Greg Brown is the best singer-songwriter you’ve never
heard of. A hardcore troubadour in the tradition of Woody Guthrie.
Brown was born in Hacklebarney, Iowa. His father was a
Pentacostal Preacher (who later embraced the Baha’i faith) from
the Ozarks. His guitar-playing mother grew up in a musical family
on a farm in southern Iowa.
Brown grew up loving music but had an epiphany at
age ten when he heard a record by Blues singer, Big Bill Broonzy.
He got his professional start at 18, coordinating Hootenannies at
Gerdes’ Folk City in New York. Brown spent time in New York City
as well as Los Angeles, Portland and Las Vegas before returning
to Iowa to begin his recording career in 1981.
Most of Brown’s recordings can be found on Red House
Records, a Folk label he co-founded. Sporadic appearances on
Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion,” raised his profile, but
Brown has made his name through relentless touring.
With his rumbling baritone and a song catalog that recount
the bucolic pleasures of trout fishing or the country comforts of canned
goods, it’s tempting to label Brown a rural Tom Waits.
Both singer-songwriters revel in the minutiae of everyday
life. While Waits’ style emulates the gritty noir style of Charles
Bukowski and John Fante, Brown echoes the rich pastoral language
of William Faulkner and Pat Conroy.
A prolific writer, Greg Brown has received two Grammy
nominations and been covered by artists as disparate as Willie
Nelson, Jack Johnson and Joan Baez. He has recorded an
album of children’s songs, Bathtub Blues. His album Innocence
And Experience paired his music with the poetry of William Blake.
He has released several live recordings and in 2002,
Red House released Going Driftless an all- female
tribute to Brown featuring Lucinda Williams, Ani Di Franco,
Gillian Welch, Shawn Colvin and Victoria Williams. All the
proceeds went to The Breast Cancer Fund.
Hymns To What Is Left is Greg Brown’s 26th
album. It opens with “Arkansas,” a backwoods banjo-riffic
hoedown that pays homage to our 25th state.
Greg Brown is 63 years old. Therefore it’s not
surprising that he is a little preoccupied with the aging process.
Three songs here mine that anxiety with humor and sagacity.
No calcium supplement needed on the bare-bones
instrumentation of “Bones Bones.” This bluesy track is a
wry and philosophical take on the inevitable…
“I’m looking at the garden by the light of the moon, looking
at the dirt where I am going pretty soon/ We can cry or we
can smile, But it’s all one big compost pile.”
“Now That I’m My Grandpa” blends sweet banjo
fills with a high lonesome guitar. The lyrics hone in on the
risible reality that before we know it, we’ve become our
parents. Wild oats get sown and life is a grand continuum..
“Look down seven generations, see the rising of the young/
Life is way less lonely when you’re part of everyone.”
Finally, “Fat Boy Blues” bemoans inexorable
middle age spread. Cocooned in an ambling 12 bar blues
melody, Brown’s droll delivery echoes the caustic style of
Delta jazzman Mose Allison. His tone sly and self-mocking…
“My friends all treat me kindly, my friends they treat me great,
but they are so quick to remind me I have put on even more weight/
And then they add too quickly, ‘Man it sure looks good on you’,
then they try to squeeze past me, with my fat boy blues.”
Brown has never been afraid to showcase his softer side.
Swadled in fiddle, banjo and soulful guitar, “Brand New Farewell”
is a tender elegy to a loved one… “Rosin up the bow, we’ll sing
him a tune to travel by.”
“All Of These Things” lays bare Brown’s poignant devotion
to his wife (and fellow Folk singer) Iris De Ment… “I’m strong and
I’m weak, I’m a dog I’m a freak/I’m a valley, a peak and I’m all of
those things with my baby.” The tune is burnished and beautifully
The spare title track winds it’s way through a surfeit of
emotions. By turns lonely, heartsick and desolate.
As always, Brown paints an unvarnished portrait of
rustic life in the backwoods and byways of America.
Two tracks here are especially masterful, “On The Levee”
and “Hanging Man.”
The former feels like an aural companion to
the film “Beasts Of The Southern Wild.” Anchored by plucked
banjo notes and corrugated guitar riffs, the tune is a snapshot
of human nature colliding with Mother nature.
The latter is an expansive meditation on the foibles
of man. The lyrics name-check poet Pablo Neruda, blues musician
J.B. Lenoir and Billie Holiday. “Hanging Man” offers up this bit
of hard won wisdom… “Great souls are the only riches in this
world of shifting sand.”
Other highlights on Hymns.. include the sweet lullaby
“I Could Just Cry.” “Good To You” is a concise exegesis on the
Golden Rule, and “End Of The Party” is a philosophical ramble
accented by wheezy harmonica and button accordion.
The album closes with “Earth Is A Woman,” a succinct
and playful ode to all of womankind.
This is a solo album in name only. Brown is joined by
his longtime producing partner, (and damn fine musician in his
own right) Bo Ramsey on guitars. Daughters Pieta and Constie
Brown chime in on harmony vocals as does Brown’s wife,
Iris De Ment. Bob Black plays banjo and Al Murphy tackles fiddle
Greg Brown is the quintessential raconteur.
Introductions have been made, Greg has provided 26
albums for your listening pleasure. Time to acquaint
yourself with this national treasure.
Greg Brown is the best singer-songwriter you’ve never