At 16, Reckless Kelly Now Driving Their Own Career

Trends come and go, even in Americana, but Reckless Kelly is pretty much the same country-rocking, meat-and-potatoes Austin bar band it was in the mid-‘90s, only older, wiser, tighter and sharper in the songwriting department.

The group is fronted by singer-songwriter Willy Braun, while his brother Cody handles fiddle and other stringed instruments. They must have gotten at least some of their stamina from their onstage upbringing. They backed their dad in a Western swing band, along with two younger brothers who went on to launch the roots-rock band Mickey & the Motorcars.

Braun paused between shows to talk about last year’s album Good Luck & True Love, this fall’s single “Pennsylvania Avenue” and the inexact science of a steadily working band.

CMT Edge: You’ve been at this for a decade and a-half now. Does your career look at all like you thought it would?

Braun: You know, it’s hard to say. It’s funny, I have to remind myself that we’re not a young, new band. We’ve been doing this a little over 16 years at this point. … The main goal, really, was that we wanted to make good music and make records that we were proud of and make a living doing it, which is what we’ve ended up being able to do.

Have you readjusted your expectations over the years?

You have to manage your expectations. When I first started the band, we expected to be bigger than the Beatles, you know? (laughs) … Back when we first started, people used to ask us what our main goal was, and we’d kind of jokingly say we wanted to be on a bus. So five or six years ago, we started touring on buses. That was a big milestone for us. Last year, we bought one.

Bus or not, what does it take to keep a roots-rock band going this long?

I think a big part of it is keeping the people that have been with you for a long time happy and not doing anything too drastic or — quote-unquote — selling out or straying from what people liked about you in the first place. With the grassroots approach that we’ve taken, that’s what sort of makes people identify with you. And that’s what they liked about you in the first place — that you were doing things on your own terms. … And you just have to work really hard. You don’t really get to take a break. If you’re not making millions of dollars a night playing music, you have to go out and make a couple thousand bucks a night and just keep the wheels rolling.

Sounds like you have a good sense of who your fans are at this point. How would you describe them?

They’re really loyal. We’ve used to have a younger fan base, and we still do. But there are people that have been coming to our shows for 16 years, 17 years. They’ll bring their kids to the shows now. We have people who are like, “Oh, we met at your show 15 years ago, and we’ve been married for 14 years now and this is our 12-year-old daughter.” … They have this feeling like they discovered us. So they kind of just think of us as their band. That’s a really cool thing.

You’ve done albums on Sugar Hill and Yep Roc. How did you get to the point where you’re not only producing your own albums but releasing them yourselves and managing yourselves?

We’ve had several different independent labels over the years, several different managers. And we’ve always been really hands-on with every aspect of the band and the business side of things, too. We came to the conclusion a couple of years ago that since we’re so involved, we might be able to try managing ourselves and get an office manager — somebody to answer the phone and take care of the day-to-day stuff. … It’s going really well so far. Right around the same time, we decided that the way the industry is working, a label really isn’t a necessity for a band like us. …We’ve only done one record and one single, so there’s still a little bit of a learning curve there. But it’s going well so far.

The expectation for the average bar band is that it will deliver songs for people to get drunk and have a good time to. I get the sense that you’ve always aspired to something beyond that as a songwriter. Am I right?

Yeah. Of course, when you’re playing in bars for four hours a night and you’re just starting out, you have to keep in mind that people are there to get drunk and have a good time and maybe throw a couple of bones their way and do some songs — nothing that we would’ve considered cheesy or anything — but maybe some crowd-pleaser party songs. In the beginning, we did a little more of that. We still do something every now and then like that. But the songs are the most important thing. I feel like over the years, my writing has hopefully matured a little bit.

On Good Luck & True Love, a lot of the songs that deal with love explore a broader range of experience than just hookups and breakups. Do you push yourself to come at familiar topics from fresh angles in your writing, or does it come naturally at this point?

I don’t know. Writing songs about love or breakups is kinda your standard fallback for any genre of music. So there’s always going to be a lot of those songs. I write a lot about the road and try to write about things that are a little bit off the normal subjects. The new single is kinda political.

What did you want to accomplish with that single, “Pennsylvania Avenue”?

Really, we wanted people to kinda pay attention. We didn’t want to pick a side. We wanted to stay neutral on the whole thing because I’ve never liked anybody telling me their politics, especially onstage. When I go to see a show, I want them to play music and not tell me who to vote for. … I actually started writing the song about five years ago, so it wasn’t even about the two guys that were running this time. It was more just one American voice saying, “Everybody always gets on the campaign trail and makes all these promises, and it doesn’t seem like anybody can really stand up to those anymore.” … We wanted to put it out there right before the election and get people talking about it, sort of do our part to inspire people to go out and voice their opinion and vote.

There’s a tradition of Texas songwriters putting their two cents in about social or political topics.

Yeah. We don’t want to be known as a political band or anything, but you can only write so many songs about the road or breaking up with your girlfriend. … I guess it is kinda in that Texas tradition of telling people what to think, even if they didn’t ask.

What do you identify with most about Austin’s music scene — past or present — and the red dirt music scene in general?

It’s changed a lot since we first started. We moved down here right at the end of the Austin blues thing. There were still a bunch of bands playing three-piece, Stevie Ray, Texas shuffle stuff. We were one of the only — and actually are still in Austin — one of the only, like, country rock bands. … Texas music history is so broad, but we’ve always identified with the Outlaws — Willie and Waylon and Steve Earle and Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell and Billy Joe Shaver and guys like that who came from down here. That was the music we were listening to when we decided to move to Austin. Guys like that who always made really good country music but also had a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll up their sleeve.