Talking With Greg Brown
By Sandy Carter
For the small Midwestern music label Red House Records, Brown has recorded 13 albums and there is not a bad one in the lot. His 1985 release, In The Dark With You, is an acoustic gem. Songs of Innocence and Experience, a 1986 collection of William Blake poems set to Brown’s music, is a masterwork of interpretation. Recent albums such as Dream Cafe (1992), The Poet Game (1994), Further In (1996) and last year’s Slant 6 Mindpossess an intellectual and emotional depth that rivals the best work of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or Richard Thompson.
Although his reputation and audience has grown considerably in the past few years, Brown is still an unlikely candidate for “the next big thing.” His voice, style, and persona don’t fit any of the molds for pop stardom and he is firmly unwilling to concern himself with what he calls “the biz of the music biz.” So while critics and fans rave, and artists as varied as Willie Nelson, Shawn Colvin, Carlos Santana, and Mary Chapin Carpenter cover his songs, Brown is content playing the concert halls, clubs, and festivals that sustain his niche in the acoustic troubadour world. He is clearly intent on keeping his life and music rooted in the land and people he grew up with.
Born in the Hacklebarney section of southeastern Iowa and still residing in Iowa City, Brown maintains a staunch commitment to community. Accordingly, his songs convey a vivid sense of time and place, so much so that he has been described as “Iowa’s Faulkner.” In Brown’s stories personal and social history abide in the present, relations with parents, grandmothers and children remain visible and the pains and pleasures of friends and neighbors seem linked to a common destiny.
The clarity and purpose of Brown’s vision was forged growing up in Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa, following the wanderings of his father, a Pentecostal preacher, from job to job. Moving from small town to small town, Brown still retained strong ties to a large extended family and music was ever present. In church there was gospel music and at home he learned the basics of guitar from his mom and joined in frequent jams with friends and relatives. From his mother, a teacher, Brown was also introduced to literature and poetry.
At 18 years old he went to New York City where he landed a job running the hootenannies at Gerdes Folk City in Greenwich Village. While the gig allowed him to hone his playing and writing, Brown tired of New York and trekked off to Portland, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, where he landed work as a ghostwriter for Buck Ram, founder of the Platters. A few years later he was back in in Iowa playing clubs and coffee houses and working for the Iowa Arts Council singing and telling stories in small towns around the state. After his first demo was rejected by major record companies, he recorded a couple of albums on his own Red House label, The Iowa Waltz (1983) and 44 & 66(1984), which led to frequent appearances of Garrison Keillor’s Nation Public Radio program, A Prairie Home Companion. With the national attention, Brown embarked on a full-time music career and gave up the reins of Red House Records to friend and producer, Bob Feldman.
Now, at the age of 48, Brown has secured a devoted, ever widening audience. His music is receiving the most significant airplay of his career and his albums regularly stir glowing reviews in national music publications. Unfazed by this new level of “success,” however, Brown continues about his business chronicling the steady downslide of American life driven by the rapacious and wreckless forces of corporate capitalism. What he delivers as a songwriter often leaves us uncomfortable. In his tunes you’ll find hard strapped blue collar families, abused women and children, despairing displaced farmers, 60s generation sell-outs, brawling hillbillies, backsliding Pentecostals, dead-eyed mall kids, hipster consumption addicts–the full patchwork of wayward and lonely souls that is now commonplace in Middle America.
The hard-edged social realism of Brown’s work, however, is not what makes him a great songwriter. The real power of his storytelling derives from his ability to evoke the richness and complexity of real life. Though his perspective is often bleak, Brown’s songs still uphold humanity’s dignity, hope and resilience. Life is hard, but his characters still laugh, make love, dance and dream.
When I talked with Greg Brown by phone in early November, I began the interview by exploring the influences that shaped this deeply life affirming vision.
SANDY CARTER: Let’s begin by talking some about your musical roots. I know your mom played guitar and encouraged an appreciation of poetry and literature, and your dad was a preacher so you had gospel music in your life early on. But when and how did the blues, old-time country and rock and roll enter your life?
GREG BROWN: Yeah, the first influences were church and family. My whole family was very musical and there were always jam sessions going on. My mother played this big old electric Gibson and her mother, who was Irish, sang a lot of the old ballads from Ireland. There were aunts and uncles who played and sang. And from the church came old hymns and gospel tunes. So I was surrounded by music.
As far as other things I heard, it all comes from this kind of mongrel mix of Appalachian ballads, blues and country music that you hear in southern Iowa. And we’d listen to the radio and the Grand Ole Opry.
SC: Who did you hear on the radio that grabbed your attention?
GB: Jimmie Rodgers really caught my ear. Jerry Lee Lewis grabbed me. And Hank Williams.
SC: Your grandmother Ella Mae, from your father’s side, she also had a big influence on your life and music.
GB: Ella Mae was a remarkable woman. She lived in the southern Ozarks and her mother died when she was young. She had only a second grade education, but she had this innate love of reading and writing. And she kept this journal that recorded family history, descriptions of nature, moments of everyday life and poems, really very beautiful poems. She copied this journal for each of her seven kids and when I was 18, my father gave me that journal. I was beginning to write songs about that time and through reading her journal, I learned about how to write about things that were bigger than just me. There was a deep calmness and wisdom in her.
SC: With your father being a preacher and changing his affiliations, you moved around a lot. How did this effect you?
GB: It was ok. I mean I was kind of an artsy fartsy kid, but I was also big and into sports so I made friends and fit in. It wasn’t really a problem. But maybe it’s where I got my lifelong restless streak.
SC: In another interview you described your father as being on a spiritual quest and you respected him for that. Did his influence lead you, as a child or young person, to think about life’s meaning? Were you pushed in any way to become a doctor or lawyer or follow a more conventional career path?
GB: When I was around 17 or 18, I was very conflicted about playing music. I had interests in law, literature and biology, but I also felt that if I didn’t pursue music I’d be unhappy. But it was not a clear case of going one direction or the other. I was very torn about what to do.
SC: At 18, you took off for New York City?
GB: Yeah and I loved being in New York. This was 1969 and 1970. The so-called “folk boom” was really over. I was kind of on the tail end of that. But the music of the city. From the streets you could hear all kinds of music coming from the windows. It really enlarged my world.
SC: Now, nearly three decades later, you’re still at it. Though you don’t seem to be ruled by your career or driven by great commercial ambition, certainly on your album, The Poet Game, you express more than a little ambivalence about the path you’ve chosen.
GB: Well, there was a period in the 1970s when I quit. But I always loved it–the music side of it. Singing, performing, writing, I always figured that would be a nice part of my life. But for awhile, I worked other jobs and went back to school to study forestry. But I kept writing songs, playing a few clubs and this led to working with the Iowa Arts Council touring around the state singing and telling stories. And that led to Prairie Home Companion and a career.
When it comes to fame and money though, I’m not real ambitious. The business end, the hype–that I try to limit. To keep a balance in life, I usually play only about 10 gigs a month during the spring and fall. I take the winter off and play the summer festivals. Altogether, maybe 85 to 90 dates a year. I have no regrets though. I make a good living and I really enjoy what I’m doing. The writing, especially, is just a natural part of my life and something I love. But I don’t think it has any wide or pop appeal. And it’s not my ambition anyway.
SC: Speaking of your writing, one of the things I’ve always appreciated about your songs is how they work on so many levels simultaneously. The spiritual, personal and political, all these details and nuances of everyday life, maybe references to big social issues or moral questions–all of it weaves together so naturally. Is that how the songs come to you? Is that the natural way your mind works?
GB: My mind works that way. In my songs the individual, the bigger community and the rest of creation all meet and mix up. The political is always there, as it is in any song really. Because even if its a party song or a love song you’re making a statement and communicating values. But with me, rather than a social anthem thing, I find the most effective way to raise an issue is through a specific person’s story. But it has to work as a song. It has to have a melody, rhythm and words that communicate a feeling to people. The song has to get across.
SC: Your songs have such a strong rhythm pulse. Does a tune or lyrics ever start with the rhythm?
GB: Yeah, actually they do. Most of them start with a feel or rhythmic pulse and the words and melody come off that. It’s not something I sit down and think about. It’s more of a subconscious thing. I’m driving down the road and something just starts coming…I wrote “Billy From The Hills” that way. I stopped the car beside of the road, got out with my guitar and got it down. Other times I may be walking around the house playing guitar and singing and something starts to happen and I just take it down as it comes.
SC: There’s also a definite sense of time and place in your work. The landscapes and characters are mostly rural and Midwestern.
GB: Well, I write what I know about, what I have a deep feeling for and knowledge of. That’s where it starts, but what I’m trying to do is communicate with people, all kinds of people. Hopefully things I’ve seen or felt are things you’ve seen or felt.
SC: Some of the most common themes in your work are the effects of corporate power, the breakdown of family and community bonds, spiritual hunger and the loss of meaning. You can certainly hear these themes running through Slant 6 Mind in songs like “Whatever It Was” and “Loneliness House.” It seems to me, your albums have gradually grown darker. Do you see your work that way?
GB: There is a strong sense of things breaking down and I think it reflects the times and what I see happening around me. I think when I was a kid, people still learned who they were and how to behave not just from your family, but the whole community. If you were a kid in one of these little towns, everyone knew you and anyone might set you straight. There was that sense of involvement and shared responsibility. Today more of our values and identity come from the outside, the mass media and corporations. Now I know we can’t go back to some other time and I’m not advocating that. There’s a real danger in idealizing and falsifying other times, when things weren’t so rosy either and many problems, like racism, were barely even talked about in the white community. I mean when I was a kid my parents took a lot of grief for just allowing me to play and be friends with black children. Still, I think we’ve lost a sense of connection to others and a sense of purpose.
For me, however, I’d have to say I’m happier as a person than I ever have been. I’m more mature, I know better who I am and maybe that allows me to take on more of the darkness in my writing. In fact, I have a little pet theory that the songwriters and singers who go around happy as clams singing these upbeat happy songs are some of the darkest, most disturbed people in real life. I’ve seen a lot of them backstage. Then you meet someone like Richard Thompson, who’s written all these sad and bleak ballads, and here’s a guy who’s very charming and “happy” and a pleasure to be around. I know a lot of people talk about the new Dylan album (Time Out Of Mind) being dark and depressing, but I don’t find it that way at all. It’s brilliant. Yes it’s dark, but its honest and soulful.
SC: It’s interesting that you mention the Dylan album because the mood, the bluesy grooves and writing seem to run parallel to Slant 6 Mind in some ways. Dylan’s work is much more abstract, but both records capture, to use a phrase from your album, “a drifting time.” The narratives portray a country without vision or conscience, a place without clear moral signposts. We’re moving down dead streets with little or no sense of where we come from or where we’re going.
GB: Yeah, I think the records reflect the times. We’re living a life of pretend, acting as if we’re going somewhere, but we’re really directionless.
SC: Yet your albums still challenge us to love and hope and struggle. There is still an egalitarian vision poking its head through all the darkness.
GB: I am hopeful. As I go around the country playing for a pretty diverse group of people, I find many signs of hope. I meet a lot of people who are questioning, searching for spiritual and social answers and struggling to bring some changes into their lives and communities. It feels like a big shift or maybe a slow earthquake.
SC: Let’s talk in a little more detail about Slant 6 Mind. Musically the songs have a very loose feel to them. How much improvisation was going on in the sessions?
GB: The songs really changed drastically as we started to work on them. Most of the material was written last year. I rented a little room in Iowa City and worked there. But what I brought into the studio changed as we searched for a groove and jammed. My songs always change over time. I rewrite some of them and in performing, the words, the rhythm or the tune may change. There’s always a lot of play and improvisation in my writing. Songs with a lot of life in them I keep coming back to. And in these songs [for Slant 6 Mind] there was more jamming going down.
SC: Several of the songs on the album refer back to family and childhood. “Billy From The Hills,” a song for your father, which also includes a verse about your grandmother Ella Mae, was on your 1995 live album (The Live One) and here it’s redone. “Speaking In Tongues” also refers back to your early experiences in the Pentecostal church.
GB: Yeah, as I said, my songs are never quite finished and “Billy From The Hills” was a song I wanted to do again and my father likes it. We have a good relationship, although he’s more like a brother to me now. The song mixes up and connects the past and the present. “Speaking In Tongues” is like that too. I have very clear, very moving memories of ill or troubled people speaking in tongues in little churches in Kansas and Iowa. It was a beautiful thing to me as a kid to see these people get a little relief and release. The talking in tongues…it was very rhythmic, almost like singing. I also remember going down to the river to baptism, the white robes and gospel quartets. It’s all very vivid.
SC: What about “Down At The Mill”?
GB: Well, that one…my granddad had this old saw mill. I’d sometimes go down there and it was just unbelievable. All these wild, rough people were hanging around drinking and fighting. This captures some of that. It’s a little scary.
SC: Your song about Robert Johnson, “Dusty Woods,” is also a little scary. It has a very foreboding mood.
GB: For a long time, I’ve had this reoccurring vision of Robert Johnson. He’s going into these woods outside of town. Feeling restless, uneasy, like in “Hellhound On My Trail.”
SC: And it leaves a lot to the listener’s imagination. Where’s he going? What trouble lays ahead? What behind? You imagine the ever-present dangers to a black man in the rural south in the 1930s.
GB: Yeah, its fascinating what you can do in the song form. Just a few chords and a feeling. Really I see songs or poems as gifts. And once they’re out there, they belong to whoever hears them or sings them. People can use them the way they want. I love it.