The seasoned folk icon Greg Brown tells it like it is
Greg Brown has got grit. Symbolized by his trademark coarse vocals, that sentiment holds true in how he’s become an underground icon without the commercial success.
A consummate folk singer/songwriter who’s amassed nearly 30 albums in three decades, Brown’s visceral brand of poetry puts him in the same league as Dylan, Young and Waits, yet a high profile in the mainstream isn’t what calls him. Having grown out of the hills of southern Iowa and Missouri, trout river fishing and fireside storytelling do.
An American roots classic, Brown’s guttural baritone, acoustic country with bluesy undertones, and straight-shooting yet deeply affecting lyrics carve songs that are cavernous in their earthy, simple depth: sometimes playful, sometimes sorrowful—but nearly always powerful.
Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Santana and Ani DiFranco have all covered his songs, and he’s been a regular on the road since Garrison Keillor’s public radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” launched his career in the ‘80s. Turning 60 next year, the twice Grammy-nominated troubadour admits he’ll soon quit touring. At an age, he says with a laugh, “where I better start doing tai chi and yoga and every other damn thing!” Brown looks forward to settling down in the farm outside of Iowa City where his grandparents once lived.
In anticipation of this week’s show celebrating the 25th anniversary of Santa Cruz’s Snazzy Productions, the luminary imparts his thoughts on American folk songwriting and the country from which it came. Born to a preacher father whose family consisted of storytellers from the Ozarks, and a mother who rocked the electric guitar in church, Brown’s a quintessential folk son. A prolific apple that didn’t fall far from the tree.
With the art of storytelling pulsating through his blood, it’s a practice he’s perfected and which he laments as slipping away in our hurried modern culture. “People need to tell their own stories. It’s good for the soul,” he rationalizes. “It’s the way people figure out who they are and what they’re doing here.”
Now an elder, Brown ponders the direction folk music is taking. “My feeling is that some of the energy and the organization that was in the folk scene has kind of gone over to the jam band scene, which has an acoustic element to it,” he observes. “For music to survive and grow there has to be a lot of young people doing it. The last one I know of, and I’m sure there are a lot of people I don’t know of because I don’t keep up, but when Ani DiFranco hit the scene I think she brought a lot of energy, blood and emotion into it. You need things like that to keep music alive and growing.”
With that same fortitude he admires in DiFranco, Brown started up Red House Records in 1981 for reasoning that’s two-fold: His first recording was rejected by everyone else he pitched it to, because, as he recalls, “My stuff was quirky. It wasn’t mainline radio music,” and he requires absolute freedom. “I’m not the kind of guy that can have an A&R guy telling me that perhaps I should beef up the sound or something. I can’t work that way.”
Following his heart worked. Today, Red House remains a thriving independent label and Brown a leading songwriter, revered for his verses that can be comedic, personal, environmentally and socially minded, or politically charged. In the poignant song “I Want My Country Back,” he’s outspoken about his frustration with today’s political arena.
“I’ve always been a little bit averse to music that is overtly political because a lot of times I don’t think it makes for a real good song. But since [the Bush Administration] got in, I was so amazed that the streets didn’t fill up right away after the coup that they pulled in Florida! Then watching them take away one freedom after another, and invade countries based on a bunch of lies—they’re a pack of criminals, as far as I’m concerned. They should all be in jail! I felt like I had to speak out,” he explains.
“There’s much shameful stuff in our history and there always has been. But I saw the dream of how things could be, which is something I find precious in this country. I felt that slipping away and I just had to speak out.”
Though he traverses a cornucopia of themes and strong stances in his music, he admits his folk method isn’t for everyone. “Somebody else just might write late night love songs, and I love those—I’m all over Barry White. If I had to pick one kind of music it would probably be soul music like Aretha Franklin,” he reveals. “I don’t think any artist has a responsibility in their music except to sing honestly and naturally from wherever they’re coming from.”
And when Brown sings about what matters to him, he strikes a chord.
Even Allen Ginsberg was a fan. The two shared a love of William Blake, and when Brown set Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” to music in 1992, he mailed Ginsberg a copy. The gesture would later prove reciprocal.
“I sent Ginsberg my record years ago and I never even knew if he’d gotten it. But Ginsberg had listened to my songs and had instructed his secretary to send me an unfinished manuscript [lecturing on Blake’s poetry] when he died. My heart just about jumped out of my chest!”
Crediting poets like Blake (“I think the fact that he was religious but it was anti-clerical lined up with my own feelings about those things.”) as being just as important to him as musicians, he anticipates putting out another CD of his poems in the next year. Planning to make some loose homemade recordings, he’ll set aside any big studio productions for an approach that features “just me and the guitar and maybe the birds singing or the wind blowing.”
While his grainy voice resonates with the organic side of the American life and landscape, his lyrics breath with a longing for it. Pop culture eludes him, or rather, he eludes it. And in the end, who needs to be mainstream anyway?
For someone like Greg Brown, a lot of soul and a spot by a river will do just fine.
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