Greg Brown - Biography
Greg Brown maintains a low profile, even after more than 30 years on the road, two Grammy nominations - Best Traditional Folk Album for Slant Six Mind (1997 Red House) and his collaboration with fellow songwriter Bill Morrissey, Friend of Mine (1993 Red House). Regular appearances on NPR’s Prairie Home Companion, constant touring and almost 30 albums full of acousto-electric music that span the entire Americana spectrum have built his reputation. He may be the most popular male folk singer to emerge in the last 30 years, but he’s never been called “the next Dylan,” a tribute to his unique voice and perspective.
Brown was born in Kansas and grew up in Iowa. His mother played electric guitar, his grandfather was a banjo picker, and his father was a preacher. “We sang in church, and everybody on my mom’s side plays an instrument, so I grew up surrounded by folk, blues, gospel,” Brown said in a 2002 interview. “My mom taught me some guitar chords when I was a kid, and I took it from there, and while my father was a preacher, he wasn’t your stereotypical preacher. He viewed the Bible more as a myth, I think. When his denomination started to get narrow and conservative, he left the church.”
Brown also studied classical voice and played organ before moving to New York in the late ‘60s to become a folk singer. He lived on the streets and sang for his supper, eventually landing a job running the hoots at Gerde’s Folk City where he honed his playing and songwriting chops. When New York got to be too much, he moved to Portland, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas where he wrote songs for Buck Ram, who managed The Platters in their heyday. Eventually he went back to Iowa and played in a rock band between solo gigs as a singer/songwriter.
After the major labels turned down his first recordings, Brown started Red House Records and released Iowa Waltz (1980) and 44 & 66 (1981) on his own. When his career started taking off, he gave the fledging company to Bob Feldman, who made Red House one of America’s premier outlets for singer/songwriters. After his first albums were released, Brown was a regular on Prairie Home Companion. “Somebody on the staff called me up and said ‘We’ve had a lot of people on the show doing your tunes, so why don't you come up and do ‘em yourself?’” That exposure, coupled with his endless touring, enabled him to balance his career with an almost normal home life.
Brown began to hit his stride in the late 80s with a series of fine albums for Red House that culminated in his Grammy Nominations. One More Goodnight Kiss (1988), Down in There (1990), Dream Café (1992), Friend of Mine, with Bill Morrissey (1993), The Poet Game (1994) Further In (1996) and Slant Six Mind (1997) are all strong collections that touch on mortality, family life and the search for love and what it means to gain and lose it. Brown’s heartfelt delivery and the way he strings semi-conscious insight and plainspoken poetry together gives his work an uncommon depth. The arrangements combine blues, country, rock, and jazz, and stellar folk rock picking by a bunch of regular collaborators usually led by producer/arranger Bo Ramsey.
Brown also has the ability to write songs about long term relationships that sound as warm and sexy as the songs of seduction that make up most pop fare. “I’ve heard a lot of songwriters say they’re better writers when they’re unhappy, but I think love that lasts is as interesting as love that doesn’t, for whatever reason. Feeling gratitude for being able to love someone for a long time is a beautiful thing.”
Recently Brown has slowed his touring and recording, but when he does release an album, it’s a keeper. Covenant (2000 Red House) took a look at life from a more spiritual perspective, Over and Under (2000 Trailer) was a mostly acoustic view of small town life, Milk of the Moon (2002 Red House) followed the folk/rock template of 1997's Slant Six Mind and was self-produced. Honey in the Lion’s Head (2004 Trailer) paid homage to Brown’s roots with a collection of folk standards, while The Evening Call (2006 Red House) examined love in all its mystifying aspects. A prolific songwriter, in 2007 he released Yellow Dog, followed by Freak Flag in 2011, and Hyms To What Is Left in 2012.
In the end, Brown is a troubadour who connects with people on an intimate, personal level and while he may be slowing down, he has no plans to quit writing and rambling. “Each album sells a little bit better than the last,” he says. My fan base is grassroots, so I can make the music I like. As I’m getting older and cutting back on touring, the gigs are getting bigger, and the dough is getting better, so I should be able to do this for a while yet.”