Many shades of Brown |

Many shades of Brown

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

There is not a thing about Greg Brown that is girlie. The 54-year-old is 6-foot-2, scruffy-looking, and generally wears sleeveless black T-shirts, which reveal thick, muscular arms. His hobbies include arm wrestling, ice fishing and whiskey drinking. When he writes, the lyrics are sparse and full of grit; when he sings, what comes out is a masculine baritone.

Still, there is a female aura that has somehow settled around Brown and his music. It is most pronounced in “Going Driftless,” last year’s tribute that featured an all-female lineup of folk singers, including Lucinda Williams, Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter, interpreting Brown’s songs. At Brown’s suggestion, the royalties from the album are donated to the Breast Cancer Fund, an organization working to eliminate the preventable sources of the disease.

For several years Brown’s frequent touring partner was Ani DiFranco, the strident, bisexual folkie whose messages ” political, sexual, social ” attract a largely female audience. Three years ago, Brown did an extended tour that had him flanked by DiFranco and Gillian Welch, who also contributed to “Going Driftless.” By most accounts, Brown was in his element in the company of these women.

Brown has three children, all daughters. He has been married three times; his current wife is singer Iris Dement, yet another “Going Driftless” participant.

Brown laughs with understanding when asked about the feminine thread. And while he isn’t sure just where it comes from, he allows that there has long been a strong womanly presence in his life.

“My own feeling about that stuff is, I grew up surrounded by very strong and very engaged women,” said Brown, who performs at the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday, Dec. 6, with his daughter Pieta, joined by Brown’s frequent collaborator Bo Ramsey, opening. “My grandmother, my mother ” they both had their plows deep in the ground. I grew up with a great deal of respect for women. And I think there’s a carryover into the way I write and sing.”

The singer-songwriter is still gathering lessons from the female energy around him. “It’s good having three daughters,” he said. “I’ve learned when to keep my mouth shut and not say anything at all.”

The family guy

Brown remains unclear about the nature of Venus’ pull on his music. But he is more certain about how ideas of community have affected his songwriting, even his becoming a musician.

When Brown was a youngster, growing up mostly in Iowa, it was the nature of his family to gather ’round to sing, play music and swap stories. His mother played guitar, one grandfather played banjo, one grandmother was a poet. His father was a roaming Pentecostal preacher “who illustrated his sermons with stories of his boyhood in the Ozarks,” he said. “And we were in a church with a good, lively gospel. So it was a natural thing for me to head that way with it.”

At 18, Brown won a contest that earned him an opening gig for folk singer Eric Andersen in Iowa City. Andersen encouraged the teenager to move to New York City, where Brown began running hootenannies at the noted Greenwich Village club, Gerde’s Folk City. But after running through Manhattan, Oregon, California and Las Vegas, Brown headed back to familiar ground in Iowa, where he has lived for decades. There, he handed down that family groove to his now-grown children: Pieta (pronounced Pee-yetta) has launched a professional music career; middle daughter, Constie, is showing an interest in guitar and singing; Zoe, the youngest at 20, is leaning toward visual arts. All three came together to record their father’s “Ella Mae” for the “Going Driftless” CD.

“Around my house there were always people stopping by and playing,” said Brown, who now lives in a house he built on his grandparents’ farm, five miles from tiny Douds, some two hours south of Iowa City. “So my daughters grew up in that setting. They grew up more in a hippie version of the backwoods life than I did. But it was the same sense of stories and community.”

Many of Brown’s songs are written in that “all-in-this-together” spirit. “Speaking in Tongues,” from the 1997 album “Slant 6 Mind,” is a recollection of churchgoers comforting a member of the flock: “When someone was sick we gathered around them and laid our hands upon them/All of us, old and young”; it ends with a prayer that the bigger world can learn a lesson from such communal healing. Brown has written songs about his father (“Billy from the Hills”), his grandmothers (“Ella Mae” and “Canned Goods”), musical ancestors Mose Allison, Robert Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers, and his contemporary DiFranco ” whom he calls “the Young Francster” ” all of them highlighting the ties Brown feels to his subjects.

A darker Brown

Despite all the warmth in his emotions, there is also a pervasive sense of melancholy in Brown’s music. His words are most often delivered slowly, in a deep voice that conveys a sense of weight. Brown’s view is hardly bleak: “A Little Excited,” from last year’s “Milk of the Moon” album, is an up-tempo statement of uncomplicated love. But Brown is the essence of a folk singer, and consistent with that job description he must embrace all that is going on around him. And with advancing age that has meant taking account of the sorrows of the world.

“The way I think of [songwriting] has changed,” he said. “When I was younger, it was so much fun. The last 10 or 12 years, the songs come from a darker place, and I think that’s because you live and grow and see more of that. And it has to work its way into your songs or whatever you do.”

Brown believes his seriousness is balanced by a sense of humor. In “Mose Allison Played Here,” Brown pays tribute to the singer-pianist by painting a picture of the kind of dumps Allison has played: “Don’t even try dancing/Your feet would just stick.” Much of the joke is in the truth ” “He really does play those smoky dives at the end of the road,” said Brown ” and in the fact that the humor is much in the vein of Allison’s own wry take on the world.

“There’s enough humor in it to keep the boat floating and to balance it out,” said Brown. “That’s the way it is for me ” there’s enough melancholia in my life. My people ” my parents, my grandparents ” have always balanced things out by keeping their sense of humor.”

In addition to the humor, there is a big air of mystery to songwriting for Brown. He says that songs “come right out of the ground, like a plant.” They generally come to him in waves, like a crop sprouting in spring. Then they disappear. He says the experience can be downright scary. But after 18 albums, he continues to find pleasure, and a sense of purpose, even in the spookiest material.

“Something comes along and I think, ‘I don’t want to write about that!’ But I have to,” said Brown. “I’ve never lost that sense of being very interested in it.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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