Folkie Greg Brown on the simple life
By Alan Sculley
ASK GREG BROWN what he likes best about good music and the singer/songwriter homes right in on the ability of some artists to convey a sense of place in their music. "Muddy Waters, now when you hear Muddy sing, you can close your eyes and see the Mississippi Delta," Brown says.
"It's just right in there. Hank Williams Sr., you could see little towns, you could see a whole chain of them all down through the South. Jimmie Rogers, you can see him on the railroad train. It's just in a lot of American music. And I think even into contemporary times, I mean when I listen to Bruce Springsteen, I can see New Jersey, that whole deal in New Jersey. I can see where he's coming from. I can hear it. and I think that's a beautiful thing about America.
"We have such a big country, and there are so many landscapes and different feelings all around the country, and music expresses all that."
In Brown's case, his music reflects his roots in southeastern Iowa and the Ozarks of southern Missouri. This makes sense when Brown discusses his musical influences, because as much as he grew up loving everything from classical music to gospel, from the rockabilly of Jerry Lee Lewis to the soul of Ray Charles, from jazz to the country songs of Hank Williams, his biggest influences were much closer to home.
"I think one reason I feel so tapped into American music is just the nature of my growing up," says Brown, the son of a Pentecostal minister from the Ozarks and a mother who grew up in rural Iowa. "With my father being a preacher, there are so many American musicians who started in the church, it's just endless. People, you ask them, 'Where did you first sing? Where did you play first?' It was the church, and that was the case for me. It was gospel music. That, and then my mother's people--everybody played. It was really more like Appalachian or Southern folk music than it was anything. I just grew up with everybody playing and singing church music from the time I was little.
"I think another big influence was my mother's mother," Brown adds. "She sang old Irish ballads she had learned from her Irish mother. That whole ballad tradition of storytelling through songs, those beautiful melodies ... it was just in my heart from the beginning."
ALL OF THE STYLES Brown mentions are present in his spare, rough-hewn music. Although he is generally considered a folk artist, his music defies easy categorization. For example, on his latest CD, Slant 6 Mind (Red House), there's a danger-filled grittiness to "Dusty Woods" and "Wild Like Sonny Boy" that seems more based in blues. The scatting rhythms in the percussion and guitars of "Mose Allison Played Here" bring a jazz sense to the song. His sound takes a gentler, more folkish country turn on "Vivid" and "Spring & All."
In fact, Brown says, the sonic role model for the new CD wasn't folk or country at all. It was blues great Muddy Waters' classic 1963 acoustic album Folk Singer (Chess).
"It wasn't so much the songs, because Muddy's work, of course, is blues and Delta," Brown says. "It was just the sound of that record. It had a real presence to it. You could hear every little thing. He was playing acoustic guitar, which I thought was cool. That was a different thing for him. But you felt like you were right there in that room. And it was really that sound and the kind of presence I was after."
Slant 6 Mind (Red House), released last fall, is Brown's 13th album over the course of a career that began 20 years ago. It's a career that by his own admission has been spent on the fringes of the musical mainstream. Most of the time, he has received only minimal radio play or attention in the press. Perhaps his highest profile forum came during the 1980s as a regular on National Public Radio's Prairie Home Companion.
In recent years, though, Brown's star has risen. In particular, his three most recent CDs--The Poet Game, Further In, and Slant 6 Mind--have grabbed sparkling reviews in major magazines, and his songs have begun filtering onto Americana format radio playlists. Brown credits his producer, Bo Ramsey (who has played electric guitar on Brown's recent albums), with helping him discover how to create albums that sound better, more fully realized. Consequently, his work is more accessible. "I think what separates them is having Bo Ramsey and learning how to make records," Brown says, comparing his recent work to his early records.
"When I look back on my earlier songs, I feel just as good about them as I do of my songs now. I don't think of songwriting as being necessarily a progressive thing where you get better and better. It's more like circles. But making an album was a skill I had to learn."
IF SUCCESS is gradually finding Brown rather late in the game, he isn't complaining. "My career has always really moved by word of mouth. I haven't had any kind of a hype machine behind me at all," says Brown, 48. "So it's just happened the way it's happened. It suits me the way it's gone. I've been able to make a living playing music, which is all I ever really wanted to do.
"And things have gone well and at a good pace, I think."
In fact, in some ways Brown's approach to career mirrors a theme that frequently finds its way into his music--shallow materialism and the need to live life based on something deeper, something closer to the heart, something that provides a sense of community and belonging. "My own father, who was doing quite well in the world after he got out of the Army in World War II, he had studied electronics and he had his own radio and TV repair shop going," Brown recalls. "He was building those big, high broadcasting towers. Things were going good for him. But then when he felt a call to the ministry, he left that behind. He made a choice based on what he felt in his heart and not his wallet. So he was my role model.
"And also, I think having all these memories of what it was like to be with my extended family in a little farmhouse playing music, cooking supper, all contribute to this sense of belonging. I mean, to me, things don't get any better than that. I don't care how many swimming pools you've got.
"Those simple things are the things, I think, that really sustain us," he adds. "If I was walking through an airport and I looked at all these Americans, all rushing around trying to make more money to buy more stuff, if they looked happy and engaged, I would say 'Great.' But they don't. They look sad, they looked stressed, they look empty a lot of times. They look like people on a treadmill. I just don't think it works.
"I don't think my vision of life is really romantic. There isn't some beautiful, perfect way to live. But there are ways that are better than others. I really think the thing about rampant consumerism is it's destroying the planet and it's not filling up people's hearts and souls."
Greg Brown performs Friday, Dec. 4, at 8 p.m. at the Sebastopol Community Center, 390 Morris St., Sebastopol. Cheryl Wheeler and karen Savoca also perform. Tickets are $21/advance, $23/ at the door. For details, call 823-1511.
From the November 25-December 2, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.