of albums on his own Red House label, The Iowa Waltz (1983) and 44 & 66 (1984), which
eventually led to frequent appearances on Garrison Keillor’s National 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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.