Greg Brown adds a 'soul' sound to traditional folk

Ever since gaining national attention as a regular on Garrison Keillor’s National Public Radio program “A Prairie Home Companion” in the late 1980s, folk singer and songwriter Greg Brown has attracted dedicated fans nicknamed “Greg heads.” Willie Nelson and Carlos Santana are among his admirers.

What is it about Brown that draws so many to this unassuming yet captivating performer?

Bob Feldman, the owner and president of Red House Records, remembers the day he first saw his now bestselling artist.

"[Years ago], I was involved in the business, and had been disgusted with most music I was hearing, but I saw Greg in the early 1980s at the Coffeehouse Extempor [a folk music hangout] in Minneapolis and was just blown away.

"There was an earthiness," he continues. "I grew up loving soul music and jazz, and for some reason I saw all those elements coming out of Greg and his acoustic guitar. The songs were so memorable that you remembered them days later."

Brown, who has been called the William Faulkner of Iowa, writes about everything from small towns being overrun to watching his daughter grow up.

He was nominated for a Grammy in 1997 for "Slant 6 Mind" and has just released two records simultaneously: "Covenant" (Red House Records) and "Over and Under" (Trailer Records).

This preeminent practitioner of "soul folk" just wrapped up a tour with Ani DiFranco and is on the road performing solo until December. His forthcoming book of short stories, "The Watsonville Sonata," comes out in October.

"I love what I do, but I just need to take a little break, and spend some time in my new cabin [in southern Iowa], and generally enjoy the woods for a bit," said Brown in a recent telephone interview from his Iowa City, Iowa, home.

Across his 18 albums, Brown has always allowed for a silver lining of optimism, even in his darkest ballads. Despite the isolation and social ruin that can surround us, his songs seem to say that everything's gonna be all right if we work together.

Brown has an inviting presence on stage. He performs as a solo act or with producer-guitarist Bo Ramsey. The singer creates a warm and inviting atmosphere, and plays beautiful, funny, and thought-provoking songs.

"I never really separate poetry from songwriting," Brown says. "Usually a groove comes into my head, and it just sort of develops from there."

Both "Covenant" and "Over and Under" feature Brown at his best. His songs pack a unique blend of wit, soul, and social commentary. He's also a fine, underrated guitarist. But his songs showcase more of his signature deep, backwoods baritone voice and poetic lyrics.

On "Covenant," Brown fronts a band that includes an organist, the subtle guitar work of producer Ramsey, and a full rhythm section. "This will be the last 'band' record that I think I'll do," Brown says.

The presence of a drum set or electric guitars doesn't take away the impact of Brown musing about cellphones and isolation on " 'cept you & me babe," or playfully reviewing the hassles of marriage, while simultaneously longing for a union on the track "Marriage Chant."

One night last summer while driving home from touring in Colorado, Brown felt a flood of creativity. Lyrics and melodies floated into thought, and he wanted to act on them quickly.

"I just had about 13 tunes materialize," he says. He came home, gathered some of his fellow Iowa City-based musicians, and made "Over and Under." Far from "Covenant," this stripped down, touching, sweet yet edgy record creates a set of fictional characters that rival any Brown has invented before.

In "Your Town Now" he sings about staying true to one's dreams: "Don't give up on what you really feel/ ah, the small and local must survive somehow/ if it's gonna be your town now."

When Brown performs live, says Red House Records owner Mr. Feldman, he has the "charisma of a tent preacher."

That would make sense since Brown grew up with gospel music. His father was a Pentecostal preacher in the Hacklebarney section of southeastern Iowa; his mother was known to pick the electric guitar and his grandfather played the banjo.

Brown performed professionally in Los Angeles and Las Vegas before hooking up with the radio show "Prairie Home Companion" in the Midwest. He began to write songs, and put out his own records. He moved to the Twin Cites, where Feldman lived, and the two opened up Red House Records. The label is now flourishing and produces work by acoustic-based artists Peter Ostroushko, Guy Davis, Stephen Fearing, and others.

Brown also finds himself involved with a number of nonprofit social organizations. In August, he played a benefit for the Seed Savers Exchange, a grass-roots network of 8,000 gardeners, orchardists, and plant collectors who are maintaining heirloom varieties of vegetables, fruits, grains, flowers, and herbs.

Recently, he released "Solid Heart," a live disc recorded at a benefit for In Harmony, a nonprofit Oregon-based group interested in building housing for children being put up for adoption.

Red House Records is preparing a Brown tribute album to be released next year. Tentatively titled "Driftless," the recording will feature Ani DiFranco, Lucinda Williams, and Iris Dement performing songs penned by Brown.

For Greg Brown's complete tour schedule and more information, go to www.gregbrown.org

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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