A Q&A with folk troubadour Greg Brown

Singer-songwriter Greg Brown has moved audiences and won many devoted fans over his long folk music career. His gruff vocals combine sweetly with sincere lyrics. Brown’s imagery often paints scenes of country life, and his humorous storytelling, such as in “Fat Boy Blues,” gets laughs of recognition. He grew up in a musical family in Southeastern Iowa. Following a stint in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village in the late ‘60s and a gig as a regular performer on Public Radio show, “Prairie Home Companion,” during the ‘80s, Brown is once again rooted in his home state of Iowa. He will be playing with Bo Ramsey at The Grey Eagle on Saturday, Dec.  21. Tickets are $25 advance/$28 day of show.

Mountain Xpress: Thirty years ago you started up your own label, Red House Records. Was it important that you produced your music independently? What’s it like to look back on the past 30 years of producing music?

Greg Brown: I started Red House because none of the labels around would put out a record of mine. When I was running it, it was just a few boxes of records and a notebook. It was Bob Feldman who turned it into a bonafide label. I really never had much to do with it after that. I had the freedom to record whatever I wanted to, however I wanted to. Looking back, I am not sure that was such a good idea. But it was what available to me, so that is the way I went.

If I had my druthers I would have written catchy song that a lot of people would have enjoyed, and made well-produced records and been popular enough to put out a successful Christmas record. But it wasn’t in the cards for me. The way it went was fairly interesting all in all, but if I had it all to do again I would have studied field biology and had a weekend dance band.

You just re-released Red House Records’ first album, The Iowa Waltz. Do you find the songs on the album to be a snapshot of where you were then? Are they still relevant to you now?
Putting out that Iowa record again was the brainchild of Eric Peltonemi, who is the director of the label now. I said, “Sure, go ahead.” I have a certain fondness for that record. I wrote the songs in small Iowa towns, as a member of the Touring Arts Team, sponsored by the Iowa Arts Council. I offered the recording to them as a fundraiser, but they turned it down. I had a wonderful few summers writing those songs in the blown-out little farm towns. Wrote about three or four a day, that was my job. The record may be a snapshot of something or other, I don’t know. The original version sounded like it was recorded in a grain elevator, which I guess was appropriate. Quite a few of those songs I still sing. Some of them fell by the wayside, as is generally the case.

Do you have any thoughts about the intersections between music and activism?
Generally speaking, it is counterproductive to have any rules about song writing. Songs can help out in a lot of situations. They can help rally people around a cause. They can help someone who is lonely get through a day. Songs that have life in them. My preacher always tells me to go out and try to “raise the people’s spirits,” and that is what I try to do.

Leonard Cohen once said, “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” Have you found this connection between life and words to be true in your songwriting?
No, I really don’t know what Mr. Cohen is talking about there. There’s some difficulty there with the metaphor in that if we think of poetry as ash, it would be pretty hard to read. If we think of our life as being on fire, there is some doubt that a person would have time to write a song. Probably they would be looking for a hose.

Photo by Sandy Dyas


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