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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Do you know this guy? You should!

Eleven years ago Terry and I were doing a concert-workshop combination in Austin, Texas. While we were there, or, more precisely, on the way down, Terry started getting the flu. She forced herself to get through the concert with shivers, fever, and aches that we all know and hate so much, but there was no
way she could extract herself from bed in the morning, leaving me to do the dirty workshop myself.

All this is by way of introduction to telling you that on the ride back to the hotel that night, I was listening to a folk/roots music show on NPR, and I heard two songs in a playlist that made my hair stand on end. The DJ had cleverly programmed these two songs because of the similarity of their titles, but something about the way they shone off of each other just cut me to the quick. First was a cut from the Eliza Carthy CD Red. The song was "Billy Boy", a revisionist version of the old folk song "Charming Billy," featuring some big-girl lyric changes of emphasis and angular rhythms that really suit her haunting voice and mix of modern and traditional instruments.

But the best was yet to come. Growling out of the radio came a voice that was masculine and sure, full of wild stories and the pristine memory of the Ozarks. The song was "Billy from the Hills," a spoken-word ballad with a driving musical background, from an album called Slant 6 Mind by a singer-songwriter from Iowa named Greg Brown. Brown is a folksinger, I mean, he can sing folk songs, but his amazing talent at writing songs is what has kept me in his fan club in the years since I first heard "Billy from the Hills."
Blood flows back and back and back and back
like a river from a secret source.
I feel it wild in me, I pitched my camp at the fork
where knowledge meets remorse.
Women sing in me that song from the ancient fire.
I just open my mouth and what comes out gives me chills.
I got my song from a secret place.
I got my face from Billy from the hills.

Some folks dance cool, all angles and swaying hips,
sensual as all get out and in.
Me, I'm a hick and I dance like one--
I just kind of jump around and grin.
I know a guy, he doesn't dance too much,
but when he does he gives everyone a thrill.
You might run away, or suck it up and stay
when he dances--Billy from the hills.
There's a lantern lit on a Missouri night,
a woman writing poems by a stove.
She knows the foxes whereabouts by knoll, by gulch, by yelp--
as he runs at night through his mother love.
Her memory to me is like watercress from a spring-fed stream,
fresh and aching like a mockingbird's trill.
She lives in me, I try to look until I can see--
for her and her boy--Billy from the hills...
The first thing I did when I got back to Barrington was look Brown up on, and buy the CD. What an experience! It was like listening to Sergeant Pepper or Blood on the Tracks for the first time: every song different, original, memorable, perfectly performed, produced, and placed on the album. Generally, there's no more to the track than Greg's voice, his guitar, and the guitar of sideman Bo Ramsey. Occasionally, you'll hear a bass or light snare drum. Bare bones perfection.

Like any singer's music, Brown's music is widely varied, some of it is better than others. He is the son of a preacher, and religious imagery shines out of his music, but the main thing that attracts me to his poetry and song is how reflective it is, how it embraces the country, the countryside, all of his own experience, and relates it in a way that makes you think he's been reading your mail.

After Slant 6 Mind I moved on to Covenant, which was just as dumbfoundingly perfect as my first experience. The first two cuts on this album may be as good as any two first cuts on any album. "Just You and Me, Babe" is as good an experience of intimacy and alienation as you can have in four and half minutes; "Rexroth's Daughter" is a jewel about eroticism and loss that is as haunting and heartbreaking as anything you'll ever hear.
...I can't believe your hands and mouth that did all that to me
Are so daily naked for all the world to see.
That thunderstorm in Michigan I never will forget
We shook right with the thunder, with the poundin' rain got wet.
Where did you turn when you turned from me, with your arms across your chest?
Oh I'm lookin' for Rexroth's daughter, I saw her in the great Northwest.
Great Northwest.

Would she have said it was the wrong time if I had found her then?
I don't want too much, a field across the road and a few good friends.
She used to come to see me but she was there and gone
Even the very longest love don't last very long.
She'd stand there in my doorway, smoothin' out her dress
And say "This life is a thump ripe melon -- so sweet and such a mess."
Such a mess.

Oh I wanted to get to know you but you said you were shy.
I would have followed you anywhere, but hello rolled into goodbye.
So I just stood there watching as you walked along the fence.
Beware of them that look at you as an experience.
You're back out on the highway with your poems of city heat,
and I'm lookin' for Rexroth's daughter, here on my old side street.
My old side street.
My friends, the meaning of life for a poet is to write a line like "This life is a thump-ripe melon—so sweet and such a mess," and live to tell about it. Amazing. If Paul Simon had been born in Des Moines, or Dylan had settled in Davenport instead of the Village, this is the music you might have been hearing from them.

Theology. I wrote a few weeks ago about hearing Greg live in Evanston, when he sang a song by his talented wife, Iris Dement, entitled "He Reached Down." There's a video on that blog page of Iris singing the song, accompanied by Joan Osborne (yes, the same who gave us "One of Us"). As I said then, Greg is a minister's son, and he has an evangelical sensibility but the sacramental sensuality of (I fear to say it) a Catholic. When he writes about God, there is a familiarity expressed that I envy, and yet it is the religion of everyday life, a walk in the country, loneliness, love for children, that is the matrix of the transcendent for him. Note this lyric from his jaw-dropping "Lord, I Have Made You a Place in My Heart."
Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart
among the rags and the bones and the dirt.
There's piles of lies, the love gone from her eyes,
and old moving boxes full of hurt.
Pull up a chair by the trouble and care.
I got whiskey, you're welcome to some.
Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart,
but I don't reckon you're gonna come.

I've tried to fix up the place, I know it's a disgrace,
you get used to it after a while -
with the flood and the drought and old pals hanging out
with their IOU's and their smiles.
bare naked women keep coming in
and they dance like you wouldn't believe.
Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart,
so take a good look - and then leave.

Oh Lord, why does the Fall get colder each year?
Lord, why can't I learn to love?
Lord, if you made me, it's easy to see
that you all make mistakes up above.
But if I open the door, you will know I'm poor
and my secrets are all that I own.
Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart
and I hope that you leave it alone.
In another song, "Walkin' Daddy," you don't even know where he's going with it until he's halfway done with the song, and by then all you can do is smile and wish you were walking alongside.

i'm walkin' daddy in the steps that you put down
i'm walkin' daddy & i know not where I'm bound

i'm walkin' daddy this road is dark & long
i'm walkin' daddy & your blood is in me strong

i'm walkin' daddy where the jack's fork river bends
down in missouri where the jack's fork river bends
with you & ma & my sister & with all my dear friends

you're walkin' daddy off through the woods you old hillbilly
you said "this is my son in whom I am well pleased"

ain't no road a good road until it's free to everyone
we're walkin' daddy father holy ghost & son

ain't no sorrow can dim the love comes shining through
i'm walkin' daddy I know what I am here to do

to be of use try to help the deal along
i'm walkin' daddy & i'm just gonna keep walkin' on

Greg, I'd like to "help the deal along," too, and your songs make me want to try harder to do the very best I can. Keep walkin' on, everybody!

Greg's lyrics are © Hacklebarney Music, and his songs are available on 
Red House Records, and some are available on iTunes as well.


  1. His song 'ring around the moon' is quite lovely. [Great blog, by the way; thank you!]

    1. Thanks, Timothy! Yes, I can't get enough of his stuff, and simple as it is, it is richly varied. He does have a thing about the moon. Pretty much, if it is natural, though, Greg has a thing about it, whether it's trout or the moon or tomatoes. :)

  2. One of the things that makes Greg Brown an absolutely complete musician is his ability to sing and play other writers' songs with originality. I discovered him in the early 80's through a marvelous cover of Ralph McTell's "Streets of London."


    1. Well, you were 20 years ahead of me. He made a few appearances on PHC, too, which is would be worth it to hear a two-man show between him and GK (and their posses).