Greg Brown knows a thing or two about life. As any one of the songs from his 30-year career will tell you, he is a man who gets to the heart of the matter. Cloaked within a gruff folk style, Brown’s worldly perceptions offer us the opportunity to grimace at our faults and laugh at our eccentricities; yet it is a perspective firmly rooted in heart and home. Raised in rural Iowa by a preacher father and a guitar-playing mother, Brown had his world shaped by music, verse, and tradition. He has recorded more than 25 albums and written for Prairie Home Companion. He’s even been the subject of a tribute album. On Saturday night, Brown returns to the Sings Like Hell series for what is destined to be a poignant wake-up call from America’s heartland.
Your songs span a spectrum of subjects and solicit a range of emotions. What for you is the essence of song? The beautiful thing about songs is you’re putting the words and music and rhythm all together. It becomes more than the sum of the parts. All that stuff is really intensified. The language is intensified by the music, and the music can be intensified by the words and the sounds you’re making, so it’s really a beautiful form. And that goes way back. I kind of feel linked up to the first people who were sitting around a fire somewhere beating on something with a stick and chanting. And I hope it will go forward into the midst of time, if we can just get through this rough patch.
The widespread appreciation for your music was evident on Going Driftless, which was both a tribute and breast cancer benefit album. What was it like having your music in the hands of artists like Ani DiFranco, Gillian Welch, and Victoria Williams? It was a real pleasure hearing people like Victoria Williams take on my songs. Iris [DeMent] did a beautiful job on the Jimmie Rodgers song. All those women on there are great singers. I really haven’t had that many songs covered over the years so I was just kind of knocked out by the whole thing.
Honesty is a word that gets thrown around a lot in relation to your music. How important do you think truth is in music? I like what Tom Wayne says about that. He says, “Just because something’s true doesn’t make it interesting.” And I really think for a song to communicate, it’s got to reach inside a person somehow. I also think it’s good for songs to be honest. But a song is not an article, it’s not a position paper, it’s not a theme; it’s a song. I think the main thing a song has to have is some life to it. The life in it is what keeps people singing those old folk songs hundreds of years later.
But we seem to be getting further and further away from that. What has gone wrong? You know, the music kids are listening to on the radio today, there’s something wrong there. When I was a kid, you turned on the radio and one minute they’d play Aretha Franklin and then the next minute you’d hear Jimi Hendrix. I think what’s happening to music is happening to our whole country. The corporate process is taking over the government and the military, and it seems like it’s taking over everything else too-radio, movies, football. Stadiums aren’t football stadium anymore, they’re the Nextel stadium. The only goal of the whole corporate process is money. That’s it. And that’s what’s happened with music. Radio plays this forgettable shit and the next year that artist is gone and they’ve got someone else in a tighter top. It’s soulless and heartless.
Greg Brown plays his version of American heartland folk this Saturday, March 24 at the Lobero Theatre. For tickets, call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com or singslikehell.com.