After nearly 20 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 12. 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 home-town, 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.
For the Record . . .
Born on July 2, 1949, in Ottumwa, IA; son of a preacher and electrician father and English teacher mother; married twice; second marriage to folk singer Iris DeMent; children: daughter Pieta Brown (a folk singer). Education: Attended University of Iowa.
Performed at Gerdes Folk City club, New York City, early 1970s; traveled around U.S.; worked as songwriter for Buck Ram, Las Vegas, late 1970s; formed Red House label, early 1980s; performed regularly on A Prairie Home Companion radio program, 1983-87, and frequently as guest thereafter; released One Big Town, 1989; released The Poet Game, 1994; released Slant 6 Mind, 1997; began performing with daughter Pieta Brown, early 2000s; released Honey in the Lion's Head album of traditional songs on Trailer label, 2003.
Awards: Two Indie awards, National Association of Independent Record Distributors.
Addresses: Record company—Red House Records, P.O. Box 4044, St. Paul, MN 55104. Website—Greg Brown Website Official: http://www.gregbrown.org.
Iowa Waltz, Red House, 1983.
44 & 66, Red House, 1984.
In the Dark with You, Red House, 1985.
One More Goodnight Kiss, Red House, 1986.
Songs of Innocence & Experience, Red House, 1986.
One Big Town, Red House, 1989.
Down in There, Red House, 1990.
Dream Cafe, Red House, 1992.
Bathtub Blues, Red House, 1993.
The Poet Game, Red House, 1994.
The Live One, Red House, 1995.
Further In, Red House, 1996.
Slant 6 Mind, Red House, 1997.
One Night (live), Red House, 1999.
Covenant, Red House, 2000.
Over and Under, Trailer, 2000.
Over and Out, Rubric, 2001.
Milk of the Moon, Red House, 2002.
Honey in the Lion's Head, Trailer, 2004.
In the Hills of California (live), Red House, 2004.
Chicago Sun-Times, March 22, 2002, p. 17; May 9, 2004, Show section, p. 1.
Christian Science Monitor, September 29, 2000, Arts & Leisure section, p. 20.
Columbus Dispatch, April 30, 1997, p. E10.
Denver Post, November 28, 1996, p. E12.
Ottawa Citizen, August 26, 2000, p. K1.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), September 21, 2002, p. E1.
Washington Post, March 25, 2003, p. C7; April 20, 2004, p. C1.
"Greg Brown," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 6, 2005).
"Greg Brown Biography," Greg Brown Official Website, http://www.gregbrown.org/gbbio.html (July 6, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
Born: Ottumwa, Iowa, 2 July 1949
Best-selling album since 1990: Covenant (2000)
Folksinger Greg Brown is not only precious to his home state of Iowa, but he qualifies as a national treasure as well. Since the 1970s, the singer/songwriter has given the impression that he is a drifting musical Johnny Appleseed, haphazardly tossing out the seeds of his earthy, wisdom-filled songs. In actuality, Brown is one of the hardest workers in music—an artist whose impressive canon of songs and compelling voice allow him to forge a living in the financially frustrating world of folk music.
Brown was born in rural southeastern Iowa (local Iowans refer to the region as the "Hacklebarney" section of the state) into a musically inclined family with roots back to Appalachia. His father was a traveling Pentecostal preacher and Brown sojourned America's heartland with his father, who conducted Bible studies in various churches throughout Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. After high school, Brown took off to New York City where he immediately found work hosting open-mic nights at Gerdes Folk City in Greenwich Village. In the 1970s he eventually returned to Iowa, which has been his home base ever since. Brown caught a break when radio host Garrison Keillor asked him to be part of his Prairie Home Companion radio broadcast. The regular exposure on National Public Radio increased his fan base and allowed Brown to form his own record company, Red House Records. This began a long string of critically acclaimed albums that positioned Brown as an extremely popular artist in regional pockets of the United States, although overall he sits only on the fringe of the mainstream.
One of Brown's most distinctive characteristics is his voice, which floats expressively out of him in a deep, low rumble. Playing an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, he sings his bluesy folk material in an uncomplicated style that communicates his overall unpretentiousness. Brown's songs are poetic tales ripe with irony, and contain detailed imagery often reflective of his rural Iowa upbringing. Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana, Shawn Colvin, and Mary Chapin Carpenter number among those artists who have performed his songs.
In the 1990s his album sales began increasing progressively as an aggressive concert schedule—Brown played 100 to 150 gigs per year throughout the 1990s—added to his popularity. Slant 6 Mind (1997) sold nearly 60,000 copies and Covenant (2000) has fared even better. Both albums contain Brown's raw, pleasing mix of blues and folk ballads. He also shows a strong country influence as heard on Down in There (1990), which features a bluegrass-styled tribute to the locale of his youth in "Hacklebarney Time."
His career has gone well enough for him to purchase 200 acres of land once owned by his grandparents in that same area of southern Iowa.
In 2002 a tribute album honoring Brown's music, Going Driftless (2002), was released. It contains renderings of fourteen songs by sixteen different female performers, including his three daughters, who perform "Ella Mae," which Brown wrote in honor of his grandmother. Other performers include Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Ani DiFranco, and Iris Dement. All proceeds from Going Driftless go toward the Breast Cancer Fund.
The new millennium saw Brown scale down his feverish concert schedule as his well-deserved upswing of success allowed him to rest and take stock of his career. Among his many ambitions is to get more involved in writing for independent films. Brown remains one of the most important artists in contemporary folk music.
Iowa Waltz (Red House, 1983); 44 and 66 (Red House, 1984); In the Dark with You (Red House, 1985); Songs of Innocence and of Experience (Red House, 1986); One More Good-night Kiss (Red House, 1988); One Big Town (Red House, 1989); Down in There (Red House, 1990); Bathtub Blues (Red House, 1993); The Poet Game (Red House, 1995); The Live One (Red House, 1995); Further In (Red House, 1996); Slant 6 Mind (Red House, 1997); Over and Under (Trailer 20, 2000); Covenant (Red House, 2000); Milk on the Moon (Red House, 2002).