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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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.