Back in the mid ‘90s, it seemed Greg Brown might go through his entire recording career without ever relinquishing his hold on the “happy phase” of songwriting. His many years as the featured musician on NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” it seemed, convinced him that wistful was as blue as his loyal fans would appreciate. Yet in the intervening years, accompanist and co-producer Bo Ramsey, who has an ability to thread potent folk-blues guitar riffs through the subtlest and saddest emotional changes, has had a strong influence on Brown’s recordings. In his latest releases, Brown has reached deeper into his chest of songs, singing unusually blue lyrics that ask previously unheard questions like, “Why were you ashamed of our love?”
Brown’s daughter Pieta’s self-titled debut release, also co-produced with Ramsey, who plays guitar throughout, carries her father’s newfound songwriting legacy into the next generation. Ramsey recorded with Pieta Brown during breaks from playing guitar on Lucinda Williams’ recent tour.
Overall, Pieta Brown is a curiously crafted and melancholy recording, a sister to Williams’ 2001 release Essence, which was also co-produced with Ramsey. There is a great deal of Williams’s vocal styling in Brown’s songwriting. Her lyrics are edgy, and though her voice is without the sandpaper grit that lends Williams’ vocals the raw emotion for which she is renowned, Brown’s singing is nevertheless often as defiant as on many of Williams’ recordings.
There is a bit of gossip potential in this recording as well. The songs seem to be based in Brown’s loss of her father, who separated from her mother when she was 2 years old. The first song, “lullaby,” croons adoring admissions to her father, lamenting her abandonment in a loving but heartbroken voice: “I want to sing you a lullaby…but you’re not here.” As in some of the other songs, the singer is languishing in a small town, unwillingly separated from her father’s irreplaceable presence: “People here just drive around/driving off where they are bound/I want to tell you what I’ve found/but you’re not here.”
The songs progress from childhood loss through a maturing series of love ballads. Passing through bedeviled anger, the musical accompaniment picks up a strong backbeat that Ramsey drives like a one-eyed Porsche hugging a dark road until self-destructiveness eventually settles into compassion and forgiveness: “Someone hurt you/they done you wrong/someone hurt you/it won’t hurt so long.” Ramsey’s heartfelt instrumentals interweave the lyrics like a tapestry, accentuating the clear-eyed and often surprising twists in Brown’s tempered perspective. Greg Brown plays banjo accompaniment on “Pass you by,” the most lighthearted and hopeful ballad on the disc, harmonizing with Pieta’s sister Constie on the closing refrain, which sings of the healing nature of time. “Don’t Turn Away” stands out as the jewel of the collection, a diamond in the rough, introspective yet not oppressive. This song reveals Pieta Brown to be a songwriter with an emerging potential for enduring greatness (If she ever writes a thoroughly happy song, look out!): “Train is passing slowly by/graffiti angels on a rusted sky—a rusted sky/can you hear them singing when that whistle cry.”
For all their harsh truthfulness, these songs have a powerful spirit ranging from deep poignancy to hellacious drive. Ramsey seems at home in Brown’s thoughtful ethos, able to rock a baby with the same precision as he rocks a house. “Can you feel the glory when the dance is born?” Their performance at the Blue Heron promises to be a memorable night.
Brown and Ramsey whip the Blue Heron into an emotive froth Tuesday, Sept. 3, at 9 PM. Tickets are $10 in advance (available at Rockin Rudy’s and Butterfly Herbs) and $12 at the door, with a $2 discount for Missoula Folklore Society members. Call 829-8219 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.