long before Reckless Kelly had entrenched themselves as one of the hottest bands in not only Austin but the whole Texas music scene — a scene so rich with opportunity and passionate music fans that it eventually attracted yet another hungry young band featuring a second pair of Braun brothers (Micky and Gary) at its core, Micky & the Motorcars. Meanwhile, Reckless Kelly’s star contin-ued to rise over a string of releases, thousands of gigs, and a few different bass players (new arrival Joe Miller, formerly of Back Porch Mary, is holding down the low end now). They headlined often, opened sometimes, and made the occasional mainstream inroad with a CMT-friendly video and even a Grammy nod (for the artwork and packaging of Good Luck & True Love). And through it all, they never forgot their roots: Every year, the band migrates back north to Challis, Idaho, for the annual Braun Brothers Reunion Festival, and 2010 even saw them release an entire album — the excellent Somewhere in Time — paying tribute to the songs of family friend and Idaho folk legend Pinto Bennett.

Counting live albums and one compilation Best Of covering their three-album run on Sugar Hill Records, the new Long Night Moon is Reckless Kelly’s 11th release since the band’s formation and landing in Austin nearly two decades ago. It’s been a storied run that’s been chronicled in print nearly every step and album along the way, with two previous cover stories in this magazine alone (one timed to the release of Somewhere in Time, and prior to that for 2008’s Bulletproof.) This time around, to mark the occasion of both the band’s latest album and the 15th anniversary of their first one, 1998’s scrappy and still thrilling Millican, we reached out to the two blood brothers in this band of brothers who started it all — Willy and Cody — for their take on not just the new record but the whole Reckless Kelly story. As befits a long tale about a band on the move, as told by two protagonists who’ve never really stood still, the interview was conducted on the run, in bits and pieces of conversations and phone calls from the road somewhere in between this year’s Braun Brothers Reunion, a barnstorming West Coast tour, and a triumphant return to Texas just in time for Long Night Moon’s release in September.

Part 1: Idaho Cowboys

Cody and Willy Braun (Photo by Rodney Bursiel)

Cody and Willy Braun (Photo by Rodney Bursiel)

The independent, artistically ambitious edges of country music were once so isolated — especially in the pre-Internet age — that even the people who play it for a living often weren’t even aware of it until adulthood. But Willy and Cody who were literally born into it. As the sons of Muzzie Braun, a touring troubadour from rural Idaho peddling music that ranged between cowboy poetry, classic honky-tonk, and folk-rock, they were following the rodeo in their father’s employ before they even hit their teens. 

How old were you when picking guitars around the house transitioned into backing Muzzie up out on the road?

WILLY: It’s hard to say when we started doing it officially … I remember getting up onstage with Dad, singing or playing a song or two with his band, from the time we were 4 or 5 years old. We all did that at some point or another, until one by one we were just kind of replacing his band. I think we were full-time playing with Dad by the time I was 8 or 9, so Cody would have been 10 or 11. Dad was playing all these shows so we just gradually got exposed to it — probably partly because we worked cheaper. [Laughs] I started out on the drums, when I was about 6, and Cody was playing fiddle, Micky playing bass. Dad had one of those mariachi basses …

Do you mean a bajo sexto? All the way up in Idaho?

WILLY: Yeah, a bajo sexto, except Micky was so small, he’d play it standing up, like a regular acoustic bass. And Gary, he played a lot of harmonica, played some accordion and started playing guitar.

What kind of crowd was your dad playing to in those days?

CODY: We played a lot of small town festivals around Idaho. One time we did a tour of Idaho schools where we would go play for students. We’d also play these county and state fairs all over the Northwest, and lots of private parties in the Sun Valley area as well.

Where there any artists from Texas making inroads into that circuit, or was it somewhat isolated?

CODY: It was pretty isolated, usually, but our first show as “Muzzie and the Little Braun Brothers” was an opening slot for Guy Clark at the Northern Rockies Folk Festival in Hailey, Idaho. Willy and I’s first big show that we attended was Willie Nelson at the Boise State Fair. We also got snuck into a bar in Sun Valley to see Asleep at the Wheel. Plus I remember Dad’s dance band playing lots of songs by Robert Keen, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark, Stephen Fromholz, and Jerry Jeff back then. So he played a big part in introducing a lot of Texas music to us and the music fans in Idaho.

Aside from how to actually play, of course, what were some of the major lessons you learned out on the road in those early days?

WILLY: I learned all about the business from Dad and Mom. Mom was kind of our road manager back then. We learned how to interact with the fans, how to deal with the promoters and the people who were actually writing the checks.

CODY: We learned everything we needed to know. How to book a gig, how to set up and tear down a PA, how to make your own records and put them out without a record label, how to promote those records and your show. Most of all we learned that you don’t have to be on a major label or on mainstream radio to be a professional and successful musician. Our dad was one of the first guys in Idaho — if not the first — to record and put out his own records. He set up accounts in music stores and gift shops all over the state and was his own distribution company. And both of our parents had and still have an incredible work ethic. They both worked very hard to raise us where they wanted to live and make a living playing music on their own terms. Mom didn’t play music but she did everything else and more. My dad is a very lucky guy.

It’s well-known how much you honor the influence of Pinto Bennett, whose songs your recorded on Somewhere in Time. Was he on pretty much the same circuit? 

WILLY: He was an old friend of my dad’s … I always remember him being around and we’d go see him and his band, the Famous Motel Cowboys. He was always just one of the guys that everybody in that scene looked up to. He was kind of a guru, just because he was such an incredible songwriter and kind of a wild card, real funny guy, and everybody loved him. Kind of larger than life — kind of like the Guy Clark of Idaho.

CODY: They played a lot of the same honky-tonks in Idaho before the drinking and driving laws pretty much closed them all down. [Laughs] Pinto spent a lot of time in Nashville and Europe and Dad played mostly in the Northwest.

Was it tough to say, “Sorry Dad, we’ve got to try out something new” when you decided to break off and form your own band? Or was it something you’d been building towards over the years anyway?

WILLY: I think it was something we kind of knew was coming, but honestly … [laughs] I made Cody break the news to him on that one. I used to let Cody do a lot of the heavy lifting on that kind of thing back then. I guess I still do. But our folks were always supportive along the way, always willing to help us out.

Part 2: Wild Western Windblown Band

When Cody, Willy, and Jay Nazz left the Northwest to try their luck in Austin, at least two of the niches that they fit into were on a promising upswing. The loosely affiliated alt-country scene was getting good nationwide press for bands like Wilco, Son Volt, and the Old 97’s; closer to their new home, songwriter Robert Earl Keen became a left-field favorite to a ton of Texas college kids and sparked more than a few to pick up guitars and follow in his footsteps. Intentionally or not, Reckless Kelly straddled both subgenres right from the start, reaching back into the heritage of rock-infused alternative country and Texas outlaw music as they built upon their sound.

When you decided to strike out on your own, why did you decide on Austin, as opposed to Nashville or Los Angeles or elsewhere?

WILLY: Mostly the live music scene, and the people we’d heard growing up; mostly folks like Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark, these great Texas songwriters. And we’d heard Billy Joe Shaver’s Unshaven: Live From Smith’s Olde Bar and knew he was from down here.

CODY: Better Mexican food, for one! And we heard there were 300 bars that had live music every night, and we thought our style of music would fit better there than other popular music cities.

Aside from making a relatively short move to Oregon and picking up Jay Nazz as a drummer, had you made any progress on your own up north?

WILLY: Well, Oregon was more like one of those bumps in the road. We didn’t play a lot of gigs and didn’t make much progress up there. The original band was called the Prairie Mutts, and that band broke up in about six or eight months, and that’s pretty much where Reckless Kelly started. We got the core of the group when Jay joined up, and a couple of guys took off and took the Prairie Mutts name with them, thank God. [Laughs] That’s when we decided we wanted to go somewhere else.

To your own eyes and ears, what was the music scene like when you got here? 

CODY: Austin was like Disneyland for us. Coming from such a rural part of Idaho and having never lived in a big city, we were kids in a candy store — or a bar, anyhow. We had just spent nine miserable months in Bend, Ore., rehearsing nine hours a day and getting our sound together, so Austin was just what we needed to really get our sound together in front of people instead. We were pretty respectable at first, and then someone at the Austin American Statesman referred to us as “the Hanson of country music” and the gloves came off. We went pretty crazy during shows after that. Lots of partying, kicking over the drum set, throwing shot glasses at each other … pretty much an “anything goes” attitude.

Were there any particular people helping you get your foot in the door?

CODY: Chris Wall helped us a lot. He introduced us to so many folks in town and helped us land some regular gigs. Chris also bailed us out and signed us to his record label when we ended up way over our heads with the recording of our first record, Millican. Without his help that record may have never seen the light of day. Big thanks to Freddy and Lisa Fletcher at Arlyn Studios for their patience on that project, too. Anyway, we backed up Chris on his Tainted Angel record, and I recently was a part of his new record, El Western Motel. He’s still my favorite songwriter in Texas. We also got a lot of help from a lot of club owners in town who fed us and gave us gigs when we weren’t drawing flies. The kindness of the people in Austin is what hooked me on the city and it still makes me feel proud to call it home. Robert Earl and [his wife] Kathleen Keen were also a huge help to us. They actually even managed us for a few years and Robert was a huge help in getting us out of Texas and on the road. He took us coast to coast as an opening band several times and has been a great friend and mentor throughout our career.

Did you see sort of a parallel to what guys like Muzzie and Pinto were doing up north? Folks like Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen, and Ray Wylie Hubbard were all playing a different sort of country music to a niche — or at least not mainstream — audience, too.

CODY: Yeah, and we really wanted to take that sound to another level and try and expose it to the kids our age.

WILLY: [The Texas artists] were on a larger scale, but yeah, there are definitely similarities. It was still kind of underground but there was a really good community, a much larger community, way more bands and musicians than we had up in Idaho.

Was the national alt-country scene of the ’90s — with all the “No Depression bands” — an influence too?

CODY: Kind of. We listened to a lot of Son Volt, lots of Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver. They were doing what we wanted to do.

WILLY: Back then the term “alt-country” was getting thrown around a lot more, and that’s what we always wanted to be, right between country and rock. We listened to more of the rootsy stuff; our goal was to be more like a modern-day version of the Flying Burrito Brothers or Gram Parsons. Or like Billy Joe Shaver, playing honky-tonk with the loudest guitar you ever heard. And pretty much everything Steve Earle ever did, that’s what we were kind of going for.

Who did you think of as your peers at the time, or at least find yourself on the bill with repeatedly?

CODY: We did a ton of shows with Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland, Jack Ingram, Stoney LaRue, Kevin Fowler, Roger Creager, and eventually the Randy Rogers Band. And we’re still great friends with all those guys. We still play a ton of shows together, obviously.

Part 3: Be My Friend In Real Life

There’s a small handful of artists in the Texas/Red Dirt genre that are bigger draws than Reckless Kelly, and a similarly modest number who’ve been at it for longer, but perhaps no band or artist feels more central to the scene. Since the big move to Texas, they’ve built infinitely more bridges than they’ve burned, rarely being more than one degree of separation from any artist you’d see on the shelves at Lone Star Music. They’ve initiated annual events like the Reckless Kelly Celebrity Softball Jam and the Braun Brothers Reunion Festival, and have been longtime staples — practically unofficial hosts — of both the annual MusicFest in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Larry Joe Taylor’s Texas Music Festival. Perhaps it’s an extension of literally growing up in a musical family. Either way, the Brauns’ figurative family has expanded to include dozens of fellow musicians, hardcore fans, and behind-the-scenes players in the business. For just one example, albeit a big and poignant one, Cody Canada and his wife Shannon named a son after Willy.

Aside from being brothers to each other, not to mention Micky and Gary, you’re honorary brothers of sorts to seemingly more than half of the artists playing around Texas. How far back do some of these friendships go?

WILLY: You know, it’s sort of surprising any time that I look at old articles or gig pictures or old show posters realizing we’ve been hanging out with some of these guys for such a long time. Like when Cross Canadian Ragweed first came down to Austin, I think we helped get ’em their first gig out at Lucy’s — or at least told them about the place. And then Jason Boland followed them down, and then Stoney LaRue came along, and guys like Randy Rogers got started playing. I remember seeing Roger Creager for the first time when we went to see Chris Wall, and he got up and sang a song with him. It’s cool after all these years, seeing these guys all the time and all the success they’ve had. Kind of something to lean on.

You’ve just recently wrapped up another annual Braun Brothers Reunion Festival back in Idaho. How did this event come about? 

CODY: It started almost 20 years ago with my Dad and his brothers, billed as “the Original Braun Brothers.” They started it in Stanley, Idaho as a one-day show in the park with local Idaho bands and about 1,000 people in attendance. Now it’s a three-day event in Challis, Idaho with bands from all over the country and about 3,000 people a day.

WILLY: Yeah, Robert Earl Keen’s come up there a couple times with us, we’ve had Dale Watson the last couple of years, Randy Rogers has been making it up there for a while … Cody Canada & the Departed of course, and Ragweed before that. Rodney Crowell’s done it, Guy Clark’s done it, Todd Snider was there this year … Corb Lund, the Greencards, George DeVore, you name it.

How often do newer artists seek you guys out for guidance, collaboration, or some other sort of help?

CODY: Not that much really. I think they are afraid because my advice is always: take two weeks off and then quit! [Laughs] Not everyone gets my sense of humor.

WILLY: With me it happens quite a bit … I do a lot of co-writing, especially with Micky. And yeah, all the time there’s younger bands coming up, asking how to get started, especially about how to keep a band together. Which is a pretty puzzling question, really — I don’t know how anybody does it these days. The only answer I can give ’em on that one is, find four or five guys who want it as bad as you do. You’ve got to be willing to starve a little, get fired from a couple of day jobs.

As long as you’ve been part of the scene, what have been the biggest changes in your eyes?

WILLY: Well, there’s a lot more bands out there, especially playing this kind of country-rock thing. And a lot more venues, too — they’ve popped up all over the country. So there’s quite a lot of competition, but there’s a lot of camaraderie, too.

CODY: When we moved to Texas, the bar, so to speak, was Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Robert Keen, Rodney Crowell, Billy Joe Shaver, Johnny Gimble, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. You’d strive to someday write a song as good as Townes, play a solo as good as Johnny or Stevie, and make a record as cool as Diamonds & Dirt. We’re still working every day to get to that level and challenging ourselves to make better records, write better songs and be better musicians. But there seems to be very little originality in the scene right now and it’s sad because Texas music has always been known for being different and damn good. But there is an industry now that they can tap into and because it’s so easy for a young band to make a record, print up 20 t-shirts and have daddy buy them a bus, they are skipping all of the “paying your dues” steps and going straight to No. 1 on the Texas Music Chart. And because of the technology, fans in Texas and elsewhere have changed, too: It used to be rabid, shirtless college kids jumping up and down spraying beer on each other; now there’s a sea of blank stares all looking into their phones. The audience is so preoccupied with taking selfies, shooting worthless video, and checking in on Facebook and Instagram that they miss half of the show. It’s not just the bands‘ responsibility to keep this scene thriving — the fans need to put down their devices and realize that life is happening all around them and they are missing it.

On the upside, are there any particular things — whether people, venues, technology, etc. — that make you think, “I wish that was around when we were getting started?”

CODY: A GPS in the van would have been great. Other than that, I wish we could go back to people not being completely reliant on technology. It’s boring to me.

WILLY: It’s kind of a double-edged sword. The internet has helped everybody spread their name, but then again you send out a post or a tweet and it’s lost in the millions of ones that are out there. Whereas it used to be someone picks up the Village Voice in New York or the Austin Chronicle or whatever the local rag is and sees what’s going on this weekend. The competition for getting people to find that information is a lot tougher. Sometimes I’m glad it’s there, sometimes I wish we were back to hanging posters on telephone poles.

I’ve followed you guys long enough to remember when you had the monthly mailer, a little postcard that had tour dates, merchandise plugs, shout-outs to your favorite bands, etc.

WILLY: Yeah, that was one way to tell if a band had been around for a while: take a look at their mailing list. It was expensive, but it was the only way to get the word out.

How does playing a great slot on one of the big festivals (like MusicFest or LJT Fest) with a lot of these other acts from the scene compare to any other good night out on the road on your own?

WILLY: You know, sometimes you’ve got to work a little harder to win the crowd over; it depends on who they came to see. If you’re playing a festival, somewhere in the middle of the bill, they might just be waiting to see the headliner. But you go out there and kick a little ass, they’ll probably remember you. It’s really kind of fun, it’s a challenge: Get ’em out of the parking lot. Same thing can happen at the bar, though … sometimes people are there to see you, and sometimes that’s just where they go on a Friday night and you’ve got to win them over, too.

Part 4 – Ragged As The Road

After a couple of short years gigging under the Reckless Kelly name, Willy, Cody & company squeezed into the studio with a modest budget but some fairly stellar material to make Millican in 1998. Still arguably one of the best debut albums in recent Texas music history, it split the difference between fiddle-driven, hardcore country and melodic, go-for-broke rock ’n’ roll. It hit like a revelation, both for those who’d never heard that specific indelible blend before and those who’d been catching the band’s increasingly wild and, well, reckless live shows around Texas. Turns out it was just a first roll of the dice for a group that’s been among the most prolific and consistent in any genre over the last decade and a half. Always good and usually great, they’ve rarely let a couple of years go by without hitting the studio or a couple of months go by without hitting the road.

Thinking back to when you recorded and released Millican … did it turn out as good as you’d hoped it would? How exciting was it to get that out?

WILLY: Man, it was really exciting, something we’d always wanted to do, but it took a little while to get it done. The first producer we hired, he didn’t really know what he was doing, and we were so young we didn’t know that he didn’t know that until he was almost finished. He gave us the master and we’re listening to it and it’s like, “this doesn’t really sound right, doesn’t sound like it did in the studio.” We kind of had to fire him, get another guy in there to mix it. He was a friend of Chris Wall’s, so we ended up making three more records with that guy. Anyway, we were only 18 or 19 when we made Millican, and I’m still pretty proud of it.

In the years since, what do you feel are some of your peaks as recording artists and songwriters? Are there any specific albums or songs that stand out as your proudest moments?

WILLY: I’ve always thought that “Desolation Angels” was one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written. It took me a long time to write that one and it’s on Under The Table & Above The Sun. I think our first three [records] are … you know, I still like them, but I don’t think I’m as crazy about them as I was when we made them. We were limited in either time or money, and on The Day I don’t know if the songs are all there, but I think we figured it out and started making really decent records. We always want to make one that beats the last one. I don’t know if we always pull it off but we give it our best shot.

CODY: Just the fact that we are still together is my proudest feat. Long Night Moon is my new favorite record we’ve done. “Be My Friend (In Real Life)” is my favorite track.

How big of a role did the addition of David Abeyta to the band have on your evolution? He’s been a hell of a hand on lead guitar, obviously.

WILLY: You know, going back to the last question, Abeyta probably helped a lot. Those first three records I was talking about? Those were the ones he wasn’t on. He showed up right around the time we were really getting our shit together; he’s been around at least 13 years or more. In more recent years, he’s been really involved in the producing and he’s getting to be pretty good at the technical end of things. It’s allowed us to really make our own records; now we just get an engineer, and without David’s expertise, we couldn’t pull that off. Oh yeah, and he’s a freakin’ good guitar player.

Moving from your growth in the studio to the road, how different is it to be on tour now versus your experiences on the road 15 years ago or so?

CODY: Much is the same. The shows still feel the same to me. Traveling is more comfy on the bus, though; everything runs a little smoother and we don’t have to set up and tear down all the gear ourselves anymore. I still hate sound-checks and I still love drinking with the fans and the band after the show. I still always love coming home to Austin and I still hate leaving the ones I love when we leave. I still love the challenge of the business and the thrill of the show.

WILLY: Yeah, it’s a little easier now. We’ve got a little following, so we can actually get home with a little money instead of going out there and losing it all. You’ve got a little more fire when you’re younger, but then again you’re just out there getting beaten up by no sleep and 12-hour overnight drives and too many guys in the van, playing for four hours instead of just two or so. Now we can get out there and put on better shows, rested up and ready to rock ’n’ roll.

Are you still surprised by some of the places you find Reckless Kelly fans?

WILLY: Yeah, sometimes you’ll be playing someplace that feels like the middle of nowhere out in Kansas and tons of people who know who you are show up. They’ll say, “We can’t believe you’ve never come here before,” and we’ll say, “We can’t believe you’ve ever heard of us!”

Photo courtesy of Reckless Kelly

Photo courtesy of Reckless Kelly

Part 5 – Best Forever Yet

By the time you’re reading this, Long Night Moon will bring the studio album portion of the Reckless Kelly catalog up to eight. The record is a testament to the band’s still-firing-on-all-cylinders creativity and vitality; 15 years after their debut, Reckless Kelly can still produce a quality album that feels fresh, lights up the truck speakers and sparks through the earphones with the sort of noble, grounded, and unforced punch of a pack of working-class pros who have never had to overdo it to do it right. “Willy had a pretty clear idea of how he wanted to the whole thing to tie together,” offers Abeyta, “and that makes it easy for me sonically; I’m not searching for a direction to go with it, but instead trying to make his vision happen and sound as great as it can.” To the band itself, every new record is both potentially their best and at least a reminder that they’re still hot on the trail of their muse, well past the point when many great bands flamed out, sold out, or simply drifted apart.

After so many productive years and albums together, what’s it like to approach a new project? 

CODY: We are very focused with a pretty good idea of what we are setting out to do these days. There’s not a lot of arguing about or second guessing what we’re doing.

WILLY: I’ve kind of figured out my songwriting a little more. I don’t try to write 30 songs and pick out good ones — I can kind of tell the good ones and the bad ones right off the bat, what’s worth putting in any more time on. And we know what studio we want to go to;  we’ve been going there for a while now, and know where the mics are and what mic goes with what amp.

Was there a different vibe in the studio, approach to the songwriting, or anything else that felt markedly different this time around, even from the last album?

WILLY: Well, you don’t want to make the same record every time. You’ve got to evolve, try new stuff. We like experimenting, and on this record we tried some new arrangements. But at the same time you don’t want to stray too far from what people liked about you in the first place.

In your mind, where is that line between “let’s stick to our guns” and “let’s try something new”?

WILLY: It’s kind of a delicate balance. I don’t want to put out the same record 10 times, but I also don’t want to go make a disco record or something. [Laughs]

CODY: We don’t really ever have to think about it. We just try to play our best and play what fits the songs Willy brings to the table. We have never had to try and shape our sound one way or the other; I think the Reckless sound comes very naturally to us.

This one does feel more subtle than usual, in some ways. Not that it’s necessarily laid-back, but — it’s on the move, but it’s thoughtful and low-key more often than not. Was that intentional?

WILLY: It’s kind of just the way the songs wanted to go. About halfway through the process of writing this record, I realized that there was a lot of traveling going on in these songs, lots of wandering around, and I kind of latched onto that early on, started focusing on that as an overall theme. Not really a story, per se, but there’s definitely a beginning and an end. We didn’t want anything to poke out that didn’t belong on the record.

Do you still feel the pressure to produce something that’s going to be a hit — on Texas music radio or otherwise — or is there a certain confidence to knowing you already make music that fans connect with?

WILLY: I don’t really worry too much about trying to make hits. We’re already pretty aware that what we do is not gonna end up on mainstream radio, and we’ve also found out that what we do is pretty successful on Texas radio and the more independent stations out there. We’ve never let that dictate the shape of the records or the shape of the sound; it’s one of those great things about being an independent band and not dealing with a major label. We make the records we want to make, and if that somehow sticks or becomes mainstream, then that’d be great. But we don’t want to try to change what we’re doing to fit in with what’s popular at the moment, because I’ve seen a lot of bands do that and nine times out of 10, it just doesn’t work. They end up being popular for a song or two, then nobody knows who they are the next year. We’ve been hoping for a long time that this kind of music will be the next big thing, but if we change it now and if it somehow become the next big thing in a couple of years … hell, we’d be out of the loop! [Laughs] We’ve stuck to our guns too long to sell out now, I guess.

So, going forward, beyond Long Night Moon — what’s still on the Reckless Kelly bucket list? What does a band dream about after they’re already successful?

WILLY: Well, I’ve always wanted to play on Saturday Night Live, or at Madison Square Garden or Red Rocks or something. But mostly it’s just knowing we can keep having this career, make a living, put food on the table and have a good time doing it. But once we’re done with all of it, we want to leave behind a bunch of music that we can be proud of and that hopefully people will be listening to for a long time. We want to look back on it when we’re old men and say, “Yeah, we did that!”