Staying close to home is Brown's secret to success
176-129 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday
176-129 Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
176-129 Sold out
Greg Brown is describing the perfect Iowa day: "Going down to my grandparents' old farm [which he inherited], spending time outside and another chunk of time working on writing and singing, followed by a nice supper with some friends. Oh, and a pretty woman to kiss after supper."
Yes, it's the simple things have always satisfied Brown. But you couldn't tell this from his substantial songbook. He is a powerful and sophisticated craftsman when it comes to shaping words into songs. And although Brown continues to live in his native Iowa and record on the small independent label, Minneapolis-based Red House Records, he has developed a diverse national following.
And the singer-songwriter doesn't even tour that much anymore. For the past year, Brown has been on a self-imposed hiatus, although he played many benefit shows and small gigs around Iowa City and the Midwest.
"I feel lucky that I've connected with an audience around the country," said Brown, in a phone interview from his Iowa City home. "I think it's an honest audience, not one built on lots of hype and press but rather by a friend telling a friend. They are comfortable with and appreciative of the different things I've done."
Brown grew up in a musical family that "knew a million old church, folk and hillbilly songs." He got music, poetry and guitar lessons from his schoolteacher mother and "a lot of everything else" from his itinerant preacher father.
"He was a hillbilly guy out of the Ozarks who was a sort of renaissance man," said Brown. His father started out in the electronics business, became a bible-school preacher and went on to divinity school and became a Methodist minister. Along the way, he opened an alternative school for high school dropouts, studied sculpture and became interested in the Baha'i religion. In the late '70s, he rewired the Baha'i Temple in Wilmette.
"It was like visiting the land of Oz," said Brown, recalling a visit he made to the North Shore temple.
Brown's career blossomed early. At 18 he won a contest and opened a show for Eric Anderson, who encouraged him to go east where the '60s folk scene was in full swing. He found a job in New York City hosting shows at the infamous music hangout Gerde's Folk City. After stints in Portland, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, he figured this wasn't the life he wanted and settled back in Iowa. Several times he made the decision to quit music but each time couldn't resist the pull back to performing. Throughout, he never quit writing.
A weekly stint on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" from 1983-86, helped secure a national following. He continues to appear regularly on the radio show. But Brown has never abandoned the things that move him--family, home, friends, poetry and the natural world. These themes echo throughout his songs.
"I just wanted my life in general to match up with my work life," said Brown, 54. "I was never looking to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. I just wanted to write some songs and make a living."
Brown has recorded 16 albums since the '80s, nearly one a year. The content is varied, intelligent and memorable. His first, "The Iowa Waltz," is a tender tribute to his home state; "Songs of Innocence and Experience" features William Blake's poetry set to music, and "Bathtub Blues" is a delightful children's album. His latest, 1997's "Covenant" and the recent "Milk of the Moon" are testaments to Brown's powerful, raw talent.
Brown credits fellow Iowan and guitar wizard Bo Ramsey with helping move his style forward. In the mid-'90s they began working together, with Ramsey producing.
"Bo taught me how to love making records in the studio. Before that, recording was not a big deal for me, just basically a jam session. But Bo slowed me down and that allowed us to spend more time trying to get an idea where we were going with things. And I always had a base in country blues and he brought that connection more effectively into my music."
Ramsey was too busy touring with Lucinda Williams to lend his skills to "Milk of the Moon," which instead was produced by Brown, guitarist Pete Heitzman and percussionist-singer Karen Savoca, who will both appear with Brown at the Old Town School performance. Brown has learned well from Ramsey; the album lacks nothing when compared to earlier works.
Oddly enough Brown is the subject of a tribute album featuring covers sung by a some of the best female roots artists--Lucinda Williams, Victoria Williams, Iris Dement, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ani Di Franco, Stacy Earle and Gillian Welch, as well as Brown's three daughters. Due out in the late summer, it's a tribute with a twist--all the proceeds will go to various breast cancer organizations.
"A straight tribute album would have seemed silly," said Brown. "This just seemed more relevant."
But Brown did have a humorous idea for the cover art.
"I thought it should be a John-and-Yoko inspired cover," he said, laughing. "With me in the center, surrounded by all these wonderful women but I didn't get far with that one."
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