Leaving St. Louis in late September, Highway 61 takes one north, Missouri into Iowa, along the Mississippi, twin lanes unraveling past cornfields dying or not quite ready to die, silos overrun with reddening vines, beanfields, the river appearing aquamarine for seconds, disappearing, the bluffs, land putting the lie to Midwestern flatness, sinking and rising, carved by streams, horizons broken by houses, power lines.
“It’s a war zone out there.” September in Iowa City, wind blowing hard from the west and knocking green walnuts the size of cannon shot over Greg Brown’s back porch. He and his musical companion Bo Ramsey look out the picture windows of the dining room, onto a small, overgrown garden. “The other day I filled three wheelbarrows,” Brown says. The desultory talk, the quiet, exchanged looks are all touched by an intimacy that makes me a little uncomfortable, a bond of hard, shared experience and equally hard, shared song.
I’ve been trying to get inside those songs; it’s not so easy. Brown’s early records are full of spare, solid, conventional songwriter pieces, all finely humored, detailed, but mostly transparent, like their mostly old-time, acoustic, coffeehouse blues sound. Brown originally released his first records, Iowa Waltz and 44 & 66, on his own, calling the label Red House. His prolific recordings eventually built that imprint — which he first abandoned, then turned over to a fan-gone-entrepreneur named Bob Feldman — into one of the strongest indie folk labels standing. But with Dream Cafe (1992), The Poet Game (1994), last year’s Further In, and now Slant 6 Mind, Brown’s style has grown like dark thickets, his images prickly, unyeilding, tough to take in:
She’s got a slant 6 mind and a supercharged heart
The little princess is singing about her parts
She says “come hither” but when I get hither she is yon
I was looking for what I loved
Whatever it was is gone
His language remains clear, without the sententiousness that has passed too often for depth. But when you plunge in, you’re left braced, maybe chilled or burnt. It’s the scorched-away clarity of wisdom (described in the new song “Speaking in Tongues”) that translates sonically into something aggressive, a moaning electric or a boggling slide.
“A lot of that is due to Mr. Ramsey,” Brown says. “We had met a long time before we played together; we both had bands in town, late ’70s or early ’80s. We talked a little, Bo had some idea that we should do something. He had heard one of my records and said he thought it really needed work.
“Before I met Bo, I approached the studio as another gig. We’d go in, turn on the stuff, play the songs twice. Bo has really taught me to enjoy the studio. Nine-tenths of what we do is live, but it’s a different approach; it’s relaxed and thoughtful. I never really thought of making a record before then. I still don’t think of writing albums, trying to write songs that fit together. I just write songs. The new ones simply turned out harder-edged: ‘Down at the Mill’, ‘Wild Like A Sonny Boy’. We try to listen to how the songs want to be. We might have an arrangement in mind and try to get the song to do that, and the song doesn’t want to do that. Once you find the right groove, everything falls into place.”
As we talk, Ramsey goes into Brown’s study, picks up an old hollowbody — it looks like the guitar Brown’s mother holds in a photo on the inside of Slant 6 — plugs in, toys with it, sends out dark peals and bent notes. It’s interview day: The phone rings three, four times, and Brown obliges. I eavesdrop, check to see if he’s got his story straight. A glance at his library, more books than a grad student, good, heavy stuff, volumes and volumes of poetry. Donne, Lowell, Blake, Neruda. Welding texts, books on conservation.
“My dad’s mother Ella Mae was a real good poet,” Brown tells me after he clicks the cordless. “She kept a big journal about nature, the mountains; she was an early conservationist. They were starting to log pretty heavy down through the Ozarks, dam up some rivers, and she was real concerned, so I had her as a role model as a poet and a writer.”
He stops, talks to his daughters, who are heading out to buy supplies for baking bread, then starts again. “My mom plays guitar. My dad’s a good singer and a good storyteller. He was a preacher; he illustrated a lot of sermons with stories from his boyhood in the Ozark Mountains. My mother’s folks played banjo, grandma played an old pump organ, all the neighbors played fiddles, banjos. When they got older, the third Sunday of every month in Selma, in the little town hall there, there’d be a potluck with a hundred people playing old-time tunes — the wildest music. It was run by Buzz Fountain, who was 300 pounds of heavenly joy with a big old white beard. And I remember this duo we called The Pant Suit Twins, these two women in their 60s, twins, they wore identical pant suits, and played four-string banjos. This crazy old guy would be dancing, didn’t have any teeth, I think he had a washboard, something he beat on. He did a jig. A couple of kids played electric guitar, my grandpa would play piano, and they’d take off on ‘Red Wing’ or some old tune. The whole place would just thump.”
None of his records are that spontaneous, that wild. They are instead lyrically expansive, remarkable for their nimble allegories of innocence on edge, a bit like Blake (Brown cut a record setting some of Songs Of Innocence And Experience to music which, he says, “sounds a little too much like Masterpiece Theatre”). Or, just as often, he builds withering satires of a “culture exploded into knickknacks and memories,” the pure products of America gone crazy.
“The good songs are a mixture. ‘Where is Maria’ is a good example. There is the culture run amok, but there’s also something about old friends. I wrote a song a few years ago, ‘America Will Eat You’, and it’s just terrible. It’s whiny, musically it’s not very interesting. ‘Whatever it Was’ [from the new album] I feel okay about; it’s got good energy to it. If you’re gonna rant and rave, it’s gotta have a good beat — do it full bore. [A little obscurity] makes it deeper, broader. It leaves room for people to bring their own deal to it.”