Q&A: Greg Brown
The veteran singer-songwriter discusses his new CD, "Freak Flag," his influences, his family, and causes dear to his heart.
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According to the Washington Post, multiaward-winning folk-musician GREG BROWN, 62, is “one of the best singer-songwriters in America.” Critic Josh Kun has called him “a Midwestern existentialist hobo with a quick-draw mouth, a bloodied heart, and bourbon on his breath.” During our interview, the affable Iowan came across as a deep-timbred, more sanguine version of Crazy Heart’s Bad Blake. Few projects have been as challenging as his latest album, Freak Flag, which sparked his current tour with daughter Pieta, an acclaimed singer-songwriter in her own right (they’ll play Bridge Street Live in Collinsville Dec. 4). Also coming along for the ride is Bo Ramsey, Brown's producer/guitarist and Pieta's significant other.
What can we expect from your Bridge Street show?
I'm the worst person to ask. I just go out and try to get in the groove again, get in touch with the people. I don't have a set show; I never know from night to night what I'm gonna do. Even my songs tend to shift around and change. So, even i don't know what to expect. I do sing songs from records, some covers, and some new songs that I haven't recorded yet. But what the mix of that will be, I never know.
One this trip, I'm pretty sure I'll be playing with my old buddy Bo Ramsey, who plays electric guitar—so it'll be a duo show. I'm pretty sure he'll open the show with a soul set.
I thought I was told that you're playing with your daughter, Pieta.
Oh, that's right! Pieta's gonna open these shows. I forgot that. We haven't done that in a long time. So she's gonna open the shows, and Bo and I will do a set after that.
How long has it been since you last played with Pieta?
When Pieta was getting started in her career, she and I did quite a few shows together. It's been maybe 3 or 4 years.
So this is a new beginning, in a way.
But she's pretty used to me, and I'm used to her—and of course, we're both used to Bo. It'll be fun, I'm looking forward to it because it's been so long. At the end of the night, we'll do three or four songs together.
You mentioned that you do a bunch of covers. Are there certain songs that you never tire of playing?
Oh yeah, a lot of Jimmie Rodgers songs, old country blues tunes, a lot of John Jacob Niles ballads. Sometimes I'll sit down to play and a Gordon Lightfoot tune will come out. I just never know. One way I learned about songwriting was to learn these songs by other people, see how they go about it. Not all songs, by any means, can I sing; I can sing 'em in the barn all right, but in terms of doing a show I try to find ones I can really get into and do a decent job on.
Do you still have musical heroes who inspire you?
There are a lot of individuals I certainly admire; that's probably a result of my childhood of being surrounded by music and preaching and storytelling. That's a permanent influence: playing music with my grandparents, hearing their stories, listening to my dad sing and my mom play guitar. Those were the formative things. That developed my love of music, then i went on from there.