Good Folk

Singer-songwriter Greg Brown returns to Tucson.

Rare are the singer-songwriters in contemporary music who have sustained truly original voices while their careers have shown steady, decades-long artistic growth without falter or compromise. You can count them on your fingers: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Nick Cave, Steve Earle and a few others.

Among their lofty ranks is Greg Brown, a 54-year-old roots musician and preacher's son from Iowa. During a career that extends back to the 1970s, Brown has made nearly 20 albums of bluesy gospel-folk songs, and he continues to get better with each release.

A longtime favorite of Tucson audiences, Brown will return to town for a concert on Thursday, Jan. 8, at the Berger Performing Arts Center. If you're interested in a road trip, he will also perform the night before--Wednesday, Dec. 7--at the Orpheum Theater in Flagstaff. No other Arizona gigs are scheduled.

Greg Brown was on the phone with me again last weekend, this time via his cell from the Southern Iowa farm he shares with his wife, fellow singer-songwriter Iris DeMent, whom he married in November 2002. His family has owned the place for more than 100 years.

During three, maybe four, conversations over the years, Brown has proven to be one of the most thoughtful, gracious and articulate interview I have encountered.

Which is just what one might expect from a man who writes with such passion and insight about falling in and falling out of love, sin and faith, family, redemption, darkness and beauty, memories bitter and sweet--the innocence of childhood and the complications of being an adult human.

On the phone, he mused about keeping his songwriting fresh.

"I feel in a way that I am always starting. I feel that I have to learn a lot of stuff about life and music before working on a new bunch of songs.

"I have never lost my sense of being very intrigued by the whole notion of music and song--the rhythms and chord structure, and use of melody lines that work against and with rhythm lines, lyrics and the idea of song structure, drama and comedy, whether I am writing from a narrative point of view or it's just a collection of images."

Brown said making music for him is an endless road.

"It's like following a little river just to see wherever it goes," he said. "The process is the most fascinating for me. I feel like I'm always learning what each song is going to become. When I start each one, I don't know what it's gonna end up like."

He doesn't methodically sit down with a pencil and paper, either. Maybe a guitar if it's near.

"The way a song starts is I'll start singing it, maybe a snatch of words or a little melody and a beat. Then I find my way through the song by singing it as I go around doing other things. ... If I get it feeling like it's something, and not bullshit, I'll continue working on it and concentrate on finishing it. ... At that point, it feels like a movie. I can really walk around in it, and feel what it's like to be inside this song."

Brown's most recent album of new, studio recordings, Milk of the Moon, was released in 2002 on Red House Records, the St. Paul, Minn., record label he founded in his living room.

During the 1980s, Brown's career started getting more demanding, what with touring and his years playing on Garrison Keillor's Minnesota-based radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. It was then that he turned over leadership of the label of Bob Feldman, a former high-school business teacher.

Red House Records has released most of Brown's albums over the years, as well as those by other artists such as John Gorka, Guy Davis, Martin Simpson, Lucy Kaplansky, Eliza Gilkyson and Loudon Wainwright III.

The year 2002 also saw the release of Going Driftless: An Artist's Tribute to Greg Brown, a collection of 14 Brown tunes performed by female folk artists such as Gillian Welch, Shawn Colvin and Ani DiFranco, among others. Proceeds from the sales of the CD benefit the Breast Cancer Fund of San Francisco.

The releases of Milk of the Moon and Going Driftless were a treat for Brown fans, because those records followed the performer's one-year "hiatus" from touring.

During that time, Brown says, "I did a lot of playing, actually. But I played a lot of benefits all over the country for various causes."

Prior to his sabbatical, Brown made the 2000 album Over and Under for the tiny Iowa City label, Trailer Records. His amazing CD Covenant also was released on Red House that year to critical acclaim, winning the Association for Independent Music's award for Best Contemporary Folk Album of 2000.

With two Brown records out on different labels in the same year, some out-of-the-loop fans may have thought he'd jumped from Red House to Trailer Records. Nothing so dramatic, he says. Making Over and Under was a favor to the smaller of the two small labels.

"You see, with these small, independent labels, it's really more of a co-op feel. And with me doing an album or two for them, that helps the label get better distribution, and that helps the artists on the label. And it's just good for everyone all around."

Trailer's owner is Brown's pal, David Zollo, who also played keyboards on Over and Under. Brown has described the album, a rough-and-tumble blues-rocking affair, in other interviews as "probably my favorite record I've ever done."

Brown continues his association with Red House, and he has recorded another album for Trailer. Expected in stores Jan. 27, it's a collection of traditional folk standards titled Honey in the Lion's Head.

Brown has reduced the number of gigs he plays each year from about 100 to about 50 so he can spend more time with his family on the farm. Nonetheless, things haven't slowed much for him; he still had new releases in the stores this year.

Red House issued the best-of compilation If I Had Known: Essential Recordings 1980-1996, a two-disc set featuring a 17-song CD and a DVD featuring a documentary about Brown titled Hacklebarney Tunes. He also appeared on the Live at the Black Sheep album with friends and fellow musicians Garnet Rogers, Karen Savoka and Pete Heitzman.

Contemporary folk musicians Savoka and Heitzman will open the Arizona concerts for Brown, and they'll probably play a little with him at the end of the show, too, he says.

So it's all about community and the folk song-sharing tradition? Well, sorta. "I just love to jam. Some people are jammers and some are not. I am."

One of Brown's favorite jamming buddies was the much-adored Tucson slide guitarist and singer Rainer Ptacek, who died a little more than six years ago from cancer.

Many years earlier, during one of his frequent stops in Tucson, Brown had struck up a friendship with the artist everyone called Rainer. They played together regularly and covered each other's tunes. Without prompting, Brown spoke at length about Rainer, his musical significance and his influence on Brown's life. He obviously misses his friend.

Born of Czech descent in East Berlin, Rainer was raised on Chicago's south side and first came to Tucson in the late 1970s.

"My theory about Rainer is that, yes, he was deeply rooted in country blues and electric blues and rock 'n' roll and all that, of course. But he also had that kind of central European approach to melody and harmonies. It had that gypsy strain."

Before signing off to help his wife bring in the groceries, Brown shared one more Rainer story:

"I was down there in Tucson one time, and Rainer took me to this little studio. We thought we would just go in and record something." They were there the better part of the night, along with a bottle of something strong.

"By the end of the tape, we were both drunk and just making up shit. I would love to know where that tape is now. But it may just sound like garbage."

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