Arriving more than three decades into his career as a professional musician, Greg Brown's newest disc, Covenant, is his most relationship-oriented album yet.
The Midwestern troubadour and two-time Grammy nominee addresses the fast pace and touch-and-go nature of life and love in the Information Age with " 'Cept You and Me Babe" (RealAudio excerpt), a blues-tinged ballad of solitude amid relationships nurtured via the Internet and cell phones.
"Real Good Friend" sets its look at the contradictions of attraction, friendship and commitment in a honky-tonk arrangement flavored with electric piano and organ. Brown takes the roadhouse rhythms and raunchiness even further on "Blues Go Walking."
Brown's gearing up for a series of fall concerts to support the disc.
"I'll be touring like a madman," he said recently from his home in Iowa City, Iowa. Meanwhile, a host of his peers, including Lucinda Williams and Ani DiFranco, are planning to record a tribute album featuring Brown's material.
Brown has learned that you take songs where you find them. "I tend to go in cycles," he said.
"When I'm writing, I seem to be more awake, more aware, I seem to notice things more, and I like that. But when I'm not writing, I don't worry that I should be. I'm just out there living."
The Power Of Song
Then again, sometimes a song has a way of just taking over. For instance, there's the mystical, kaleidoscopic journey of "Rexroth's Daughter" (RealAudio excerpt).
"That song was a bear," Brown said. "I started it about four or five years ago in upper Canada, then carried it to San Francisco, worked on it and worked on it, and came to the conclusion that it was just complete drivel.
"I had the lyrics lying on my desk and my middle daughter came across them and said 'Dad, who wrote that beautiful poem?' She thought that and didn't even know it was mine."
His daughter's positive feedback convinced him to finish the composition. "It's one of those songs that just would not give me any peace until I wrestled it to the ground or it wrestled me to the ground!" he said.
"Dream City," another track on Covenant, is a rock-laced exploration of the urgency of love. Brown then drifts into slow sensuality with the very grown-up "Lullaby."
Bringing the idea of love full circle, Brown talks about passing it along from generation to generation in "Walkin' Daddy" (RealAudio excerpt), and then closes the disc with the funky roots rap of "Marriage Chant."
"In a kind of backhanded way, I was trying to pay tribute to the institution of marriage, which is a brave act on the part of two people," he said of the latter.
"That song lists all the things that are wrong with marriage and then ends up saying 'but I wish I was married.' So I was kind of speaking up for it in a sort of ironic way."
Brown, whose 1994 album Friend of Mine and 1997 release Slant 6 Mind earned him his Grammy nods, was born in southeastern Iowa and spent his childhood moving around the Midwest with his father a Pentecostal preacher and guitar-playing mother.
"My real grounding in music was in the church," Brown recalled. "Gospel and old hymns. And around my grandparents' place in southern Iowa, it seemed like everybody played and sang old hill tunes and country music."
When Brown was 18, he won a contest in Iowa City to open for singer/songwriter Eric Andersen, who encouraged Brown to move east.
A Blues Education
"When I got to New York, one of the first guys I saw play was Paul Geremia, an East Coast blues guy," Brown said. "He really turned my head around."
Geremia, who is only a handful of years older than Brown, was already deep into traditional blues, playing bottleneck slide and covering less-well-known songs by now-familiar blues masters such as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.
After stints in Greenwich Village, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Brown returned to the Midwest, worked on the public radio program "Prairie Home Companion" and founded Red House Records, for which he still records. But he passed the label's management duties on to others and returned to Iowa.
Brown's previous projects have included a children's album, a disc in which he set the poems of William Blake to music, and the just-released Iowa-specific set of songs Over and Under. He next plans to tackle a songbook, perhaps some prose writing and unspecified musical collaborations.
"There's a nice scene in the kind of music I do, folk music or whatever it's called," Brown said. "Jazz music is still alive, blues music is still alive, folk music is still alive. They may not have their own TV channel, but there is an audience for all kinds of great American music all around the country.
"I think American music is like this great stew, you know. You put in your dipper and just come up with all kinds of stuff."