With Folk Singer Greg Brown, the Past Is Always Present

By Jeffrey Barg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 5, 2011

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More than anything, I remember the baritone.

There was the grassy field, and an unrelenting sun, and her ’90s hippie-girl T-shirt, and that gorgeous long, dark hair. I was 17; she looked like an angel, and it was the first time I’d told a girl I loved her and felt like I knew what that meant. (When you’re 17 and it’s still really easy to fall in love, you’re pretty certain you know exactly what that means.) As we lay in the crowd of a New York folk festival near Haverstraw Bay, Greg Brown sang quiet, plaintive songs about ... well, I don’t remember what he sang about. That’s where the memory goes dark. But I remember his low, rumbling baritone, dark enough to convince you a thunderstorm was coming off in the late-afternoon distance—despite the nearly clear sky up above.

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 and see me but she was always there and gone/

Even the very longest love don’t last very long (“Rexroth’s Daughter”)

Greg Brown’s songs tend to call up a memory. Not necessarily of the first time you heard it—my New York hippie girl and I didn’t make it through the summer, but “Rexroth’s Daughter” wasn’t released for another few years. But a line or even an inflection will roll out, and suddenly the scenery changes and you’re back five, 10, 20 years.

This Saturday night at the quirkily named Sellersville Theater 1894, Greg Brown creates a whole new roomful of memories. Tucked away in northwest Bucks County, the intimate theater has undergone a renaissance of late, with a recent Daily News feature talking about how the boomers who haunted the Main Point in Bryn Mawr back in the day now consider it a second home. But it’s not just for your parents; recent shows have included the likes of Hüsker Dü, Mike Doughty and a top-shelf triple bill of Andrew Lipke and the Prospects, Hezekiah Jones and Chris Kasper.

Brown’s bio doesn’t easily fit either the boomers or their offspring. Born in the Prairie Home Companion fields of southeastern Iowa, Brown’s Hacklebarney upbringing sounds to our Northeastern ears like something that could only spring from the imagination of Garrison Keillor. The son of an English teacher/electric guitar player (Mom) and a Pentecostal preacher (Dad), Brown skipped across the Midwest and eventually became a fixture in the Greenwich Village hootenanny scene as he learned how Jesus, blues and wholesome cooking all bled together in contemporary folk music.

He now lives in Iowa City with his wife, musician Iris DeMent, and his work has been embraced by an entire younger generation of fans who found him through the folk festivals that have remained a staple for him over the years.

I’d sure as hell never had a beet.

When I was 23, exotic cooking to me still meant putting both mozzarella and parmesan cheese on my baked ziti. But a crush with blond hair and an eyebrow piercing was about to change all of that.

I’m not sure if she was vegetarian or vegan or herbivore or locavore or ate only things that still had dirt on them, but I was floored. With each new ingredient she flashed in front of my eyes—bulgur! Swiss chard! radishes!—my heart quickened. You mean you can eat these little red beets raw, and they taste this good? Swoon.

We (OK, she) packed a picnic and headed to King of Prussia, where Greg Brown was playing the summertime Concerts Under the Stars series.

She cans the pickles, sweet and dill/

And the songs of the whippoorwill/

And the morning dew and the evening moon/

I really got to go down and see her soon/

‘Cause the canned goods that I buy at the store/

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