Greg Brown’s Self-Explanatory Life

By BRIAN D’AMBROSIO

Greg Brown sits on his front porch in the gently sloping hills of southern Iowa. It’s a weekday morning. Nothing can spoil his peace of mind, and nothing can spoil his good mood.

“Hang on while I grab my coffee,” he says.

It’s a voice that sounds as if all is well. It’s a voice of gratefulness. It’s a husky coffee-sipping, porch-sitting, life-enjoying voice.

And it belongs to one of the country’s most revered folk singer-songwriters. The voice of a man who has gained his fame through his live performances and relatable storytelling of lost souls, procrastinators, and wishy-washy lovers.

Even on the phone, that raspy playful voice hooks one in.

“It’s raining a little bit here on the farm,” says Brown, 64.

Greg Brown plays at the Top Hat on July 27, 2013, Missoula, MT

“Well, it’s not a farm, I guess, but a bunch of timber and hayfields.”

This is where Brown feels most comfortable. There are no crops on his land, mostly hard clay and infertile dirt. Deep down, Brown is a simple man, of unbreakable rural loyalties.

Hawkeye State born, Brown’s father owned a radio repair shop and later turned to open bible preaching, and his family lived up and down and across southern Iowa. He lived in Eldon, Iowa, close to the very home Grant Wood selected to depict in his epic “American Gothic.” And then there was his mother and her side: his grandfather Harold was a banjo musician and a great storyteller. She played the electric guitar.

Greg Brown plays at the Top Hat on July 27, 2013, Missoula, MTHe grew up with his grandparents on the same land where he lives now. A fairly agrarian subsistence: Grandma had milk cows, a few pigs, and she canned tomatoes, potatoes andpeaches.

“Grandma would only go to the store every now and then to get things like sugar,” says Brown.

The farm sits on a peaceful little sliver of serenity. There is no oncoming traffic, no grimace of concrete blocks or traffic signals, no family-style restaurants on every corner.

“It’s a small version of the Ozarks, and old coal mining country. The land is like that all across southern Iowa. I had a grandpa who worked for the steam engine railroads, played banjo and the fiddle. Many of the people here came over from the Appalachian region to work in the mines or on the trains. Those kinds of people are responsible for area’s music.”

Perhaps no song is more characteristic of Brown’s bloodline than “Iowa Waltz,” a gentle harmony that celebrates Iowa’s farming roots. Years ago, there was a movement to make it the state song of Iowa. Storytelling, music, and bantering were permanent parts of his family landscape.

“I think our lives have changed so much since then,” says Brown. When I was a kid, rural areas and cities, too, really, all consisted of neighborhoods. There was storytelling, playing music, and all those things we don’t get now living in a media glut of a world. Stories are still there. But most people don’t take the time to reflect on the kinds of things that go into telling a story or appreciating a story.”

Greg Brown, Iowa City, Iowa 2006

In a few days, Greg Brown returns to Missoula, Montana for a show on July 27, at the Top Hat. His connection to Montana stretches back some time. On one track, “Eugene,” he even references Missoula, and he tries to arrange a few gigs when he is in Montana to allow him ample time to fish as well.

“I’ve fished a lot of rivers in Montana over the years, and I’ve always particularly liked Rock Creek.”

One of Brown’s most hauntingly exquisite songs incorporates fishing into its lyrics. “Laughing River” tells the saga of a longstanding minor league baseball player who, after twenty years, is prepared to let go of his dream of big league success. He is going to swap his bat and glove for a fishing rod. Instead of a travel bus and the cheers and boos of sport, he is set on a quieter, more idyllic life in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

In reality, Brown was never much of a baseball fan, but “more of a high school football, track and basketball” sort of guy. But it’s perhaps natural to think that the singer’s autobiography has infiltrated into his artistic space.

“You have to be careful,” says Brown. “People hear you talking about yourself.”

Brown’s upbringing promoted self-reliance and initiative, and his folks never shielded him or clipped his wings. His first professional singing gig came at age eighteen in New York City, and before he was out of his teens, Brown moved west to Los Angeles. He ended up in Las Vegas, alongside music producer Buck Ram, founder of the Platters. He abandoned music a few years later – seeking that thing called comfort – and moved back to Iowa to recalibrate his sense of fulfillment. Songs and lyrics flowed, all in a style as distinctly Midwestern as lightning bugs and thunderstorms. Then, life turned into one club and coffeehouse performance after another.

These days, he speaks about life, religion, politics and poetry in the same laid-back temperament.

“Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of my favorite poets,” says Brown. “I’ve always loved him. He’s a playful poet, and there aren’t a lot of playful poets. You know, poets are so serious. Plus, he understood American idioms, much like William Carlos Williams. A lot of poetry is flat and academic. He was a political poet, he wrote his poems to the point. And he came from a Wobbly tradition, and I admired that.”

Greg Brown plays at the Top Hat on July 27, 2013, Missoula, MT

In perhaps his most mysteriously and lyrically complex song, “Rexroth’s Daughter,” Brown’s dark, rueful impulses strand the listener in a mysterious state.

“Kenneth Rexroth would take girls up into the mountains and head south of France,” says Brown. “I heard a lot of music in his poetry. He was there when Allen Ginsburg first read “Howl.” I heard John Berryman read. All the poets came to Iowa City years ago. Berryman was a vivid, alive reader and a vivid, alive kind of guy.”

Brown doesn’t play songs out of nostalgic bliss. If he can’t push new life into a tune, or if he no longer connects to it, he bids it farewell. “There are a lot of them that drop by the wayside,” says Brown. “I’ll get tired of a song for awhile, but with so many songs, I’ve got a deep bag to pull them out of.”

There has been a paradigm shift recently in Brown’s approach to performing; he is focusing on quality, not quantity. Music has always been a fickle entity. But the unique thing about Brown is that the essence of his music fosters a sense of close connectedness among his listeners. Fans of Greg Brown stay as fans.

“The nice thing about music and being a musician is that you don’t have to strictly retire,” says Brown. “You can ease down, cut back, and when the day comes, and you don’t feel like going out, you can go home.”

Brown has found that elusive item called happiness – a thing that sometimes seems to have gone out, along with rope belts and wide bell bottoms, in the 1970s. Happiness in an artist is unusual to hear of in these times.

“I’ll be happy tearing into straw bales today, and mulching the garden,” says Brown. “There is a house on the farm here that I helped to build. See, too many musicians, they either play music or go to the music store. I have my solitude, and I’m fairly social. This farm is a lot like a nature preserve, full of birds, deer, fox, you name it. “

Almost on cue, birds chirp noisily in the background. There is a nest of Baltimore Orioles close to the porch, but it may be the sound of bluebirds or pileated woodpeckers.

And with these sweet hums as the backdrop, another voice reemerges.

“I really don’t play much anymore,” says Brown. “You could say I’m semi-retired.”

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Read more of Brian’s stories about the fascinating places and personalities that shape Western Montana in his blog archive.

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Brian D’Ambrosio is a Missoula writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country NewsUSA TodayWisconsin TrailsBark MagazineMontana Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine.

His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, is available for purchase on Kindle. He is also the author of Montana Summer: 101 Great Adventures in Big Sky Country. D’Ambrosio’s next book, Desert Horse: A Life of Marvin Camel, a biography of the Montana boxing legend, will be published by Riverbend Publishing in 2013.