After 24 albums and more than three decades of performing, Iowa singer-songwriter Greg Brown has amassed a rock-solid legion of fans who pack the small clubs and cafes he has never tired of playing. His music, though it has deepened over the years, has not changed fundamentally since he lit out from Iowa for New York at the tail end of the 1960s folk boom. Brown’s songs are as Midwestern as they come: slow, straightforward, and bluesy, they deal with ordinary yet highly individual people as they navigate life’s twists and turns. A tireless songwriter, Brown sometimes works by spotting a distinctive person walking down the street, making up a story to go with that person, and turning it into a song.
Brown was born on July 2, 1949, in Ottumwa, Iowa. His onstage charisma and storytelling powers came partly from his father, a native of the Ozarks region in Arkansas. An electrician and scrap metal dealer, his father preached in a Pentecostal church he built himself and also in Methodist churches. Later in life he took up the Baha’i religion. Brown’s mother was a high school English teacher who played the electric guitar and taught Brown to play at age twelve. She came from the Hacklebarney section of southern Iowa, a rough, hilly area with coal and limestone mines. Brown’s family moved around when he was young and his father was preaching in different places, but they eventually settled on the land where his mother’s parents had lived.
Brown’s mother recited poems to him to put him to sleep - one verse, he recalled to Bob Thompson of the Washington Post, was “The highwayman came riding, riding, riding, up to the old inn door.” By the time Brown was in high school he was writing poetry himself, and was enamored of poets like Thomas Hardy and William Butler Yeats. His family was immersed in old country and gospel songs. When he was in high school, he told Steve Berry of the Columbus Dispatch, “I was sitting out on the front steps on a summer evening playing the guitar, and the prettiest girl in town - who had never spoken to me - came walking by and sat down beside me. And I liked that. It seemed like magic.”
It was a potent combination. While in his first year at the University of Iowa in 1969, Brown won a performing contest whose first prize was an opening-act slot for folksinger Eric Andersen. Andersen encouraged him to move to New York City, and Brown succeeded in getting a host job at Gerdes Folk City, one of the key clubs in the folk revival, even though he fell asleep on a beach and missed his first day on the job. After several years in New York, Brown began traveling around the country. In the late 1970s he met Buck Ram, former lead singer of the 1950s doo-wop group the Platters, who by that time was performing and managing other acts that appeared in Las Vegas clubs. This rather unlikely partnership flourished, as Brown churned out original songs for Ram and his musicians. Most of the songs vanished with the club dates for which they were written, but Brown gained an industrious attitude toward songwriting that never left him.
In the early 1980s Brown tired of life in Las Vegas and moved back to Iowa. He started his own label, Red House, naming it after the color of his own home near Iowa City. Two albums, Iowa Waltz and 44 & 66, got his recording career off the ground, and he performed at events around Iowa. But Brown grew discouraged with the small-time prospects of the folk music world. Married and working in a university library, he considered returning to college and finishing his degree.
In 1983, however, his career took off. Brown’s song “They All Went to Mexico” was recorded by the duo of Willie Nelson and Carlos Santana, and a call came from perhaps the ideal venue for Brown: the Minnesota-based radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion, which featured the wry and sometimes profound tales of host Garrison Keillor’s fictional hometown, Lake Wobegon. Brown was a regular musical performer for five years on the nationally broadcast show, and he remained a frequent guest after that.
After that national exposure, Brown hit his stride. He released about an album a year on Red House, and they generally sold in the range of 50,000 to 60,000 copies apiece - not a large total by pop standards, but representing comfortable success for a folk singer who might spend much of the year on the road. Brown wrote nearly all of his own material, and his output was diverse. One release that didn’t feature Brown’s lyrics was Songs of Innocence and Experience (1986), on which he set to music the poems of eighteenth-century English writer William Blake.
Standing slightly above the rest of Brown’s releases in terms of renown were One Big Town (1989), which topped the Adult Album Alternative (AAA) chart in Billboard magazine, and The Poet Game (1994). Those two discs won Indie awards from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors. Brown was nominated twice for Grammy Awards; his 1997 album Slant 6 Mind, whose title referred to a Dodge automobile engine of the 1960s and 1970s, drew one of those nominations. Brown’s output was remarkably consistent, and his growing legion of “Greg head” fans could attest that no two of his shows were alike.
Brown announced several times that he was cutting back on his songwriting schedule, but he didn’t stick to his resolutions. After he moved back to the Hacklebarney land, he planned a life of gardening and fishing. “I think he will do the gardening and the fishing,” his daughter Pieta told Chris Riemenschneider of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, but I also think he’s going to write some of the best songs he’s ever written.”
Pieta Brown, to her father’s delight, became a successful folk singer herself, and the two toured together frequently in the early 2000s. Another artist who appeared with Brown was Iris DeMent, another singer-songwriter with Arkansas roots. She and Brown married in the early 2000s, and she became one of a group of nationally known female artists who joined to create Going Driftless: An Artist’s Tribute to Greg Brown, which was released on Red House in 2002. Other performers included Lucinda Williams, Ani DiFranco, and Shawn Colvin. In 2003 Brown released Honey in the Lion’s Head, a collection of traditional songs. For the project, he stepped away from Red House to the even smaller Trailer label, based in Iowa. With a songbook on the way and lots of old material in the vaults, Brown seemed certain to remain a strong presence on the folk scene even if he never wrote another word - and that wasn’t something that was likely to happen.
It’s a good thing that Greg Brown is such a prolific songwriter. As the result of a fateful lighting strike on the studio where he was working, Brown lost the recordings that were to comprise his next album. For most artists, losing that much material would have been a creatively scarring and demoralizing experience. For Greg, it was just an excuse to turn inward once again, and write more songs. Of the songs that came to comprise his 24th album Freak Flag (2011), the title track is all that remains of that ill-fated lost original album. Greg wrote ten new songs, moving on to record them at the legendary Memphis-based Ardent Studios. This time there were no storms, but creative lightning did strike again, resulting in what many have called Greg’s best album. Like a jagged stone worked by ocean waves, Brown’s signature rough hewn-yet-velvet-smooth baritone is in fine form on Freak Flag. Produced by Bo Ramsey, the album also includes a cover of Brown’s wife Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be” and Brown’s daughter Pieta’s song “Remember the Sun.”