Album Review – Greg Brown: Freak Flag

Greg Brown

Freak Flag

My first time in a bar, underage, was for a Bo Ramsey and the Sliders show at Potter’s Mill in Bellevue, IA. From then on, I caught as many shows as I could until I moved to Minnesota for work. When I later moved back to Iowa, one reason I was excited to return was the rich folk and blues scene I grew up with, which included Greg Brown.

When Brown started work on what would be his 24th album, it was with some trepidation. “I wasn’t sure for a while that I would do any more recording,” he confessed in a recent interview, “the business is in shambles. But I thought well, hey—maybe it would be good to put another one out—tender songs for these harsh times.” He entered the studio with long-time production and touring partner Bo Ramsey to record his first all-digital album.

As fate would have it, a lightning strike destroyed most of the recordings before they could be backed up. Around the same time, Bob Feldman, Brown’s long time partner at Red House Records died, precipitating a move to a new record label. Freak Flag (out May 10 on Yep Roc) seemed in peril because of the unusual chaos surrounding it. Undeterred, Brown moved to former Stax recording studio Ardent, in Memphis, and started over—this time to trusty old tape.

On Freak Flag, Brown brings his characteristic homespun wisdom and humor to a classic Ramsey tick-tock country blues production. It sits comfortably next to their other successful efforts together, which include personal favorite Slant 6 Mind. When Brown sings “The muskrat and the bullfrog / The rabbit and the skunk / Old barns full of blue sky / Backyards full of junk” on a new recording of “Flat Stuff,” it’s not just the images, but also the slow and slightly out-of-key (should I say “flat”?) vocal delivery that conveys Iowa’s uneventful terrain. Surprise guest Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) delivers a deliciously familiar guitar solo on this song as well.

At the time of this writing I find myself facing life circumstances that could take me away from Iowa again. With bittersweet memories of my time here, Freak Flag is my soundtrack for change.