Forty Years After ‘The Iowa Waltz,’ Greg Brown’s Voice Rumbles Across Generations
Photo by Pieta Brown
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The last time Greg Brown played a show, the sky filled up with big, brimstone clouds and opened up an August thunderstorm fit for Scripture.
“I thought it was gonna blow the town away. The thunder was so loud, sometimes Bo [Ramsey] and I couldn’t hear what we were even doing and neither could the crowd,” Brown says.
“It rained just crazy and I remember having the feeling like God is really telling me to shut up.”
Brown retired the way he wanted: without fanfare, just a few songs, stories, and a little rain. Writer and humorist Michael Perry introduced Brown that day in August 2019 in Bayfield, Wisconsin, at the Big Top Chautauqua. His description of Brown’s voice: “[It] sounds as if it was aged in a whiskey cask, cured in an Ozarks smokehouse, dropped down a stone well, pulled out damp, and kept moist in the palm of a wicked woman’s hand.”
Perry describes himself as a Midwestern farm kid who “slowly, and pretty much accidentally, made my way into a world of art and writing.” And for him, Brown has always been a lamplight to follow.
“The thing that Greg Brown did for me was that he just consolidated and embodied and imparted this sense of what a working-class artist could be.”
The Church and the Tavern
At 71 years old, Brown’s voice is bone deep, and based on our phone call, falling farther by the day. With that voice, he’s delivered a winding trail of American music created over a nearly 50-year career. There are more than 30 albums in his discography, hundreds of songs, some of which have been recorded by Joan Baez, Willie Nelson, Robert Earl Keen, and Jack Johnson. That’s his song, “Brand New Angel,” that Jeff Bridges sings in the movie Crazy Heart. That’s his voice booming as Hades himself in Anaïs Mitchell’s original Hadestown concept album. He’s also been nominated for a pair of Grammys and had two tribute albums dedicated to his songs. It adds up to an almost sacred reverence among roots music fans and musicians alike.
When he picks up the phone, Brown is in Iowa, as it seems he’s always been, drinking coffee and telling stories about his grandfather’s sawmill that ran from the belt of an old steam engine. Brown spent summers there as a kid.
“There were always a bunch of rough people around there fighting and drinking,” Brown says. “It was fun for me because my dad was a preacher and I grew up pretty much in the church, so it was nice to see the other side of life.”
Brown’s work has always walked the crossties between life’s imagined rails: one wheel stationary on the church steeple steps and the other beginning to roll toward the tavern. He’s spent his career as a Carhartt-clad beatnik, a Midwestern mystic who’s been singing his idyllic ballads that mix pastoral heartland ideals and dark visions of the bleeding red American middle.
Brown says he learned how to sing first from his family. His grandfather played the banjo, his grandma played the pump organ, and his mother played the guitar. He sang with them and the other faithful at his father’s church services. In high school, he took vocal lessons three times a week, learning German lieder, classical vocal melodies, and proper breathing techniques. “I was lucky that I had those lessons as a kid,” he says.
At 19, Brown left Iowa for New York, then headed west a few years later to write songs and perform for legendary songwriter and producer Buck Ram in Las Vegas. Never able to achieve what Buck Ram called “vocal blend” in the trio Ram had put him in, Brown tried to quit the music business and returned home to work on his craft, performing occasionally and working odd jobs like meat cutter and hospital orderly. Within a few years, Garrison Keillor invited him to become a regular on A Prairie Home Companion, and then, when record labels still wouldn’t put out his records, Brown started his own, Red House Records.
The label’s first release was The Iowa Waltz, an album Brown had first put out himself in 1981 and that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Its 11 songs are at once sly and sincere, pure, casual, American folk music that Brown says was recorded in the “basement of a building that has since been torn down.”
There are moments on The Iowa Waltz that foreshadow what Brown’s voice was to become, but mostly it’s a young man’s voice trying out an oracle’s wisdom. Many of the lyrics on it have become prophetic in familiar ways, previewing the crushing toll of corporate farming and an emptying-out of rural America while still celebrating the evergreen, small joys found in the small places.
This immediacy is a result of the conception of the songs themselves: Brown says that most of the record was written while he was traveling across Iowa as part of a team of artists who were conducting music and art clinics in towns of less than 1,000 people. The artists would teach during the day and put on performances at night. Brown would try to write a song for each town the group visited.
“Out in the Country” is a rambling folk song in constant conversation with a colorful country fiddle. It’s a song that Doc Watson once told Brown reminded him of Mississippi John Hurt. Brown wrote it while driving through the countryside on the way to a gig.
“Every little thing I saw ended up in a verse,” he explains. “Then we got to the gig we were doing that night and I was sitting on stage in a high school gym playing some songs, and right as I was playing, I started hearing the whole arrangement for ‘Out in the Country.’ I hadn’t had time to actually play it on the guitar … so it was like stereo, like in one ear I was hearing the song I was playing and in the other ear I was hearing ‘Out in the Country.’ As soon as I finished, I ran back to the field out behind the school and sat there with my notebook and got it all written down.”
The title track of The Iowa Waltz, an earnest, homespun tune, has become a sort of unofficial state anthem. Brown wrote it during one of those touring arts trips down to Pulaski, a town that Brown describes as “just a little wide spot in the road.”
“I knew an old fiddle player named Buzz who lived there. Looked just like Santa Claus — big white beard, big belly. Buzz and I were sitting around a little downtown park in Pulaski and Buzz said, ‘Greg, why don’t you write an Iowa waltz? Missouri’s got one. We don’t have one.’ There were three or four old ladies sitting there on a park bench, so I just asked everybody what they thought I should try to get into an Iowa waltz, and they told me and I put it into a song and played it that night.”
After The Iowa Waltz, the albums came at a clip of nearly one a year for over two decades, a fair number of them considered near-masterpieces, including Down in There (1990), The Poet Game (1994), Further In (1996), and Slant 6 Mind (1997). Brown’s musical legacy is rich and vast, his influence best evidenced by his status as mentor to the Midwestern songwriters who are following behind him. Many of them point to Brown’s singular singing voice as a constant inspiration in their work.
Pieta Brown, Brown’s daughter and an established Americana musician in her own right, says that “Out in the Country” is the song that her dad used to sing to her at bedtime. (That’s her in the wagon her father is pulling on The Iowa Waltz album cover.) Her parents divorced early in her life, so she heard her father mostly the way the rest of us did — in song.
She’s always found something tectonic in her father’s voice. “I always think of it as sounding like the earth speaking. There’s something in his voice that is so rooted, and I think that’s what a lot of people respond to,” she says. “I mean, obviously these days it has a very low center of gravity, but he has a lot of different brushes and he’s sort of mastered the art of his brushstrokes over the years.”
Dave Simonett, singer and guitarist for Trampled by Turtles, says Brown’s voice borders on the ethereal. For evidence, he points to “Arkansas,” the first track from Brown’s last record, 2012’s Hymns to What Is Left. “It’s just the growliest, nastiest vocal, and it’s so great,” he says. “To me that’s called aging gracefully. … It kind of sounds like it’s from somewhere else. What person can sing like that?”
David Huckfelt, lead singer and guitarist of The Pines who released his debut solo album, Room Enough, Time Enough, in February, got to know Brown while he was living in Iowa City and first starting to play. To him, Brown is a musical seedbank carrying multiple singers and perspectives: “There’s dozens of voices inside Greg’s voice. There’s the sum total of all these influences of early American blues, folk music, Appalachian music, country music. Nobody sounds like he does, and I think that just comes from being so open minded to American music. It’s so reassuring and it has such a depth to it, it slows down time.”
But back in his Iowa City home, where he lives with his wife, singer-songwriter Iris DeMent, Brown enjoys a quiet retirement. He’s been reading some of the classics for the first time — Moby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov — and mixing in thrillers from John le Carré. He’s been discovering Moroccan music and listening to everything from Ali Farka Touré to The Carter Family. He might even put out a songbook similar to John Prine’s Beyond Words.
When new songs show up, Brown is still doing what he’s always done: piecing them together, adding to his vast catalog of unpretentious and honest folk songs written from somewhere right in the middle.
“The songs always just kind of came to me, you know? I didn’t really have to push that hard. The vocal always started when I was out doing something else. I could be fishing somewhere, taking a walk, or driving across the country or whatever. That’s really when I did a lot of my songwriting,” he says. “I’ve always found I have to just listen to what’s going on within myself, because I don’t really feel like I have a lot of control over songwriting. I mean I just listen and try to get with it and find out what I’m trying to do next.”