Songwriters on Songwriting: Greg Brown
Originally written for the Bluegrass Situation
Greg Brown is what you might call a songwriter’s songwriter. From the blues to old school country, folk and so forth, his music doesn’t fixate on any one style. The songs he writes go where they want to go, say what they want to say so naturally, they start to feel as though they’ve written themselves. Brown, with his grumbly, gravelly bass voice and intuitive guitar picking, just happens to be an excellent vehicle for the ones that come his way.
Further, he’s a folksinger in the traditional sense of the word, which is to say, his songs are very much of the hills and creeks and grassy fields that dot his home state of Iowa. There are so many bullfrogs and chipmunks and rolling rivers in his songs, it’s not surprising that our recent conversation about how songwriting happens quickly evolved into a conversation about a number of things other than the art itself. It would seem, for Greg Brown, songwriting is more a side effect of living rather than a self-conscious, navel-gazing pursuit. Indeed, his songs are wrought with stories that speak for themselves, rather than making him tell them, communicating images as often as ideas:
The muskrat and the bullfrog
the rabbit and the skunk
Old barns full of blue sky
backyards full of junk
Flat stuff, flat stuff
way out to the, way out to the setting sun.
Across his more than 30 albums in as many years, Brown has delivered some of the simplest, most direct, intrinsically musical songs available in the folk and roots music world. Considering his prolific creative impulse, it interesting to learn that he captures songs when they come to him, and doesn’t seem to sweat it when they’re not around. Like seasons or tides on a lake, songs are something that just come in and go out.
Kim Ruehl: Do you even think about songwriting, or is it just something you do?
Greg Brown: I think about it. I don’t think about it a lot except when I’m doing it, really. I’m never worried about it, but I always really enjoy it and I’m glad when a batch comes along. Usually for me, t happens in batches. There’ll be a batch of songs that’ll show up. Generally speaking, I write a lot of stuff that doesn’t work out, trying to find my way. Once I hit the groove, sometimes I’ll get quite a few of them over a period of a month or two. Then I just kind of let it go ‘til it comes back again.
Do you ever pull out the stuff that didn’t work the first time, and try it again later?
GB: No, but I have pulled out songs that I’ve forgotten or ones I’ve forgotten about. I’ll be looking through some old notebook and I’ll find this song and think – oh I like that. I’ll reconnect with it. Or it may just be a song I wrote a long time ago and haven’t done for years. Something will remind me, or someone, and I’ll pull it back out and start from there.
Does it start with the lyrics, for you?
GB: No, it starts with what I’d call the pulse or the heartbeat, or whatever it is, of the song. It’s not words. It’s a pulse, really, a groove. I’ll start from that and oftentimes there’ll be a few snatches of words. They’ll either suggest the melody or vice-versa, but it’s really the pulse I hear.
Is it a rhythm?
GB: I don’t know, you could call it the soul or the heartbeat, the life of the thing. That’s what I first feel and hear, then I go from there. Generally speaking, I don’t struggle with the lyrics too much. I have had a few songs that seem endless, to try to get them [right]. Most of those, I never do get. Once I get the pulse going, though, things fall into place. I don’t use a pen and paper. I’ll just sit there and make a lot of sounds, then it’ll come, the lyrics of the tune. It’s kind of like being a sculptor to me. You’ve got this chunk of rock and you hack at it ‘til you get down to what you’re trying to get at.
It’s fun. I’ve always enjoyed it from the time I was a little boy, I made up poems and songs. They just seem to pop out. One thing I do when I’m not writing is I learn other people’s songs. That’s always been a good thing for me. It’s inspiring and you kind of get out of your own deal for a while. I’ll learn a bunch of songs by someone, or maybe I’ll just learn a bunch of poems. I spend a lot of time with other people’s songs and stories and poems. I think of it as a communal effort. Everybody’s trying to get at something and pass it on down, so that’s an enjoyable aspect of it.
What do you think people are trying to get at now?
GB: I have no idea. I’m so out of touch, I have no idea what people are trying to get at. I’m still learning things from Mose Allison and Robert P. Williams and a lot of people like that. There are some younger-than-me songwriters that I very much enjoy. Sean Rowe who just came out a few years ago. I really like Sean’s work. I really like a guy who lives around here somewhere named Malcom Holcombe, I think. Malcom is really tapped in there really good. There have been a lot of people over the years like that, but I really don’t know what’s going on anymore. I heard Sean on the radio and my ears picked up and I thought what’s going on there?
What have you learned from Mose Allison?
GB: One thing I love about Mose’s songs is the use of irony and humor. I haven’t learned as much as I probably should have about how to build a tight little boat. His songs are very well-constructed and mine tend to be pretty sloppy with stuff hanging out. But what I respond to in Mose is, for one thing, I really like that jazz-blues groove he comes out of. I like the words he uses, I like his phrasing. He sings like a horn. [sings] “For so many years, we had that same chest of drawers.” His writing is just very honest and very funny, very sharp. “Your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime.” That kind of thing.
It’s hard to be funny without just writing a novelty song.
GB: Without just being a joke. You’re right. I really like that in his work. There are surprisingly few songwriters that I’m aware of, that have a good sense of humor in what they do. John Prine, obviously, comes to mind. Randy Newman. There’s some, but not a lot.
What did you learn from watching your dad preach? Does any music come out of that?
GB: Oh I think so, and my whole family. My dad was a good storyteller form the Ozarks in Missouri, and actually a good singer too. In his sermons, he’d tell a lot of stories from his childhood and youth, working on a little farm, in a big family, plowing the field with mules. [He had] a lot of snake stories, too. He’d illustrate his sermons with a lot of stories from stuff he knew about. I think I picked up on that. My mom and dad would sing, and my mother played the guitar. She actually got me going on the guitar.
Her folks – her mother and father, my grandparents – were very musical. My grandmother sang a lot of old Irish songs and ballads. Grandpa played banjo. My grandma and grandpa used to come down here [to Western NC] to a place called Maggie Valley. Grandpa played banjo and he met some old boys over in Maggie Valley somehow. They’d come down here a lot and Grandpa would play with these guys. He had an old reel to reel tape recorder and he’d make tapes of it. A lot of the music Grandpa played, and that was prevalent across Southern Iowa in those days, was Appalachian stuff.
Southern Iowa used to be coal mining country. A lot of people who settled there were working in the coal mines or on the railroad, which is what my grandpa [did]. But a lot of ‘em including my dad’s folks, came over from Virginia or Tennessee and they ended up in southern Missouri. The kind of music that Grandma and Grandpa played was the old hill tunes… so I grew up with a lot of that. A lot was fiddle and banjo music, and someone might play the piano. That and the old hymns I heard in church, those were my first strong memories of songs.
So, as far as making folk and roots music, it’s not something you have to dig too far to get to.
GB: No. There’s a well-known folklorist who lives in Athens, Georgia, but he used to live in Iowa City – Art Rosenbaum. He’s put out a lot of [recordings] of the music he’s collected. One time, Art came with me down to my grandparents’ farm in southern Iowa and he taped Grandma and Grandpa. He told me on the drive home, You know there’s a lot of folksingers who’d give their left nut for your roots. [laughs]
I grew up with it. Then of course I branched out and listened to records, but I have that grounding. My grandma and grandpa had, I guess you’d call it a subsistence farm these days. It was that really rural, tough life, but a lot of spunk and a lot of strength. Same with my dad’s folks, who were small farmers in the Ozarks. They were not so musical as my mom’s folks, but my dad’s dad was a really good storyteller, and my dads’ mother Ella Mae was a great nature writer and poet. She passed down her journals to her children and my father passed them down to me. That whole notion of songs, music, and storytelling was just really strong in my family, and I picked up on it.
What do you think the point of a song is?
GB: I think one point of a song is to help people get by in this life, this tough life. We don’t know where we came from and we don’t know very much, really, about what’s going on. Songs have been a way for people to dance and be convivial with each other, to share the burdens of life. The hymns and a lot of the old folk songs have that strength in them. Life is hard, but music and songs have always had that capacity to help people get by in this life. They sure have helped me, and I think they’ve helped a lot of people.
When you’re writing, do you ever think about the life of the song, how far it’s going to go?
GB: No, that’s none of my business. I think of the life of the song as, like, does it have life in it? Have I written something that has life to it? Really, with songs, you write something and you don’t have to play it a whole lot of times to realize it either has something going on in it, or it doesn’t. As far as what happens to songs on down the line, I just send them out into the world and wish them the best.