Greg Brown, Iowa’s contribution to folk music mythology, reflects before retirement

Greg Brown Retirement Show w/ Bo Ramsey

Englert Theatre, Iowa City, Feb. 16 & 17 (SOLD OUT)

Dana Telsrow/Little Village

The term roots is often used to describe unadorned country and folk music — though it is sometimes invoked without much thought about its deeper, more resonant connotations. But by examining the life of Iowa’s most well-known purveyor of this tradition, Greg Brown, we can better understand how it is ingrained in history, culture and family.

“Mom taught me how to play guitar,” he recalled. “Most of the music I heard living in southern Iowa was around her. She was born out in the country, south of Fairfield, and there was a lot of music down there.”

Born in 1949, Brown grew up in the Hacklebarney area of Iowa, where the soft coal mines drew folks from Kentucky and Virginia who brought with them a wellspring of musical influences. As a boy, he played the ukulele and messed around with a pedal lap steel guitar, which his father hooked up to an old-timey radio with a big 14-inch speaker that served as an amplifier.

“My dad was a preacher,” he said. “They called them Holy Rollers back then, and we stayed in that church for about five or six years when I was a little boy, traveling around. There was lots of singing in that church, and gospel quartets would come through.”

Brown knew he wanted to play music from a pretty early age but he didn’t know if he’d be able to make a living at it, so he attended the University of Iowa, in part to get a student deferment that kept him out of the Vietnam War. After Brown secured a spot opening for Eric Anderson, the folksinger took a shine to him, and Brown left the straight academic life behind in 1969 to set out for New York City, where bohemian adventures awaited.

“Eric invited me to come to New York,” Brown said, “so I went there that next summer and knocked around getting jobs at the little coffee shops in Greenwich Village. That’s really where I started out, and I had a steady gig at Gerdy’s Folk City.”

After four or five months, Brown started to miss his girlfriend living in Oregon, so he sold his guitar at a Village store and bought a standby airline ticket to be with her. They decided to move back to Iowa after a few months on the West Coast, but the young couple broke up while driving through Wyoming, which set the stage for a few more years of rambling around.

“I think I was living in Des Moines for a while,” Brown said. “Anyway, I had a trio, and the woman in the band had worked with this guy who was living out in Las Vegas, Buck Ram. He was the manager for the Platters, and he invited us to come out and write songs, so we went out there and tried to ‘achieve blend’ for a while. That’s what he said we had to do: achieve blend.”

They never did successfully achieve blend, so Brown headed back to Iowa and began gigging with Richard Pinney around the Midwest. In 1974, the duo played a live set at a Rockford, Illinois club that was recorded for an album, Hacklebarney, which sunk without a trace. “It wasn’t very good,” he said, “but that was OK, because not very many people heard it.”

Legendary folk singer Greg Brown performs during a rally for immigration rights on the Ped Mall. Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Brown and his first wife split up a couple years after their daughter Pieta Brown was born in 1973, when they lived out in the country in a house with no running water or indoor plumbing. The newly single musician moved back to Iowa City and held down jobs at the library and the hospital while he grew his solo career, one gig at a time. Brown often hosted late-night jam sessions at his place, where he’d wake up li’l Pieta to hang out and listen to music well into the night, then excuse her from school the next day.

“One of the reasons I loved waking up for those times is because my dad would make me tapioca pudding,” Pieta recalled. “Some of my earliest memories are of music. The sound of guitar. A foot tapping. The sound of the birds outside the open window out in the country. Yes, there were a lot of disapproving calls from the school system. I never really understood school, though. It never felt right to me. Waking up in the middle of the night to eat tapioca pudding and make music made way more sense.”

Pieta Brown closes out the fourth night of the Mission Creek Festival at The Mill, joined by Bo Ramsey (left). Friday, April 7, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Those evenings planted seeds that flowered into several critically acclaimed albums since Pieta Brown’s 2002 debut, the natural outgrowth of a family tradition that was steeped in music. As a little girl, Pieta would go down to Hacklebarney with her dad to visit her great-grandparents, her great-uncle Roscoe, and a bearded fiddle-playing character named Buzz Fountain, who’d host gatherings called Selma Jams.

“Grampa Honey played the banjo and sang,” Pieta said. “Gramma Honey played the pump organ and sang. Those were my gramma’s parents, so the music goes way back in our family. At the Selma Jams, I got to dance around with a hat turned upside down collecting donations for the musicians. So, some things haven’t changed too much.”

At the end of the 1970s, Greg Brown decided that it was time to make a studio album, so he got together with some friends, like Dave Moore, and cut his first solo album, 44 & 66. Released in 1980, it was followed the next year by a stone-cold classic, The Iowa Waltz, another do-it-yourself affair.

Established record companies weren’t interested, so the can-do Midwesterner went down to the bank, took out a loan, and pressed up a batch of albums that he sold at gigs and in local record stores. This laid the foundation for an influential independent label, Red House, that championed left-of-the-dial folk artists in much the same way that indie labels like Dischord and SST incubated punk rock at the same time.

“I liked having a small label because I had complete freedom,” Brown said. “I could record whatever I wanted to, whenever I wanted to.”

These DIY albums soon got the attention of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, which frequently featured him as a musical guest. After moving to Minneapolis, where that long-running radio show was produced, his gravely baritone voice and homespun guitar playing could be heard coast to coast on the air. (Fittingly for an Iowa boy, the word broadcasting is rooted in an agricultural metaphor: i.e., casting sonic seeds across the land.)

“I met a guy named Bob Feldman who had promoted a show for me in Minneapolis, and I was moving up there to work on Prairie Home, so I said to Bob, ‘Hey, how would you like to be Red House Records?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’ So, we put a couple of boxes of records in his backseat and he became Red House Records, and that’s that. He’s the guy who really got the whole thing going, and I think it did turn into a fairly important little label.”

Bo Ramsey and Greg Brown
Greg Brown (right) and Bo Ramsey perform in 2008. —photo by Dirk DBQ on Flickr

In the 1980s, Brown began working with producer and sideman Bo Ramsey, a rail-thin guitarist perpetually clad in a straw cowboy hat who played on a number of his albums, including One Big Town, Down In There, Slant 6 Mind and Freak Flag. Meanwhile, Brown’s unassuming legend quietly spread throughout the land.

The year 2002 saw the release of Going Driftless: An Artist’s Tribute to Greg Brown, which featured roots music luminaries Iris DeMent, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and others, along with a cover of “Ella Mae” by his daughters Pieta, Zoe and Constie Brown. Around this time, Brown fell for DeMent, who was born in Arkansas into a Pentecostal family that shared similar cultural and musical touchstones. He still remembers the moment that sealed the deal, when they were both playing at the Rocky Mountain Festival in Lyons, Colorado and DeMent was about to go onstage to sing with boho country-folk artist John Prine.

“Iris was standing there with a paper plate having her supper, and she looked at me and said, ‘Here, you finish this,’ and she just handed me her plate,” Brown said. “Well, you just don’t do that, really, unless you’re gonna marry somebody. Even I — who’s pretty thick about those sorts of things — understood exactly what was going on. I took that paper plate, and within a few months we were married.”

Folk singer Iris DeMent performs at the Robert A Lee Recreation center following Mazahir Salih’s announcement that she’s running her Iowa City Council. Monday, March 6, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The couple’s musical and familial roots have entwined in many ways since then, such as when Pieta Brown co-produced Iris DeMent’s brand-new release, Workin’ On a World, which includes a couple songs they co-wrote. The album’s infectious title track is a hopeful anthem for our troubled times, with a chorus that goes: “I’m joinin’ forces with the warriors of love / Who came before and will follow you and me / I get up in the mornin’ knowing I’m privileged just to be / Workin’ on a world I may never see.”

Whenever our collective problems might feel insurmountable, this song stands as a reminder that we are part of an unbroken circle of folks who have fought (and will keep fighting) to make the world a better place. This long-view sensibility also resonates with the way that Pieta views her own life and family.

“I do see myself as part of a very rooted musical lineage — I am just one little variation, a continuation,” she said. “Hearing my dad singing and playing is one of my favorite sounds on earth. It’s somehow so rooted, and gigantic. When he’s singing and playing, I feel such an unfiltered connection to something that is so much bigger than I am or he is. He can make me laugh and cry in just one song! His body of work is multi-directional, and fun, and beautiful, and I’m just getting to know it even still.”

Kembrew McLeod spent the winter holidays working on an interpretive dance adaptation of “Yummy Yummy Yummy” by the Ohio Express. This article was originally published in Little Village’s February 2023 issues.