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Out to pasture

Shifting gears with Greg Brown

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Greg Brown, like Missoula, is a not very well kept secret these days. He’s played here maybe half a dozen times already, moving from upstairs at the Union Club to the University venue circuit. Somebody must be going to those shows, because they keep getting bigger, and besides, when Greg Brown can’t find good gigs in a state—say Texas, for instance—he just stops going. But he’s not only coming back to Missoula, he’s looking forward to it, apparently preferring the company of rivers.

He’s got three days off between shows in California and Missoula and says he’s arriving early for raft trips on Monday and Wednesday and likely a day fishing on Tuesday.

“That’s my kinda town,” he says over the phone from Berkeley. “If you’re an outdoor person, that’s the best pawn shops you can find. I remember I was in Missoula in March, eight or nine years ago, and went to a pawnshop and bought a cheap fiberglass rod and a pitiful little fly book of streamer flys, all for about 10 bucks, went to Rock Creek and caught big trout out along the riffles all day long. I’ve always remembered that.”

Greg Brown’s songs are the sort that people who like them tend always to remember, and he’s been around long enough by now to have reached a solid percentage of those people. He had thought about throwing in his guitar for forestry school at one not-so-early point, but then in the mid-1980s Prairie Home Companion came calling with a weekly contract and other singers—Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana, Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter—started recording his songs. So he stuck with it.

“When I made that decision to get out of it, it’s like life said ‘no, it’s not time to do that.’”

Since that affirmation, Brown has collected two Grammy nominations, been profiled in one of The New Yorker’s periodic middle-Americana forays, and made damn good albums for little Red House Records and even littler Trailer Records, both in Iowa, where he lives, well below what passes for mainstream radar. The ceiling doesn’t concern him. Laying low suits him fine.

“There’s a lot of freedom there. You’re not going to be sitting there talking to Jay Leno but I’d just as soon not anyway. I got nothing to say to him, or to Conan O’Brien or David Letterman. That whole world to me is the world of boredom and fear, really, and going for dollars and dollars and dollars. They prop somebody up for a week and then they take the props out and they put somebody else out there. It’s just soulless. Blues and jazz, to some extent, are kind of pushed to the margins you might say, these days, but that’s where the real soul is, that’s where the real life is. It’s not on TV.”

Greg Brown’s own songs are bluesy and jazzy and a large bucket of other descriptives, memorable among them, for several reasons, one of which is Brown’s own unmistakably oak-like voice. Another is his frequent collaboration with guitarist Bo Ramsey, who plays a rural (as opposed to country) electric guitar that rivals Dwight Yoakum’s Pete Anderson in its simultaneous mastery of tastefulness and raunch.

A third is the words, and if I personally got to nominate the most compelling lyric on an album of American music released in the past decade, it would be the opening of the titular first track of Brown’s 1997 album Slant 6 Mind:

She got a slant 6 mind, supercharged heart/the little princess is singing about her parts/she says come hither, but when I get hither she is yon/I was looking for what I loved, whatever it was it’s gone.

When I get hither she is yon. That gets me every time. Other people have other favorites, and it’s a sure sign that they’ve committed them to memory when your latest three releases are an “essentials” compendium, a dread “tribute” album of other artists interpreting your tunes, and a collection of old folk songs you used to sing to your children, (On Top of) “Old Smoky” included.

But:

“I just love those old songs. They got so much love to ’em, you know? The whole process…it probably still goes on to some extent—it’s changed, of course, everything changes—but those songs got passed around and changed around and they traveled all over the world in different verses. They collected life as they moved, I think, they’re very rich songs. Some songs like ‘On Top of Old Smokey’ people think of as pretty much a grade school joke song—On Top of Spaghetti—and a lot of people I don’t think have heard some of those beautiful old lyrics, so I thought it’d be nice to put some of those out.”

…Before he stops… is the unspoken implication, and it’d be hard to blame him if he did: He’s been working it since the early 1970s; he recently married singer Iris DeMent (no fanfare please) and he has two daughters in college. Another daughter, singer/songwriter Pieta, is joining him in Missoula, as she has occasionally done over the past several years.

“It’s been a real pleasure for me,” Brown says of touring with his offspring. “She’s really good, Pieta, so that makes it better. She’s really devoted to music, and I think she’s on her way.”

As for Brown himself:

“They’re pushing me out to pasture as fast as they can…I’m definitely going out to pasture, but I’m going at my own pace.”

Pieta Brown performs with Bo Ramsey, and then Greg Brown performs a solo half-set, and then Ramsey joins him for another, and then Pieta may come out and everyone play a few more songs together, probably, on Thursday, May 6, at 8 PM at UM’s University Theatre. Tickets cost $22 in advance, $24 day of show. Call 243-4051 for info.

btyer@missoulanews.com

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