Son of a preacher man

Revered singer-songwriter Greg Brown comes to Paradise

Greg Brown with Box Set
Paradise Performing Arts Center Friday, May 9, 7:30 p.m.

It struck me about halfway through my phone conversation with Iowa singer, songwriter and guitarist Greg Brown that he reminded me of my big-rig-drivin’ brother John: hunky, husky-voiced, down-to-earth and funny-as-hell with a most deadpan delivery.

He told me how much he appreciates New England audiences because they have a lot of feeling for his music “even though they don’t holler.” (He loves the California audiences precisely for their hollering, for how much they get into the music.) Or, upon my mentioning the name Junior Brown, with whom Greg Brown has shared the show on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, how he’d like to run into him in an alley (ouch!). Then went on to tell me about an assistant that Junior has, “this one mysterious little guy that carried [Junior’s] hat in a box” for him everywhere he went. “Oh, I like Junior all right, though.”

Concerning our interview, he said at one point, “Aw, just tell the biggest lies you can think of!” I said I wasn’t going to do that, but I’d quote him, to which he responded, “OK.” So what follows is the truth, as best as I can tell it, about Mr. Greg Brown.

Born in the rural Hacklebarney region of southeastern Iowa, Brown is the son of a Holy Roller preacher and an electric guitarist (his mom). Grandpa played the banjo and Grandma was a poet. Brown grew up with gospel music in church and country, blues, rock-'n'-roll and hillbilly music on the radio. He studied classical piano and voice and sang in choirs when he was a kid. His first instrument, at about age 6 or 7, was the pump organ. At age 10, Brown got hold of a Big Bill Broonzy record, which made a huge impression upon him, as did his mother’s love of literature, significantly poetry.

Brown got his first professional singing job running hootenannies in Greenwich Village’s legendary Gerdes Folk City when he was 18 years old. He then tried L.A., Portland and Vegas but got burned out on the fast pace. He quit music for a while and worked a string of blue-collar jobs, including one as a meatpacker, where he lost a part of his left thumb.

Just as he was getting ready to go back to school to study either field biology or forestry, he was asked to appear on A Prairie Home Companion. That turned into a regular gig and exposed him to a huge and appreciative audience of listeners. Some of his better-known fans are Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana, Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter, all of whom have covered his tunes. He’s a masterful story teller, and his rich, deep singing voice enriches the poetry of his complex and emotionally poignant songs.

Well-loved by his peers, Brown recently had an entire album devoted to his music—Going Driftless: An Artist’s Tribute to Greg Brown (2002)—with his songs being covered by the aforementioned Carpenter and Colvin, as well as Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Ani DiFranco, Iris DeMent (Brown’s new wife, as of November) and his daughters Pieta, Zoe and Constie Brown. Brown wrote the dedication to this all-female-artists album, focusing on his love for the women in his life—his grandmothers and mother, “all so strong,/ who taught me to laugh,/ & who by singing to me taught me to sing.”

He pays particular attention to his late, very dear friend Widdie Hall, who played a huge role in the lives of many folk musicians in the ‘70s and ‘80s: “I dedicate this CD to Widdie Hall,/ shining spirit she was & is,/ 1944-1988./ Too many gone too soon./ By working & singing together we hope/ for change & healing.” She died of breast cancer; and all royalties from the CD go to The Breast Cancer Fund of San Francisco.

Brown will be joined at his Paradise show by fellow Iowa roots musician Bo Ramsey, known for his brilliant guitar work with Lucinda Williams, for one. The duo is sure to deliver the kind of gritty, happy, emotional show that audiences have come to count on Brown for. And newcomers will likely find that, like Brown’s many die-hard fans, they are definitely reached by this big-hearted son of a preacher man.