Q&A: Greg Brown
The veteran singer-songwriter discusses his new CD, "Freak Flag," his influences, his family, and causes dear to his heart.
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.
Tell me the story behind the creation of your new album, Freak Flag.
We pretty much recorded the whole thing in Minneapolis, then a thunderstorm blew in to the Twin Cities. The power went out in the studio. We had been recording directly to computer using Pro Tools—which I had not done before.
Was this your first time recording digitally?
We'd always recorded on two-inch tape and then mixed the album on to digital equipment. But this time, we went directly to Pro Tools. So the right procedures were apparently not followed in terms of backup and things like that—I didn't know anything about it. So, when the lightning hit and the power went out, there went the album. It was just gone. And they said, we can get it off the hard drive, but I knew. I don't know much about technology, but I knew that thing was gone—I could feel it.
So I took that as a sign I'd made enough records anyway and should shut up. I went home to Iowa laughing; everyone else was crying. I just had to laugh, because it's a good reminder that what we do . . . y'know, it has some importance, but it ain't that important [laughs]. But then, after a few months at home, I ended up going down to Memphis and re-recorded maybe half the songs from the Minneapolis session, while bringing in some other songs. So it ended up being a different record, with different musicians. We didn't try to re-create what was lost, you can't really do that. We headed south instead of north and it turned out better.
Did the spiritual feel of the record change from version #1 to version #2?
That album we did in Minneapolis just keeps getting better and better, and will continue to do so. It will probably morphe into a masterpiece of some kind because it's gone, and nobody will ever get to hear it. I remember having a good feeling after we did the stuff in Minneapolis—I thought we had some really good stuff there, but we had to let it go.
It may end up being your Smile album. On the second attempt, you feature a guest shot by Mark Knopfler.
Yeah, the way that happened was that Bo and Pieta had opened Knopfler's North American tour last year, and Knopfler—he seems to know everything; I didn't get to go to the shows last year but wish I could have—he and Bo got to talking about an old song of mine, "Flat Stuff." I didn't think anyone else had ever heard it. But Mark knew that tune somehow, and Bo suggested to me that we redo it with him on the track; Bo thought it would be fun.
It came out fairly cinematic, so we sent it to Knopfler over in England and he added his part. That's the way they do it these days; everything's on the Internet. A couple of years ago a friend of mine out East sent me some tracks from his album that I contributed to. To tell the truth, I didn't really like that, I found that method hard to get into. But I'm sure Mark's done a million of those.
The album also features Richard Bennett, quite a music veteran.
Richard lives in Nashville and has a daughter who lives in Memphis. He came over to play with us one day and had such a good time he asked to come a second day. He's just a totally delightful person, and obviously a great guitar player. It's amazing, all he's done: He played with Liberace and Elvis and was Neil Diamond's music director for years.
You recorded a couple of songs by your wife, Iris DeMent, and Pieta on Flag.What was that like?
That made me nervous as a cat! With my own songs, I just go in and record them the best that I can; if they come out badly, it's my fault. With those songs, I just didn't feel I could get them right, especially Pieta's song. It's changed a lot since the recording; I do it completely differently now. But i really didn't relax until I brought the tapes home and Iris and Pieta heard them and said they liked my versions. They're just two really good songs.
Do you and Iris share musical ideas?
We talk about music a little bit. I'm a real jammer; I'll play with anybody. Iris really is not; she won't sing with me in public because, she says, I never do songs the same way twice. That makes it hard on a harmony singer. But we've sung together at a few festivals.
Most of what we do is pretty separate—we'll run ideas by each other or sing in the car or the kitchen. I'm more spontaneous; my songs tend to come out of me just sitting around jamming and playing. Iris is a real worker; she hones her stuff. He songs are like tight little ships and mine are like leaky old rowboats. That's just the way it is.
I've always jammed with people. A year or two ago I went out with John Hammond and David Lindley, and I just assumed we would jam at the end of the night. We did three or four shows in California. I said, "Let's jam," but Lindley said, "Well, if I had five days to rehearse I'd be up for that." And Hammond said, "I don't jam." Not everybody's into it. It might have been that they were just being polite, and trying to find a nice way to say they wouldn't jam with me.
"Tenderhearted Child" sounds like it was written for your 11-year-old daughter.
That song actually is one I found in an old notebook—I have a habit, when I'm going to record, of looking through them, and I just happened to spot it. I remembered the tune and realized I had never recorded it. I throw most of my old songwriting notebooks away, but I do keep a few of them.
I actually wrote this song years and years ago for my daughter Zoe, who's in her 20s now. I pulled it out and realized I liked it. So, I'd guess that song was written 20 years ago.
I remember you saying once that songs often come to you out of the blue, like when you're about to get on a plane.
Yeah, that's happened a lot—really, it happens also just when I'm walking around. My view of my job has always been, just try to be ready for those songs coming through. I work, sing and play, and read a lot, and enjoy all those things. And I listen to a lot of music. So I try to be a good receptacle for whatever songs drift my way.
You talk about your family being very musical, but your mom was also an English teacher—did that have any influence on your use of language?
When I was a little boy, at night she'd recite poems to me, like "The Highwayman." Mostly really rhythmic poems. I think I first heard about William Blake when I was a little boy. Just the fact that she liked literature, and there were some good books around definitely had an impact.
And you did an album in the 1980s setting Blake's poems to music, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. That's the kind of thing I'd love to see come out today, but I suspect it wouldn't fly in this commercial climate.
It didn't really fly back then, which is one of the reasons I started my own label—I never wanted some A&R guy saying anything to me. Even Bob Feldman, who used to run Red House Records . . . when I said I was going to do a William Blake album his eyebrows kinda wnt up, but he had no choice. That record also made me very nervous, but I did hear from a lot of English teachers around the country that they used it in their classrooms to introduce students to Blake.
Blake also made up tunes for his poems all the time. My friend Michael Doucet from the band Beausoleil, who plays on that record, is a Blake scholar. He's a Renaissance man; he was a TV producer and all sorts of things before he started Beausoleil.But he told me there's quite a bit of evidence that Blake was a guitar player, and always picking out new melodies. That made me feel better. And at a certain point, I had an epiphany when I realized, I wasn't going to "hurt" those poems. That relaxed me, too.
How's the Red House label doing in this economy?
Well, Bob died five or six years ago; a guy who had worked for him many years took over. I think it's doing okay, but all the labels—even the big ones—have pretty much toppled over with all the changes in music technology. Red House still has the lights on; I know that much.
All the "changes" you allude to are odd for me, as an old dog, because I still think in terms of listening to albums.
Me, too! We actually printed 1,000 or so copies of Freak Flag on vinyl, which was really fun to do. I still think records sound better than anything else. A needle in a groove is hard to beat.
I understand that at one point, you were a songwriter for Buck Ram.
Yeah, I was just a kid. I had a trio, and a woman in the group, Marsha, had played in a rock band called Fanny way back and had met Buck. He invited us out to Las Vegas—I think I was 19 or 20—we ended up rehearsing for months. Buck said we needed to achieve "blend." That became like this mystical thing: "blend." He started the Platters, so he had this idea . . . well, apparently we never did quite achieve "blend."
During those months I started working with Buck. He had some artists and bands in development, so he needed some tunes, and he and I wrote some just awful tunes together. "Why in the Name of God" was one of 'em. The only line I remember is, "Why in the name of God do we pollute the air we breathe/And use that weed that we don't need/And do it all in the name of greed?" It was supposed to be a protest song, which really wasn't Buck's forte.
But it was fine, y'know, sitting around and hearing stories. I remember him telling me he wrote "The Great Pretender" in the bathroom of some big club in Las Vegas. That was fun for me as a kid, meeting an old-school songwriter like that.
You also worked on National Public Radio's "Prairie Home Companion." I understand you fell out with Garrison Keillor.
Oh yeah, that happened years after i was on the show. At one point, he came out to the city where I was living and we had lunch, during which I told him I thought NPR was becoming way too corporate. I never heard from him again. He may just have gotten tired of me—Garrison gets tired of people. That could well be what happened. That was just the last conversation I ever had with him, around 2001.
You were his "Chairman of the Department of Folk Songs."
Yeah, I would go through a garbage bag of submissions every week, then we would do that segment on the show. That was a lot of fun, because I got to sing with different people every week.
More recently, you did a couple of songs for Crazy Heart.
Bo and I met Jeff Bridges in Santa Barbara, he came to a show and came backstage afterwards. Unbeknownst to us, I think he was doing research for his role as Bad Blake. But we all hit it off, and when Jeff was choosing songs for the movie, he called up and said, "You guys should send us some if you want to." An old song, "My Brand New Angel"—another one I never recorded—just popped into my head. I thought, "They're not going to pick anything of mine, anyway," so I did a demo of that song and another song, and they wound up picking "Angel" for the movie. I was kind of surprised.
Then, what was really funny was a movie or two later, they ended up using one of Iris's songs for True Grit. I thought that was a much better movie than Crazy Heart.
You weren't impressed?
I thought it was pretty good, but the story was kinda weak. That story was told a lot better in Tender Mercies. Jeff was great, as were all the other actors.
Bad Blake's manner of speaking reminded me of you.
Yeah, I think he picked up on a few things about me—actors do that. They'll go out and study people, and great actors are No. 1, great mimics. He's been very gracious and mentioned my name a number of times when he didn't have to. He's a very down-to-earth guy. And he's loved music for a long time. He was in that really obscure Dylan film, Masked and Anonymous. I got that on DVD years ago and thought it odd; then I watched it more recently and found it an interesting portrait of where America's headed. Jeff plays a journalist in it, and he's brilliant. It's a portrait of America turning into a third-world country.
Which raises the question, what do you think of Occupy Wall Street?
As far as I can tell, it's pretty unfocused—but I think it's an indication of a lot of frustration, fear and anger, and despair over where the ship of state is going. Particularly, a lot of young people are going through college and building up huge bills, then are not able to get jobs. They're just upset.
The general feeling of the protest I agree with, in that I think the worst thing we could have done was bail out the companies that screwed us over so badly, and give them even more money. When the whole thing was starting, if we'd have offered all the people with the bad mortgages . . . if we'd said, "Hey, guess what, we're going to take these over at a reasonable rate" . . . if we'd helped the bottom of the country, instead of the top once again, I think we'd be in much better shape today. It seems when we get in trouble, money never goes to the ordinary people who need it, it goes to the giant corporations. In my opinion, they're destroying the world—so I'm not very happy with the way things are going, either.
I know you were an Obama supporter in 2008. How are you feeling about him now?
Well, I'm in his corner. I think he's a great man and a compassionate man. I think he stepped into an unbelievable role there. But he's made a lot of decisions I completely disagree with, and I really thought he'd go more toward regular folks. I also thought he had a little stronger spine.
But he's dealing with a bunch of corporate idiots on both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats. Nine-tenths of them are bought and sold. It's really a parliament of whores. That's what he's dealing with, and I've got a lot of feeling for the guy. I think, in this case, if he had taken a lot of his energy directly to the American people, and let the pressure come that way . . . he had such a huge amount of support; it was such a huge relief when George Bush crawled off to Texas. I think that moment was very important, and I think he was not ready to step into it. But I'm still with the guy, when you see what's available out there—I think he's head and shoulders above the rest.
I just hope that if he does get a second term, he'll really start kicking some butt.
Every time you hear anything about the Republican debates, and see that lineup of . . .
I don't think the Republicans have a chance, but I'm also dismayed with the Democrats. They have not stood with him; they're not looking at the big picture of what's good for the country—they're looking out for what's good for them. Both political parties are dismal failures. The only hope I see for the American political process is the rise of a big third party, with its energy centered around green issues. The world will die if we don't get on it. I don't think that's going to happen, but I've lost faith, as has most of the country, I think, in the Democrats and Republicans. The house is on fire, and they're in there arguing. Y'know, first put the fire out, guys and gals, and then we'll talk about our differences.
Another project you've been involved with is the folk opera Hadestown . . .
That was written by this gal Anaïs Mitchell, who's a friend of Ani DiFranco. She showed up at my house a couple of years ago. I thought I was going to sing harmony on two or three tunes, but she told me I was singing lead. We went down to the studio and—well, the results are there on the record. All I know is that i was the King of Hell, which I enjoyed.
Did you hear the final product?
I did; it's the kind of thing I'd like to see staged. I have a hard time getting a grip on the storyline just from the songs. I assume it's got some kind of libretto holding the whole thing together. Anyway, it's a very interesting idea.
It reminds me of Randy Newman's Faust . . .
I happened to open a show for Randy Newman when he was doing his Faust tour. James Taylor was God, I believe.
You and Iris now have a young daughter, who you adopted from Russia . . .
I feel sorry for the poor little thing, having such an old dad. She's very cheerful about it. When we adopted her, I was about 55 or so. I told Iris, "I'm too old for this," but she said, "Oh, you'll be all right." I've done the best I can.
Does it feel different from being a young dad?
Completely. I can't keep up. I used to be right in there, now I'm staggering along behind, trying to stay on my feet.
But are you more relaxed as an older parent?
I was always a pretty relaxed dad, I think—also a weird dad in that all of a sudden I'd have to go off somewhere and scribble in a notebook for an hour. They all pretty much got used to that, I think. Being a father is the best thing I ever did, that's for sure.
Have you ever thought about writing a memoir?
Not really, there's so many of them out there. Iris told me the other day that she thought I should put out a book of song lyrics. I might do something like that.
You might do what Stephen Sondheim has just done—he put out two books of lyrics from his musicals with historical annotations.
I might work on that.
You and Iris did a benefit last month in Kansas City . . .
That was very personal. Sam Mann, who was the preacher at St. Mark's Church in Kansas City for 35 years—it's a black church, and Sam is white; he was very involved in the civil rights movement—asked us to do it. Sam's a Pentecostal-style preacher, which Iris and I both grew up with and loved. Because the message of that sect is all love.
Iris took me to St. Mark's before we got married; I think it was kind of a test. We walk into this little black church and there's a white guy in the pulpit, doing his sermon Pentecostal-style. The first sermon I heard him give—he's from Alabama—was, "O Lord, let the bombs and missiles falling on Iraq be turned into buses and medicine for the people." I said, "That's my guy."
So here's this poor little church, and Sam somehow raised $5 million to build a center for kids to go to during the work day, before or after school. It's a beautiful, beautiful building, with great teachers and a great emphasis on the arts. Of course, it needs funding because our government doesn't actually fund anything that's for the people. So that's what this benefit was for. Sam has retired from preaching but he's still involved with the center.
Most of the benefits I've done have been when I've gotten to know people—like the people who were trying to protect the headwaters of the Yellow Dog River in Michigan, or the girl in Oregon who was trying to start a program to build housing for foster children in the state adoption system, who kept getting shuttled from house to house. Usually, I start with something I really believe in, get to know the people involved with it and put my shoulder to the wheel.
I understand that you're going to be playing the Cayamo Folk Fest on the Norwegian Pearl cruise ship in February.
Yeah! The first thing I thought when I got the offer was, "February in Iowa, or February in the Caribbean?" It seems like it's going to be fun; every folksinger and his or her brother will be there. John [Prine] went last year and really liked it; when he heard Iris and I were going he decided to sign up again. Iris and I will do separate sets, though we might sing together on a few songs. We'll see what develops.Q&A: Greg Brown