When you talk to him, his voice rolling from mellow West Coast surfer tones to Southern-rocker grit poured from the mop buckets of Charleston beach bars, it's easy to see why John Brannen never quite became a celebrity. It's not that he's not talented -- in his time, he's been hailed by serious critics as the heir apparent to the likes of Springsteen and Mellencamp. And it's not that he's not marketable -- he's been backed by labels like Capitol and Mercury, and seen his videos hyped by MTV, VH-1 and CMT.
But, as he talks about why his career has gone the way it has, and why he made the choices he did, and who it is, exactly, that Brannen sees himself wanting to be, it's hard to get the sense that anyone so earnest could ever really be famous.
"I'd like to sell a couple of million records right now," he says, half-joking. "It would improve my situation immensely. But, I'm very happy with where I'm at, and I have the freedom to do what I want to do. That's the most that you can ask for as an artist."
It's been decades since Brannen has had that kind of freedom.
Back in the late 1980s, when he was a surfer-turned-songwriter who spent his time playing East Coast beach bars in search of party-hungry girls and fun times, he somehow got discovered. Almost immediately, the labels and producers started trying to shape Brannen into a heartland-ready songwriter. When his debut album, Mystery Street, was released by Capitol-backed Apache Records, Brannen suddenly found himself being marketed as one of rock's newest troubadours.
And it worked. His single "Desolation Angel" hit a respectable No. 16 on the national charts, MTV was playing his video and even Billboard was crowing about his talents. But, even as his wave was cresting, the rest of America still wasn't completely sold on Brannen as a celebrity.
Perhaps it was for the best, then, that Apache fell apart just after losing its distribution deal with Capitol, and that Brannen had a little time to reinvent himself. By 1992, he found himself where all songwriters go when they've run out of ideas: Nashville.
"I happened to come to Nashville to talk to a publishing company that was there," he says. "I wrote four or five songs as soon as I got there, and started cutting them in the studio. I was exorcising what my country roots were, but I was still, in essence, a Southern-rock guy."
Brannen says he didn't expect much out of his stay in Music City. He was still a musician, sure, but he was very seriously thinking about taking up acting. And then it happened. A handful of important folks in Nashville started to notice that Brannen, with just a little work, could be made marketable as a country star. He had crossover potential -- he'd already been a rocker, hadn't he? Labels began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, Brannen could be made into another boots-and-Stetson icon -- one with an "achy-breaky" heart.
"Billy Ray Cyrus had just hit, and it looked like the possibilities were endless," recalls Brannen. For a second, there's almost a twinge of pain in his voice at that statement -- perhaps some awful realization about the nature of fame -- but it's just a moment before he continues. "To them, it seemed like I was one of those guys that could cross over and go into the mainstream outside of country."
Suddenly, he was getting offers. Brannen signed with Mercury, and shortly thereafter released a single, "Moonlight and Magnolias." It was, in a moderate way, another hit, and the video for the song made it into VH-1's Top 10. He was part of a three-act national tour of new country faces, all virtually guaranteed to become the cash cows of the "hat act" set. And they did -- Toby Keith and Shania Twain are household names today. But Brannen never quite got there.
"It's a complex business on a lot of levels, and for whatever reason, that didn't happen at the time," says Brannen, his voice surprisingly free of regret. "As I wanted to progress as an artist creatively, the label wanted me to do the opposite, which was to reduce myself to more of what they called a country act. Once the big companies get ahold of you, they want to put a square peg in a square peg, and if you're a circle, they'll get out the hammer and see if they can flatten your sides until you're a nice, even form.
"I didn't feel like having my sides flattened."
Not surprisingly, he was eventually dumped by Mercury. Without a label, Brannen tried doing things his own way for a while. He released the non-genre-oriented album Scarecrow in 2000, which only saw release in Europe, and which is all but forgotten today.
Since that time, Brannen has changed himself yet again. No longer the beach-bum minstrel, the not-quite-heartland rocker or the reluctant cowboy, he's found himself as a solo performer with alt-country leanings. It's another image, sure, but it fits better than the boots ever did, and it's allowed Brannen to have yet another comeback, of sorts. His 2004 album The Good Thief caught the ever-fickle ears of No Depression, who hailed the once-mainstream Brannen as "an original hybrid."
And the reinvention continues. Not long ago, Brannen moved to Asheville, and it was here that he wrote his most recent album, Twilight Tattoo, released on his own Sly Dog Records. It's still a decidedly alt-country-infused effort -- Brannen's duet with Lucinda Williams on "A Cut So Deep" proves that -- but it's also a return to something much more central to Brannen's music: his own voice.
"I'd say that my songwriting has probably come full circle," Brannen says. Asked to look back at his life, he's still got a touch of that beach-bum optimism, as if any day now some new future will wash up on the sandy beach of his career. "Hopefully, I'm a lot better now."
John Brannen opens for Chris Knight at the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Friday, Aug. 11, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $14 ($12/advance). 232-5800.