John Kunert admits that he's never been plugged into the Bloodshot alt-country scene. His band, Earl Foss' Brown Derby, does have some indie material that they'll roll out when playing bills with Sleeping in the Aviary and other more rock-oriented musical friends. But singers who ruled the country airwaves in the '50s and '60s like George Jones, Buck Owens and Faron Young (a country star he resembles) really form the template the quartet works from.
"We try not to be ironic," the smooth-voiced singer says during a break from his job at a UW lab. "We play it pretty straight. I like Hank III, but he can play straight country, too. He straddles the line."
Last Saturday at the Crystal Corner Bar, Kunert definitely played it straight. Dressed in dark, wrinkle-free jeans and a conservative country & western shirt replete with dark piping on the yoke and down the front, he looked like he was ready to travel back in time 50 years to honky-tonk alongside Young on the "Louisiana Hayride." Instead, he and the rest of his less sartorially polished quartet were mixing moody, mid-tempo originals off their debut CD from 2006, This Drinkin' Life, with George Jones covers in front of friends, fans and a few dozen sunburned folks sporting credentials from the SoCo Music Experience that had just wrapped down at the Alliant Energy Center.
The crowd wasn't exactly overflowing with two-stepping C&W fans done up in classic western wear. But the dancers in attendance were plainly having a helluva time, and they kicked up their heels a little higher each time Kunert abandoned his tenor voice in favor of deep, Jones-inspired growling. Lead guitarist Andrew Harrison's chicken-scratch solos and deft bows to the liquid Telecaster technique of Owens' right-hand man in the Buckaroos, Don Rich, also added luster to evening.
Unsurprisingly, George Jones and Tammy Wynette's blue-collar realism inspired most of Kunert's studied duets with pert female singing foil Kristen Kehl. Even though cowboy-hatted hunks were taking over country as Kunert grew up, these two were still regarded as country's royal couple in the small-town culture he was immersed in during formative years in Iowa and southern Minnesota.
Despite his talent for inhabiting music whose heyday came and went before he was born, Kunert says he doesn't think about taking his reanimation of country's golden age to Nashville.
"The band started out as my liking country music," he says. "And if you like that kind of music, I think the biggest respect you can give it is take it up and make it your own. But I think everyone in the band knows that getting to where people really know who you are takes a long time. I don't have any illusions about becoming anything big."
Taking a decidedly different tack from the indie acts Brown Derby sometimes pairs with in Madison, the band honors the country tradition by playing gigs in small towns that bring them in direct contact with the music's most devoted fans. Kunert says it's a way of remaining connected with the rural folks whose lives are echoed in the songs of Jones, Young and Owens.
"In those towns, the music never left," he says, underlining the difference between playing gigs in college-town haunts and country taverns. "In those places, George and Tammy are still married."
What's next for Brown Derby? More woodshedding, Kunert says, as well as a trip to the studio to record a second record. He'll also keep on polishing the band's easygoing stage show. "Just getting a handle on being a performer," he says modestly, downplaying the charms of the band's current stage show. "That's one of the biggest things."