The Brauns Ride Again

Forty Years of Festivals

By Willy Braun

Photos by Robert Millage, Courtesy of Braun Brothers Reunion

Each musician has an Elvis moment: that life-changing instant when you realize exactly what music is supposed to sound like and that everything you’ve heard thus far was just noise. For some, it was the Beatles. For others, it was Merle Haggard, and for others, Linda Ronstadt. For me, it was Steve Earle.

The song was “Guitar Town” from an album of the same name. I rushed home and asked Dad if he would buy it for me, and to my astonishment, he already had a copy on cassette, which he let me borrow and never got back. My three brothers, Cody, Gary, Micky, and I listened to that tape like it was our job until it finally gave way to the constant rewinding and snapped.

The damage had been done—not only to the tape but to us as well. We had discovered country-rock and all the other treasures Dad’s record collection held. There was no turning back.

Inside that dusty cardboard box of albums and cassettes was the same music that had inspired my dad, Muzzie, and his own brothers to follow in the footsteps of our grandfather, Mustie Braun. Mustie was a musician who played nightly for more than twenty-five years at Club 93 in Jackpot, Nevada. Grandpa was also a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, so he built the boys a stage in the basement to rehearse.

I once asked Dad how Grandma Becky felt about all that racket coming from downstairs, to which he replied, “About the same way your mom felt when Uncle Gary gave you that drum set.” 

With all this encouragement, they formed their first band, a mop-topped group of rock n’ rollers led by the youngest brother, Billy, called the Syndicate. The group disbanded after a few years of performing at school dances, roller rinks, and other prestigious gigs around the Treasure Valley. The three musicians went their separate ways but always continued to make music together. At some point in the early 1970s, Muzzie and Gary joined forces to form the duo with the name that most people know them as now: the Braun Brothers.

After many years of touring around Idaho and elsewhere, the Braun Brothers split, once again following their own paths. However, this temporary disbandment would ultimately lead to a reformation of the three brothers at a concert on a small corner stage in Stanley which, after forty-some odd years, is known as the Braun Brothers Reunion (BBR).

The official historical starting point for the BBR is a little tough to nail down—just ask my family. There isn’t a single Braun who can agree on the actual date. Hell, we can’t even agree on the real recipe (or spelling) for Fazzliane (a Braun family delicacy consisting of ground beef, processed cheese, and whatever else your personal recipe calls for). We all have a different opinion, and you know what they say about opinions.

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Cody Braun leans into it.
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Brothers Gary (left) and Cody Braun.
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Jason Eady on stage.
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Joe Miller, the Reckless Kelly bassist.
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Micky and the Motorcars perform.
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Micky Braun.
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Muzzie Braun.
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Steve Earle at the 2019 concert in Challis.
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Willy Braun at last year's concert.
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Hugs on stage.
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Enthusiastic audience at the Braun Brothers Reunion.
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The Challis concert venue.
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So, was the first BBR in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Dad and Uncle Gary were hosting concerts like the Idaho Swing Dance Contest? Was it that first year in Stanley? Or was it the year we moved the growing festival to the town of Challis? In any case, we’ve collectively agreed that forty is a good number, in part to avoid the annual Thanksgiving argument, but mostly because it will look great on a T-shirt.

To avoid further family conflict, I’ll tell the story as I remember it, beginning with my first memories of the BBR on that little corner stage at the Mountain Village Resort in Stanley. The original Braun Brothers had invited an all-star cast of Idaho musicians to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Syndicate, which included all the band’s original members.

The thing I remember most about that first year was the old man and the Syndicate all decked out in pinstripe suits singing rock ‘n roll music. I’d never seen a real rock ‘n roll band live, but I recognized some of the songs from the tapes Santa had left in our stockings.

The Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, the Byrds—it made quite an impression on Cody and me, who had either been granted permission to watch the show from outside through the pavilion windows or had snuck out of the band house across the street to catch the action. Back in those days, there was usually a band house full of the musician’s kids being supervised by one of the older, more mature kids, who was probably about eleven or twelve.

Mom must have been OK with it because the next year, we talked Dad into letting us sing “Dream,” wearing matching white shirts and our hair slicked back with Vaseline, trying to keep up with the pinstripes and look like the Everly Brothers. 

There’s a good chance Mom didn’t approve of some of the festival shenanigans we witnessed that year. Things were pretty rowdy, but it was generally kid-friendly by 1980s standards, and everyone was just having so much fun. There was a “musician’s yard sale,” a live auction where the pickers could try to make a few extra bucks by unloading some of their beat-up old gear.

One guy was trying to get five dollars for a broken speaker and shouted over the mic, “Hell, I’ll even throw in this cymbal,” which he did, right onto the dance floor, resulting in a delightful crash and a roar of laughter from the crowd. Things like this were typical during the early years of the BBR.

One thing the family can agree on is the year we took the show on the road with the Braun Brothers Reunion Tour for Idaho’s Centennial Celebration in 1990. These big semi-trucks folded down into a stage, and we were part of the show. By this time, my brothers and I had started playing with Dad a lot more, as the Little Braun Brothers, because we were a little cuter and a lot cheaper than most of the other musicians.

We played a handful of shows around the state, the highlight being a sold-out crowd at Bronco Stadium in Boise. Another highlight was that someone in the crew or all the older band members made homemade T-shirts. They were done in marker by hand and were quite colorful, especially by the night’s end. I don’t know who’s in charge of the fortieth-anniversary shirts, but I hope it’s not the same guy.

Eventually, the concert was back in Stanley, and we moved up the hill from the mountain village to the baseball field at the city park. The bands were mostly the same, but the venue was a nice upgrade. The stage was a flatbed truck parked up against the fence in centerfield, with the towering front range of the Sawtooth Mountains in the background. It was spectacular.

This was when it changed from a bar setting to an outdoor family event. People rolled out blankets, set up lawn chairs, and danced barefoot in the grass.

My brothers and I were a little older, playing full-time as Muzzie & the Boys. The name change was due to the fact that most of us were taller than Dad by then, and the word “little” just didn’t fit anymore. We were also getting old enough to hang with the grown-up pickers, and some of them were teaching us a chord here or a lick there, or at least telling us a good joke.

These were Dad’s friends, whom we looked up to with great awe. Esteemed musicians like Pinto Bennett and his band the Famous Motel Cowboys, Kip Attaway, Teddy Ray Jones, Kenny Saunders, Joel Kasserman, and Marc Kotroba, to name a few, were starting to take us under their wings. We learned a lot from them. Sadly, some are no longer with us, but those who are will be in attendance every year they can, lending their talents and friendship. They are and always will be “our guys.”

It’s more than worth mentioning that the same holds true for the vast majority of the BBR staff. Since the beginning, Mom and Dad would have their friends and relatives lend a hand with whatever needed to be done, be it taking tickets at the door, icing beer, hauling trash, loading gear and equipment, setting up tents, you name it. They’d do it all for nothing more than a slap on the back and a cold beer.

I wish I could recognize every single one of the people who have always been there to help us out and make this festival what it is, but I’m limited to three thousand words, so if you’re reading this, consider yourselves thanked and help yourself to an ice cold beer backstage.

As time went on, the festival grew, and so did the Little Braun Brothers. Cody and I moved to Bend, Oregon, and started a band, the Prairie Mutts. The name had been given to us by Pinto’s old drummer K.W. Turnbow, who at the time was playing with Chris Ledoux and Western Underground. The name, however, would be short-lived, as we broke up after nine months and relocated to Austin, Texas, under a new moniker, Reckless Kelly.

Gary and Micky had taken a few years away from the music biz but had started to pick up their guitars again, and Micky was writing some damn good songs. They enlisted a couple of their oldest friends from Stanley and Challis and formed a band called Micky and the Motorcars. After a brief stint in Cave Creek, Arizona, they packed up the van, and before you knew it, all four Braun Brothers and their bands were living in Austin.

To understand the history of the Braun Brothers Reunion, you have to understand the Texas/Red Dirt music scene and the connection between the two, so I’ll provide a brief history lesson with a side of moderate to heavy name-dropping.

By the time the Motorcars had rolled into town, we had immersed ourselves in the Texas music scene. We were playing almost every night anywhere we could, along the way meeting lifetime friends on an almost nightly basis. Young guns like Jack Ingram, Wade Bowen, Randy Rogers, and George Devore became instant running buddies.

The Motorcars showed up right in time to partake in some of the finest shenanigans of our lives. Just when we thought the shenanigans couldn’t get any cheekier, from across the Red River came acts like Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland, and Stoney Larue, who were bringing their red dirt sound from Oklahoma to Texas. The party got wilder, and the musical melting pot got a little fuller.

Meanwhile, a slightly younger bunch, including such musicians as the Turnpike Troubadours, the Trishas, Josh Abbott, and Johnathan Tyler were writing their first songs, preparing to join the party a few years later. Music was everywhere.

We’d see bands every night when we weren’t playing, and when we were, we’d run into our pals on the road, and we’d all be jumping up at each other’s shows, hanging out jamming and promoting each other, which, in turn, promoted the scene.

While a whole new generation was making its mark on the Lone Star State, more established artists we had always admired welcomed us with genuine camaraderie and mentorship.  Some of them even took us on the road or collaborated with us.

People like Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely, Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis, and even Steve Earle knew who we were. Little did we know that all the artists I mentioned, and many more, would someday be our guests at our little festival in Idaho, but it would be on a new stage in a different town.

“I don’t know, Muzz. Challis? Over Stanley?” This was the question everyone, including myself, was asking when Dad announced he and Mom were taking the reunion fifty-eight miles downriver to the county seat. “How ya gonna beat that view, Muzz?” Our concern did have its point. Although Challis offers its own brand of ragged beauty, I don’t care what you’re talking about, if it comes down to a beauty contest, Stanley beats any place this side of the French Alps.

Scenery set aside, the festival was threatening to outgrow Stanley, and I think Dad saw it coming. He already had a site picked out at the top of Challis on the golf course. The driving range has a nice gentle slope to it, like an amphitheater, and a flat spot at the bottom for two flatbed semi trucks to be parked for a stage. Now all that was needed was some bands.

The first band Dad invited to the BBR from the red dirt/Texas scene was Cross Canadian Ragweed (CCR). I was a little skeptical as to how the locals, especially my mom, would take to these tattooed boys from Oklahoma with their songs about smoking weed and outrunnin’ the law. Don’t get me wrong, these guys were our buddies, but they were our drinkin’ buddies!

Halfway through the first song of their set, my concerns were over, when they brought the house down to the point that Muzz walked on stage at the encore and offered them a lifetime contract, which Cody Canada accepted. Although Ragweed is no longer together, the Canada family hasn’t missed a year since. And in case you’re wondering, Mom loves them too: “Such nice boys!”

Adding CCR to the BBR started an influx of Texas/red dirt music that continues to this day. When other bands saw them on the bill, it lent us some credibility. Our old pals had gotten pretty big in those days, and they told everyone how cool the festival was and how pretty Challis is. So other bands and artists started coming, and then they’d tell someone else about it.

The chain reaction introduced countless artists to the Gem State and the Rocky Mountains. If you see a Texas-based act around here, there’s a good chance they came through Challis, got hooked, and kept coming back.

Since the move to Challis, the reunion has grown exponentially, but we still cap the tickets at 3,500 so there’s plenty of room for everyone to spread out and enjoy a relaxed atmosphere. The crowd is the best at any festival I’ve ever attended, and I’m not just saying that…they are. They’re kind to each other and always excited to come back and see the familiar faces they reconnect with every year.

Most of all, they appreciate the music and know that we’ll only book the best bands—so if you haven’t heard of someone on the bill yet, remember that twenty years ago, you probably hadn’t heard of the Turnpike Troubadours either. The crowds in Challis know this, and they let the bands feel it. The energy goes through the band and back to the crowd and repeats itself. It’s a beautiful thing.

As we gear up for the fortieth reunion, it’s as hard as ever to imagine what we might see. Of course, there will be amazing music and dancing. Old friends who met here will recall their first BBR and will probably have as hard a time remembering what year it was as we do. Folks may even have a beer or two. Perhaps Cody Canada or Wade Bowen will bring their own boys out to jam with them, who are likely to be among the torchbearers for this kind of music.

You might see a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration between artists when someone hops up for an impromptu jam. All I can tell you for sure is that if you ever come to the Braun Brothers Reunion, you’ll be back, because it feels more like a family reunion than a concert.

I know what I’m looking forward to. I’ll be joining my family and extended family on stage. I’ll see faces I only get to see once a year. I’ll watch Mom and Dad look out over the crowd and feel proud, knowing that all this started on a little stage in Stanley four decades ago.

I’ll remember poking my head out the window, awe-inspired by the scene before me and thinking that someday I might be lucky enough to play on a stage like that. But most of all, I’m looking forward to Saturday night, because my band, Reckless Kelly, is playing, and we have the honor of backing up the great Steve Earle. Now if that ain’t the American Dream, I don’t know what is.

The legendary Braun Brothers Reunion music festival will celebrate its fortieth anniversary from Aug 8-10 in Challis. For information, visit: braunbrothersreunion.com  

 

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Willy Braun

About Willy Braun

Willy Braun is a member of the musical Braun family of central Idaho. In 1996, he and brother Cody formed the Grammy Award-winning Reckless Kelly, whose tour with Steve Earle culminates next month in Challis at the Braun Brothers Reunion. The “Americana torchbearers from Idaho," says Rolling Stone, have “tied Austin rock and cowboy poetry together seamlessly for more than twenty-five years.”

4 Responses to The Brauns Ride Again

  1. Ryan - Reply

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    Just want to make you aware of a typo in the “About Willy Braun” section. I think you mean 1996, not 1966, when they formed Reckless. Hope that helps. Loved the article, love WB and RK, and will be back to BBR for our 5th time this year.

  2. Vicki Ahmer - Reply

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    We love the concert. We’ve been to 3 or 4 and keep coming back!

  3. Julie Haines - Reply

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    Great article! I love the BBR and hearing about the history. Every year I come with my crew of friends, the Voodoo Cowgirls. We can’t wait to be in Challis in August for the BBR! And by the way, the new RK single “Looking Down the Road” and video (shot by Willie) are amazing!

  4. Kim - Reply

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    Thanks, Willy!! Wonderful memories for sure! See ya in Challis!

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