January 12, 2003
Tucked Away in a Corner of Country
Truth to tell, Greg Brown doesn't seem nearly as distinctive a character as his old man, William, who grew up a Southern Baptist in the Missouri Ozarks, became an Open Bible minister and then a Methodist minister, worked as an electrician, decamped for an Arizona ghost town where he took up sculpture and jewelry-making and then ended up a member of the Bahai community.
By that standard, Mr. Brown is just your ordinary itinerant Iowa Zen beatnik folkie, with a voice so deep, rutted and dark it seems as if it's slithered up out of some primordial ooze, singing about the poet Kenneth Rexroth, slant-six engines and the wind-swept corners of Iowa and Kansas.
Mr. Brown, as much an authentic creature and interpreter of the Midwest as Lucinda Williams is of the South, might seem the least likely window onto the music industry. Still, in his own way he's a vivid reminder that as the business gets bigger and more Darwinian, at its ragged edges a thousand strange flowers continue to bloom.
"I never got into this thinking you could make a living doing it, but like the jazz world, there's a whole world, sort of like small-press music, of little clubs and community radio stations," said Mr. Brown, 53, who in his own way has become a certified cult figure and an exemplar of grass-roots musical success. "It's a little tucked away, but that suits me fine."
Over the years, Mr. Brown's look has gone from shaggy, bearded, aging hippie to short-haired, goateed, aging biker. Wearing a visor, a black T-shirt, an African mud cloth cotton jacket and old brown boots, he will never be confused with Britney, Faith, Justin or any other candidate for a Times Square billboard. Instead, as he sat at a Middle Eastern restaurant in the East 30's, eating hummus and falafel on a recent visit to New York, he radiated the star power of your local auto mechanic.
But his CD's — there are now 16 on Red House, the label he founded in 1980 — sell about 60,000 each. That's certain death at a big label, but profitable and very respectable at a low-cost independent. He's cut back on touring to about 60 dates a year, but can pretty much work whenever he wants. He was recently the subject of a compelling tribute album, "Going Driftless," in which his songs were done by Ms. Williams, Gillian Welch, Iris Dement, Ani DiFranco, Victoria Williams and other female artists in their own corners of the folks-roots diaspora. (And then, for good measure, he married Ms. Dement in November; it is his third marriage.) Women's versions of his songs have an intriguingly oxymoronic quality, like soprano versions of Johnny Cash, but the collection is a reminder of both Mr. Brown's off-brand appeal and the degree to which there's still an audience hungry for nuanced, intelligent, grown-up music.
His material dates back to the church music, Ozark hollers, jazz, R & B, gospel and old-time hillbilly country he grew up around in Iowa, Kansas and Missouri.
"My grandmother sang a lot of old Irish ballads; my grandfather played banjo; my dad had a wonderful baritone voice; my mom played guitar and sang alto; we heard everything back then," said Mr. Brown, who now lives in the Hacklebarney region of southeast Iowa, 20 miles from where he was born. "In my household, we could listen to anything on the radio, whether it was gospel or Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. So I grew up around Ozark snake stories and old hill tunes, church songs and fire-breathing evangelists. Writing music and telling stories all blended into the same thing."
At 18, he won a contest to play an opening set for the folk singer Eric Anderson in Iowa City and then headed east for New York. He spent much of the time living on the street, got a job performing at the old Gerdes Folk City in the Village, then took off for Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; and Las Vegas, where he found himself ghostwriting songs for Buck Ram, the founder of the Platters.
But before long Mr. Brown returned to Iowa, playing coffeehouses, writing songs, driving a truck and working factory jobs. It was a rough enough existence that he lost the tip of his left thumb in an accident at a meatpacking plant. He quit music for a while, went back to it and then in 1980 was ready to give it up again when Garrison Keillor asked him to be a part of his radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion."
The Keillor imprimatur put his name on the National Public Radio map and helped him build enough of a following to remain a musician for the long run. Since then, often with the help of his main collaborator, the producer and guitarist Bo Ramsey, he has evolved from his moody folk beginnings to an eclectic range of primal American sounds. His newest album, "Milk of the Moon," begins with the lovely "Lull It By," to the accompaniment of a single plunked banjo; segues to the uptempo "A Little Excited," which sounds like a cross between the Band and Johnny Cash; and goes from there to the dark, bluesy grind of "Let Me Be Your Gigolo"; the spare, heartland simplicity of "Smell of Coffee"; and the Memphis soul groove of "Steady Love."
Mr. Brown's music provides a stark, unself-consciously literary tour of off-road Americana ("Clouds rollin from Nebraska / Dark chords on a big guitar"). His musical terrain includes both love songs and affecting remembrances of family and home and an America of drive-by shootings in Lake Wobegon, chemical fields with "ammonia light" and lonely people hooking up when they can.
His album "Covenant," which came out in 2000, began with his vision of himself as the last out-of-touch troglodyte in America:
Half the people you see these days are talking on cell phones
driving off the road and bumping into doors
people used to spend quite a bit of time alone
I guess nobody's lonely anymore
'cept you and me, babe, 'cept you and me.
And he figures, if he has a niche, it's as a lonely, prairie Cassandra.
"Look at country music," he said. "You go back to Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, through George Jones, maybe through Waylon Jennings — there was an element of danger and trouble that came right out of life, life that was lived by people in the South. Country music now is mall country, it's clever, its based on skill, three or four guys sitting around the golf course writing country hits. It works, and it has about as much soul as that table over there. I'm the big dumb guy from the Midwest yelling: `This is wrong. This is wrong. Our lives should be funkier and more dangerous and more fun.' That's my job."
Mr. Brown is hardly a big, dumb guy. He once did a record in which he set William Blake's songs to music, and he comes across as an autodidact who can both design the house he lives in and discourse on Zen texts and the Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva. And just as his father, who died in 1999, spent his life moving from town to town in search of some divine message, he's come full circle, doing much the same thing.
"I feel I was called to do this, like my father was called to the ministry, and I would have been a fool to turn away from it," he said. "So if I had never sold any records or gotten any gigs, it would have been a huge, meaningful part of my life, like being part of this community of musicians going back to someone beating on a log with a bone. I'm grateful for the songs, but I never had any illusion I was writing them. I do my push-ups and sit-ups and try to be ready when they come. If the day comes when the well is dry, I've got a lot of things I'd rather do. And if the songs stop coming, I'll think, well, maybe they're out there bothering someone else."
©Copyright 2003, The New York Times (NY, USA)
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