Deckle edge

Greg Brown
by Chris Flisher © 1994 /
(first published February 1994 Worcester Phoenix)

Greg Brown
Greg Brown wears his distinct Midwestern roots like a warm and familiar coat. Wrapped in the sights, sounds, and musical textures of Indiana cornfields, Iowa hog farms, or the broad open expanse of endless wheat fields, his songs speak a regional voice as deep and rich as the fertile soil from which they spring. Like Bill Morrissey’s New Hampshire milltowns or Springsteen’s New Jersey boardwalks, Greg Brown captures the Midwest and middle America with paint strokes as vivid in imagery as they are stark in their haunting reality. The vanishing lifestyles of a once-agrarian society, giving way to strip malls and drive-thrus, populate his songs with as much regularity, candor, and weight as canned peaches stacked on a grandmother’s cold-cellar shelves, the fever-scorched brow of a child in the night, or the lonesome yearning for a bygone friend.

His voice, one minute loose and tender, the next coarse and gruff as a rusty hinge, recalls, at times, the great bluesman, Howlin’ Wolf. Thick and raspy, Brown delivers, effortlessly shifting into a wailing falsetto, barking out phrases with gritty authenticity and then evoking genuine tenderness with soothing ballads. Within the world of contemporary folk/acoustic music, there are few singer-songwriters who equal his originality, depth, and vision and yet, his brand of uniqueness rises from an unconditional honesty and a total submersion in purpose.

“I can remember when I was 19 or so trying to change myself,” pauses Brown during a recent interview from his home in Iowa City, “You know, to be more like my friends who wanted to be doctors or lawyers or teachers. But the choice was so clear to me that I could try to do this and be a fairly happy guy or try and do something else and not be happy. I struggled to change, but I could not fight it. It was that compelling.”

Brown, who spins his Midwestern tales while celebrating the release of his 10th album,The Poet Game attributes his upbringing as the impetus for an occupation that was, as he says, “A very insecure job, at best.” The son of a minister and an English teacher, Brown’s youth was filled with music, literature, and their connected importance to life and living.

“I feel what I do has come very naturally. I listened to a lot of church music, the gospel quartets, the harmonies, actually all kinds of choral music and I still find it really very moving,” he pauses, continuing, “And I heard the music from the hills down by my Grandpa’s place, hillbilly music, Appalachian music, and of course early rock’n’roll and the blues. But you know,” he stops, “Even though my father was a preacher, rock’n’roll was never taboo. And I see it all as the same, anyway. It’s all connected. The church music, the blues, the gospel, Appalachian, rock’n’roll, it’s all connected.”

Musical associations continually populate Brown’s strongly rhythmic songs with broad references to all his varied influences. Blues, country, hillbilly, and folk form the backdrop for the majority of his work. Although generally acoustic-based, Brown’s songs often snap with a bristle of electricity, both in implementation and in sentiment. “I usually get a lyrical or musical idea when I write,” offers Brown, “But the songs always start out with a rhythm feel to them before anything else. I hear the beat of the song and then the rest just comes together.”

Witness the nervous energy at play in “Sadness” from The Poet Game, in which he vainly tries to shoo away the blues, despite their alluring hold on him. Contrary to the gloomy title, the song is a rocking number that rides on stinging slide-guitar runs (compliments of Bo Ramsey) and features Greg in an array of vocal acrobatics that finds him swooping and shouting, “Go away-ay and leave me alone,” with the vocal punch of an adolescent Elvis. “Balligall Hotel” also from his latest, is a smoldering slow blues that reels with a similar electric charge but at a slower pace.

Aside from Brown’s affinity for rhythmic invention and cross-genre pollination, his music really works on a much higher level. Subject matter as lofty as mortality, spirituality, and social change dominate the phrases of his best songs. In “Driftless,” as tender a ballad as written by any musician, Brown poses, “Have I done enough, Father, can I rest now/Have I learned enough, Mother, can we talk now,” and then later in the same song he asks, “Have I worn enough clothes to go naked/Have I told enough lies to see some truth.”

“A religious aspect seems to be coming out more and more in my latest songs,” he agrees. “It is because I am getting older and it doesn’t bother me as much. You know, growing up in the church I was profoundly ambivalent to these things that came out in my father’s sermons and I thought, ‘Well this is cool, that Jesus did this and said that’ and then I looked at what the church did to those concepts and I thought, ‘This is really fucked up,’” he recalls, continuing, “But I feel much more comfortable investing in that sort of thing now.”

Brown got his start in the late 1960s in New York’s Greenwich Village. “I just packed my bags, left the Midwest, and headed for New York. I thought that’s what you were supposed to do,” he offers, laughing. “I had a big 12-string guitar and I eventually got gigs in coffeehouses.” At the age of 22 he left New York, moved back to Iowa and got married. For five years he worked odd jobs, but never turned away from music. It was during those five years that he connected with Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show and eventually became a regular. “Garrison’s show opened a lot of doors for me and brought me to an audience I would not have reached otherwise,” he says. From that point on he has done nothing but music, cutting down from constant touring to performing 100 dates a year throughout the country.

Although his songs often represent an artist coping with mature themes, Brown’s music continues to have an underlying sense of cheeky irreverence. To some, the parallels between Elvis Presley and Jesus Christ may appear inane, but Brown finds common threads in the whimsical “Jesus and Elvis.” Sparked by the unlikely sight of matching velvet paintings displayed on the side of the road, Brown links the King of Kings to the King of Rock n' Roll, refraining, “Go on home to Jesus, El—he's waiting there you'll find/You two can jam on old gospel songs—them are the best kind.” Without a doubt, this is one of folk's (and music's) most original voices.

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge