“A Midwestern existentialist hobo with a quick-draw mouth, a bloodied heart, and bourbon on his breath.” Those were the words of music critic Josh Kuhn, describing the great singer/songwriter Greg Brown. A cool portrait of a cool artist, but it lacks, in my humble opinion, the most important and unique weapon of Brown, a warm, deep, soulful voice with roots deep in the earth, reaching for the sky, and a special rhythmic talent that makes his melodies stand out as pure Brown, even inside the traditions of folk, country and blues.
Again, for me, it was the voice that won my heart when I stumbled upon his album “Covenant” in 2000. I must admit, it was the simple cover art that stole my attention at first, but when I also heard the beautiful and thoughtful lyrics, I knew for sure that this was my man. I played the album over and over again, and if I didn´t have the time for the whole album I just played “Blue Car” – just close your eyes and drive the car through the dark and the rain.
And of course the wise and irresistable opening track, “´Cept You And Me, Babe”:
“Half the people you see these days are talking on cell phones
Driving off the road & bumping into doors
People used to spend quite a bit of time alone
I guess nobody’s lonely anymore
‘cept you & me babe ‘cept you & me”
And then, the simple words that runs as deep as any great country song:
“All the leaves are turning
& the fields are clear
There’s a fire burning
I wish you were here
Pretty one more time
Pretty one more time
Before we’re down the line
Pretty one more time”
Actually, there would be no problem to argue for the inclusion of all the songs on the album, but let´s go back to the start, like I did, after finding this, for me, first album.
Gregory Dane Brown was born 2nd of July, 1949, in Hacklebarney, Iowa, raised in a pentecostal family, his father a minister. A musical family, Greg used the pump organ six years old, went on trying his mother´s guitar. After winning a talent contest when he went to the University of Arizona, he quit studying and left for New York and Greenwich Village, soon to be playing and running Hootenanny nights. After this he lived a year in LA, before he returned to his home state, Iowa. For a period of time Greg worked with friend Richard Pinney, and they were releasing the live album “Hacklebarney” in 1974, never a favorite of Brown´s, but still, some kind of debut.
His “real” debut was his first solo studio album, “44 & 66”, more than showing the talent, the personal mix of humor, passion and knowledge of human nature and challenges.
Some free advice from Greg Brown in “Don´t You Think To Much”.
Of course, when you know that Greg Brown should be one of the really great singer/songwriters, it might be easier to see the greatness of the early albums. Nevertheless, it´s difficult for me to understand people who wouldn´t see the greatness of “The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home”, from his next album, “Iowa Waltz”, released in 1981. Brown writes and sings himself in to the great tradition with the maturity of one who´s both seen and understood the importance of Jimmie Rodgers, hardly the most obvious viewpoint of the eighties. An instant classic!
“Out In The Country” is a song about the values of being down-to-earth. It´s like a song from the old times, but written and sung in the eighties, with passion and love, it´s one of many songs of our times, having us remember what´s important and what is not.
The song “Daughters”…. well, every father that´s rich in daughters knows what he´s talking about – and what was it I suddenly got in my eye?
“I’m a man who’s rich in daughters,
And if by some wild chance I get rich in money,
Like say another two thou a year or even one thou a year,
I’m gonna look in to havin’ some more daughters.”
In 1983 Brown released “One Night”, a live album recorded at a Minneapolis folk club, Coffeehouse Extemporee. The album contains all that´s great about Greg Brown, and should be listened to from start to finish. The jazz quality in “Dream On”, the folksy “Canned Goods”, the humor, the kindness, the poetry and the clever lyrics, the warmth, the love and the voice, the voice, always the voice. A perfect place to discover the flourishing and flowering talent of Greg Brown.
The show was a turning point in many ways, as Bob Feldman was in the audience that night, seeing both his own and Brown´s future. Feldman brought Brown to a wider audience, he established Red House Records and re-released Brown´s first albums.
The next album was released on Red House, in 1985, this time with a full band. The album was called “In The Dark With You”. The opener “Who Woulda Thunk It” is a funky rocker, Brown rapping in perfect rhythm, fitting the almost spoken lyrics perfectly into the pattern of the song.
Between all the funky and humorous lyrics, Greg Brown always sneaks in the tender love songs. As in the beautiful “In The Water”. So simple and so beautiful. Great art. Greg Brown.
!n 1986 Brown takes a giant step, releasing the album “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”, setting beautiful melodies to the poems of William Blake. A very brave move, resulting in some beautiful songs, but as important, shows the ambition and the high sky Greg Brown is working under.
The previous albums got a lot of beautiful songs, but the next album in line is a classic in itself. “One More Goodnight Kiss”. Bursting with childhood memories and canned goods.
This version of the classic song is from a episode from “A Prairie Home Companion”. Every one of us visiting our grandmother back on the farm knows what he sings about.
Brown speaks about colors and pictures in “I Wish I Was A Painter”, but he is already a painter with his words and colorful voice.
“One Big Town” was released in 1989, with Bo Ramsey as a guitarist, back-up singer and producer – the start of a longtime association. The lyrics tell us about a poet frustrated by the state of things, the America as it appeared at the time of the album, the consumerism and the capitalism and the greed.
“The way they sell sell sell
The way they buy buy buy
The way they go pell mell
The way they die die die”
(from “The Way They Get Themselves Up”)
“America Will Eat You” shows the third-grade frustration of the singer, looking on a society heading in a completely wrong direction. Bitter and desperate words.
“We’re tempting little morsels on the
If we show up with the right bits and bytes,
they’ll fatten us like pork
And America will stretch her maw and show
us her white teeth
It’s only when it’s much too late we see
the cancer underneath”
The frustration is also about life itself, it seems, lots of traveling and touring away from the family, hoping for better days.
“Tell me no more snow will fall
Tell me all about the warm sunlight
Tell me you’ll hear me when I call
Tell me it’s gonna be alright
Tell me you’ll walk by the sea
On a warm summer’s night
Tell me you still love me
Tell me it’s gonna be alright”
Next album up was “Down In There”, released in 1990, and a new string of great songs follows, as the great rockabilly opening with one of his signature songs to be, “If I Had Known”:
“She was older than me I guess
Summer was invented for her to wear that dress
I knew about risk and she knew about proof
And that night she took me up on the roof”
On “Poor Backslider” he really rocks, contrasting the dark words and a melody that just makes you want to tap your foot, rise up and dance.
“I’m a poor backslider in the pit of sin
I try to crawl out. I slip back in
Come Savior save me-get ahold of my hand
Please don’t let me slide back in the dark again”
Mostly, though, the album is filled with the great Brown ballads, lifted by a strong and convincing vocal throughout. Like on “A Place In The Country”.
“Band of Gold” has to be inspired by endless listening to the best country singers and songwriters – this is one of Brown´s songs that really should be ranked among the greatest country songs ever written.
“This band of gold never meant much to me
A link in the chain that the world wants to see
A part of the show that the world asks you for
You can do what you want behind any closed door
This band of gold slips off easily
But there’s a mark underneath it anybody can see
The sun and the wind, the years and the days
Made that mark a part of me and it won’t go away
And just like that mark there’s a part of my heart
Your love protects from the storm
And there I can be a child who’s free
Though my body is weary and worn
And that band of gold is as big as the sky
No ocean is wider-no mountain as high
It’s as soft as your kiss is and as warm as our bed
And with that band of gold every day I thee wed”
The album ends with the beautiful “You Are A Flower”, the piano that follows makes it all sound like a melody Greg could have learnt from a Pentecostal gathering, nicely weaving the musical bond between human love and the greatest love of all, whatever that might be.
In 1991, Greg Brown makes a great TV appearance at “Showcase”, and it gives you great insight in what he´s like as a live performer. It makes it even more difficult to understand why he doesn´t have a bigger following.
I don´t know if it´s right, but I got the feeling that Greg Brown, like many other great singer/songwriters, Bob Dylan comes to mind, first and foremost are singers, and they actually write first of all to have the right songs to sing, songs that can release their heart, soul, humor, ambition, rhythm, musicality and love in a way that makes their own heart sing and their own foot tap. Dylan often spoke of his recordings of, even the greatest of songs, as blueprints of them, continuing working with them in a live setting, battling with them, trying to find new secrets in them each night. Sadly, I´ve never seen Greg Brown live myself, but every time I listen to a live recording of him, I feel it´s really what it is – live – he´s channeling his soul and his musicianship right then and there. That also means that the studio isn´t always the optimized environment for the singing. Still, when he releases “Dream Café” in 1992, something is happening, and the whole album oozes of great vocals, and for each of the songs you think it must be the greatest versions possible. Exquisite production, back up vocals and great musicians. The whole album is like a cool hand on your forehead, just when you need it the most.
Even in a rambling life, there is some constants. I guess that for Greg Brown, something tells me, fishing is one of them.
The beautiful “No Place Away” might be one of Brown´s greatest vocals to this day.
For Greg, as for all of us, years are passing by in an escalating tempo. To breathe deep and really see what happens, is the poet´s duty, like Greg Brown does in “Spring Wind”.
Bill Morissey, worthy of an introduction himself, and Greg Brown, knew each other for years, but in 1993 they teamed up for a duo album, “Friend of Mine”, mostly consisting of cover versions and traditionals. Great songwriters often are the best to pick songs to cover, and the album makes an interesting view on Greg´s abilities as a singer, spanning the whole circle, from Rolling Stones to Hank Williams.
And maybe the coolest version of “Little Red Rooster” ever?
Next album up is “Bathtub Blues”, also released in 1993, a children´s album, that is, old and new songs aimed at the most important part of human race. It includes a quiet version of Elisabeth Cotten´s beautiful “Shake Sugaree”.
In 1994 “The Poet Game” arrived, the title song on of my all time favorites by Greg Brown.
“Sirens wail above the fields –
Another soul gone down –
Another Sun about to rise
I’ve lost track of my mistakes
Like birds they fly around
And darken half of my skies
To all of those I’ve hurt –
I pray you’ll forgive me
I to you will freely do the same
So many things I didn’t see
With my eyes turned inside
Playing the poet game”
Jesus and Elvis meets, too, on this album.
Another beautiful signature song makes it´s way into the songbook of Greg Brown. “Driftless”.
“Have I done enough, Father
Can I rest now?
Have I learned enough, Mother
Can we talk now?
Will you visit me
In my place of peace?
I’m going driftless
Let’s cry all our tears
Cry them all out now
Let them flow down
And clean all the rivers
And the evening sky
Is the reason why
I’m going driftless
Have I worn enough clothes
To go naked?
Have I told enough lies
To see some truth?
Round hill – round thigh
Round breast – round sky
I’m going driftless”
“The Live One” (1995), a new great live album. He makes room for cover versions between his own songs, like Richard Thompson´s great modern folk ballad “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and Van Morrison´s “Moondance”, in a great jazzy version, showing that no song is to difficult for Greg Brown´s flexible musicality and great sense of timing and phrasing.
But of course, there is a lot of beautiful Greg Brown-songs, too. Like the tender and touching “Spring River”.
Next album up is one of the real masterpieces in Brown´s catalogue, “Further In” (1996), with songs like “China”, “Two Little Feet” and the beautiful “Where Is Maria?” Song that mixes the personal and the universal, always one of the strengths of Greg Brown.
The power of and need for love is never far away in Brown´s songs, neither on this album.
“As the branch is bent so shall it grow
That might be true but even so
A strong wind of real love
Will straighten us right back up
And we might find a place our heart is welcome”
The title song is worth the album alone. The circles in life.
“Further in, grandmother; grandfather, hold my hand
As I go on through this life and try to understand
The beauty of your faces I will never see again
But I know you’re with me now leading me further in
Further in, you friends of mine, they led me further in
I know I’ve hurt you many times and I’ve helped you and I will again
You to me and me to you, and us to all of them
The circle that will ever grow as we go further in
Further in, O my love, take me further in
Past the place where love hides its face and down to where we begin
So deep in this mystery, my tears on yours depend
And they like some wild river flow as we go further in”
“Slant 6 Mind” uses a really big canvas for the painting of the world according to Greg Brown in the album from 1997. The same year Bob Dylan makes his masterpiece “Time Out of Mind”, exploring all sides of the deep blues in human life, Brown makes a dark and intense portrait of Robert Johnson in the fabulous song, “Dusty Woods”.
In “Mose Allison Played Here” he flirts with jazz again, and he owns it, like a fish in the sea.
A pentecostal upbringing is not so easy to forget, as we learn in “Speaking In Tongues”.
“When I really feel my way back to that church and them people
The little hairs stand up all over me
And I hope that this nation like that congregation
Will give it up and pray for our soul, which is in misery
And that one day we may lay our hands on one another
And seek the healing for ourselves, this earth and our young
And sing that old song of many colors, many rhythms
And listen with our hearts to the speaking in tongues”
A critical view on the society he sees around him, is never all that far away.
The next album was “Over And Under”, short time after the previous, and released on Trailer, not Red House records. fulfilling the dream of making an Iowan back-porch album. Like with the instrumental “Beyond The Sunset”, a traditional made known by, among others, Hank Williams.
Brown both writes as sings as good as we now know him, like in the sad drunken call-song, “857-5413”, like a continuum of “She Thinks I Still Care”.
“Yeah, well, I’m sorry to bother you
It’s been good to talk to you, too
Yeah, I know, I won’t call again, I promise
But I never really got over you”
I´ve already mentioned my own first meeting with Brown´s music, the great “Covenant” album from 2000, awarded and praised from east to west.
The next one out was “Milk Of The Moon” (2002), Brown just cruising on his own wave of songwriting and touching songs, like in the beautiful love song “Never So Far”.
“Love is a gift, life is a journey
We’ll get ’em together some sweet day
When we’re apart it’s all such a yearning
But listen now, baby, to what I say
You are never so far that my love can’t find you
You’re never so far I can’t see your face
We are never so far, let me remind you
We’re never so far from our loving place”
Or, in the title song, “Milk of the Moon”, you know this is a poet that knows what love can do with a man.
“Morning is a siren, evening is a bust
Memories fade, pocketful of dust
I moan to you like a mourning dove
Mistakes are made along with love
On the day you opened up the door
I saw the future slip away, time is just a whore
If you can get any closer, oh please do
I can only dance when I dance with you
I’m drunk on moonmilk, I’m high up in the air
I know a woman she is silk there and there and there
With a kiss she wakes me up, she always leaves too soon
As she does she fills my cup with the milk of the moon”
But, just as easy as he can give us the softest love songs, he balances it with the humorous blues rocker, “Let Me Be Your Gigolo”. As tough as tough can get.
“Let me be your gigolo
We can hi-di hi-di-ho
I ain’t high but I go low
Let me be your gigolo”
This is also the year of the great tribute to Greg Brown´s music and songs, with a long string of heartfelt contributions. Like Eliza Gilkyson´s version of “Sleeper” and Shawn Colvin´s “Say A Little Prayer”.
Not to forget – the great Ani Di Franco version of “The Poet Game”.
This year is also the year that Greg Brown married for the third time, this time with Iris DeMent, one of the greatest countrysingers/songwriters of our times. A fan of hers from her first album, the news of them finding together touched me in a way there of course really is no reason for, but still, I loved the story about those great voices finding together. Iris contributed a beautiful highlight of the tribute album, a cover of Brown´s “The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home”. Here in a live version a few years later.
Iris also contributes back up vocals on Greg Brown´s next album, mostly a compilation of old traditional songs and folk songs, like an answer to Bob Dylan´s “Good As I Been To You” and “World Gone Wrong” in the nineties. Heartfelt and convincing versions, like in “Down In The Valley”, where Brown digs in with all his gravitas in his delivery in an simple, old song.
The same could be said of “I Never Will Marry”, the old Carter Family song, sung with such tenderness as Brown was holding a baby in his arms. Beautiful. And when Iris sings with him, yes, you just have to listen.
In 2004 Brown releases his fabulous and passionate live recordings from a tribute festival to honor Kate Wolf, the late great singer/songwriter that I´ve written about before – if you´re interested, here it is: The Wolf Will Survive. About Kate Wolf.
The album is called “In The Hills of California – Live From The Kate Wolf Music Festival 1997 – 2003”. The album is a great introduction and includes all the perspectives that are great about Greg Brown.
It´s getting late, and in 2006 we get “The Evening Call”.
Always a man of the wild and nature, Brown takes us with him, camping in Eugene, thinking of life and Mother Earth.
“Still a little bit of heaven in there and I wanna show it
Due respect. This looks like a good spot up here. You can
Try me on the cell, but most places I wanna be it doesn’t
Work. Sometimes you got to listen hard to the sounds old
Mother Earth still makes – all on her own.”
“Yellow Dog” is from 2007, an intimate live performance. Steve Horowitz comments about the show in a brilliant way: “It’s a typical Brown show. His low, rumbling voice exudes cool as he offers personal, matter-of-fact observations about life… He leads with his heart and lets his head follow.” Yes! That´s it! Always the heart first. That´s Greg Brown. And that´s the greatest artists. In my opinion.
It is very difficult, it seems, for Greg Brown, to make a bad album. Of course, the production is varied, also in quality, but I haven´t heard one of them that isn´t worth listening to – there is always great songs hidden there, and there is always the voice, the timing and phrasing, the funky rhythm or a funny joke. 2011 brings another personal favorite for me, “Freak Flag”. I know, it might not be one of his best albums, but still, it speaks to me, and the highlights makes it a joy for me to listen to it, even if it also have some weaker songs. Earlier Dylan companions as David Mansfield and Mark Knopfler are two of the great musicians on the album.
“I grew up in the shadow of The Bomb
Come of age during Viet Nam
Many thousand gone – I never did know why
Well look around – it’s so hard to see
What’s happening to our big family
I’m an American – I’m gonna let my freak flag fly – fly
Well my dad preached a message of love
I heard him say on the day he passed on above
He said “Use what you got, son, to raise a hopeful cry”
Dad, I heard what you had to say
I try to hold to it every day
I’m your boy – I’m gonna let my freak flag fly – fly – fly
Flag of green, flag of brown
Leaves in the sky, roots in the ground
I’m singing and stomping by the dawns early light
For every soul being beat down
For every child who sees the light and turns around
Come on now – let’s let that freak flag fly – fly – fly”
The coolest track of the album must be “Where Are You Going When You´re Gone” – it always makes it difficult to sit still, it just makes you wanna dance around the room, and it contains this unique sense of melody that is pure Brown.
This time he also sings one of Iris DeMent´s greatest songs “Let The Mystery Be”. Both with a background in spirited churches and brought up listening to hymns and evangelical songs, it´s even more touching to listen to a song with no finger-pointing.
Of course he is getting older, and I know somebody says the voice is starting to fail him. I don´t agree. I think the voice matches the songs just perfect, as in the blessing of “Tenderhearted Child”, an ageing man´s heartfelt and tender song to his child. It´s as moving as it gets, and I think no one could have sung the song better than Greg Brown.
So far, the last album from Greg Brown´s hand is “Hymns To What Is Left” from 2012. Maybe it´s because I´m growing older myself, but it never stops, Greg Brown speaks to my heart. When I listen to his deepening voice, it´s always like coming home – you know you´re safe, that this is a voice from the heart, that it is a soul that digs deep and it feels like it is a great friend of humanity in a time where we really need it.
On “Besham´s Bokerie” Greg sounds like some falsetto Skip James, it´s like a magical, almost eerie blues. It´s a fabulous performance!
Looking back on life, things might not be so sad, is the quiet philosophy of “Now That I´m My Grandpa”.
The album ends with a endless praise of women, representing life and love of all times, “Earth Is A Woman”, the beginning of it all. A great last song.
Greg Brown has been a guest in the show “A Prairie Home Companion” for many years, like with “All of These Things” from 2014.
That the power in his performance is still intact, you can see in this clip from Greg playing backstage at “Freight & Salvage”. Even using the Skip James-voice at “Beshom´s Bokerie”, telling us the story of it´s origins.
Even if “Hymns To What Is Left” was his last album, so far (I´m still hoping for a career-spanning box of left-overs and alternative takes), Greg Brown is still performing and still a pounding heart and a engaged soul in the time of Trump – the last video is proof of that. Still burning, always yearning for a better world – that´s Greg Brown for you.