His mind is quick as fire, while his body fills a space the way an empty whiskey bottle fills a breakfast table.
At 53, Greg Brown stands a broad 6 feet 2 inches tall, with a working-class thickness to his arms. His big, long face is smeared with a grizzled, often mustache-less beard in that fashionable Abe Lincoln style. He’s prone to wearing dark sunglasses and rumpled-brim hats that further hide his eyes. He can seem intimidating.
Even more than his singing voice, Brown’s speech sounds like something molded out of the last few moments of dusk — a deep, sexy sootiness, like the echo of an old iron pot struck with a piece of firewood.
So the fact that he couldn’t be any more genial in person can be mildly alarming. Brown gives you his undivided attention; he smiles easily, and he laughs. Talking to him, you feel your own stature increasing.
And then you remember that this big minstrel has a thing for arm wrestling. And he only loses when he wants to.
Son of a preacher man
With more than 20 albums to his name, including such unqualified masterpieces as The Poet Game (1994) and Further In (1996), Brown seems to get only more real as he goes along. In his characteristic rumpled pants and sleeveless T’s or work shirts, he is effortlessly hip.
So it’s no surprise that there’s a cult of Greg Brown.
Although folk concerts are often clumsily equated with church services, the analogy fits for Brown, the son of an itinerant Iowa preacher. Crowd laughter punctuates his rumbling words like hallelujahs; the faithful sway, eyes closed, entranced by The Message.
“It is sort of a trance, I guess you could call it,” agreed Brown, speaking by phone from his rural Iowa home (built on the site of his maternal grandparents’ subsistence farm) “[I’m] always trying to find that groove, where the music takes over.”
Brown notes that Boford “Bo” Ramsey, his frequent guitar sideman, prefers the word “lift”: The music elevates people out of themselves.
“Things can get big, and everybody there, you all kind of get in touch with each other,” says Brown. “That’s what I’m always in search of, though I certainly don’t get there every night.
“I feel fortunate in that I do feel very devoted to music and writing,” he continues. “I really got into it when I was just a little child, and I’ve never lost my interest in the whole deal of music and words and songs and rhythm and all the stuff that goes with it, and how you can play with it and put your heart into it. It just seems to lead on; it always seems to lead on.
“So I feel lucky,” he reiterates. “My definition of success is being able to make a decent living doing what you like to do; it’s just that simple. And that’s all I was really ever aiming for.”
The poet game
Brown seems hopelessly oblivious to anything except following his own lights.
Twice nominated for a Grammy, he has twice skipped the ceremonies. A few years back, he took about a year off from being a working musician to build his house. He often times recording sessions around fishing trips.
And he speaks freely of poets, even transmuting his love of William Blake into a stunning album of the God-seeking bard’s lyrics put to music (Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1986).
“It’s kind of a funny thing in America,” Brown observes. “If you even talk about poetry with a very, very, very small ‘p,’ people get nervous for some reason. I don’t know why. I mean, when people are engaged in a deep conversation, however many words they’re usin’, oftentimes poetry is, by my definition, what is goin’ on.
“I walk down the street and I hear people spoutin’ out poetry, [though] maybe they wouldn’t call it that,” he muses. “To me, it’s the stuff of our lives. It’s no more the words themselves than music is just a bunch of notes. Those are the windows through which something else shines.
“I don’t make much of a distinction between poetry and music. I’ve heard Gary Snyder read; tell me he’s not singing.
“I think anybody from all around the world can hear someone like Billie Holiday sing, and they may not know word by word what she’s singin’ about, but they know what she’s singin’ about,” continues Brown. “Music and songs have that amazing ability to translate across all kinds of barriers.”
It’s talk like this that’s gotten Brown pegged as some kind of hillbilly mystic, a beatific beatnik yokel. But he doesn’t feel all that sagelike, he says.
“I just go about my life. I just stumble along with my friends and family; I get up and do the best I can that day.”
His songs are folk with a talking-blues lope to them, fleshed out with inventive guitar and seemingly limitless wit. They’re full of grit, glory and emotional gristle, and peopled by characters who’ve broken the land and been broken by it — and by each other. Brown spins tales of men and women who have lost big, or become lost; but they’re rarely losers. Tales of people who have suffered defeat, but are seldom defeated. Tales of love.
His newest album, Milk of the Moon, his 17th release on Red House Records, is, in fact, a catalog of the heart’s many missteps, and of its full-blown waltzes.
In November, the singer himself formally re-entered the dance, wedding singer/songwriter Iris Dement, his third time tying the knot.
“I’m very happy,” he offers, firmly. “That’s all I’m going to say.”
Turn to his songs, then, for talk of the sundry salves we fashion to soothe our wounds (fishing trips, walks through unspoiled land, fresh tomatoes, car parts, warm coffee, hot nookie) and of the terrible beauty that lurks down our side roads (often the same list applies).