Greg Brown : If I Had Known (Essential Recordings, 1980 – 1996)

Greg Brown : If I Had Known

(2003 Red House Records)

Greg Brown (b. 1949) has been releasing records for a very long time (his first album Hacklebarney was released in 1974), how I managed to miss all of his (most probably) fine records all those years is a mystery to me, but better late than never, as they say.

When I finally made up my mind to buy one of his CD’s after paying his home state Iowa a visit in March of 2013, I stumbled upon this collection. Being a visually oriented person it didn’t take much convincing to buy the CD/DVD combo, containing the 1993 documentary, Hacklebarney Tunes The Music Of Greg Brown. So when it arrived in the mail, watching the 46-minute DVD was pretty much the first thing I did after opening the package. Having watched it a few times since, it still fascinates me as much as it did the first time I watched it. Sure, the visuals feel a little bit dated, having been filmed in the early 1990’s/late 1980’s, and the clothes being worn by the people shown in the film are slightly cringe worthy, (I’m not trying to make fun of anybody here, I, like mostly likely you reading this, wore the same styles back then, regrettably).

But what is shown and especially to be heard here, is anything but. I can’t really think of a documentary about a musician that inspired and enthralled me half as much as Hacklebarney Tunes (I am thinking about the very boring one about Gram Parsons and the rather touching one about Townes Van Zandt which I would very much recommend to anybody reading this, but I can’t remember the title, sorry) does.

It shows first and foremost a first-rate singer/songwriter well versed in a number of styles, all firmly within the Folk/Roots music field, with Folk being the most prominent, but unsurprisingly for somebody that has released a lot of records (his Wikipedia page lists about 25), there also have been other styles creeping into his recordings (as far as I can tell at this point in rather moderate doses though). It also shows a person being firmly rooted in his native Midwest/Iowa and seemingly at ease with his place in the world and his musical career (at one point sitting in his car on the way to go fishing he states ‚I’ve got so low ambition nowadays, it’s amazing to me’), there’s none of the depression of the likes of T. van Zandt on show, and no self-destruction in evidence – which I like a lot (although his is certainly no happy-go-lucky music and is thematically often quite serious).

Being produced by the University Of Iowa it starts of with some nice shots of the Southern Iowa countryside accompanied by a splendid version of Folk standard Pretty Boy Floyd with him, Bo Ramsey on guitar and a bass player, (an equally excellent version of Hank Williams’ Lost Highway from the same session can be seen later in the film).

His dad being a minister, the family moved quite a few times in the Midwest in Greg’s childhood and youth (as being recounted by his dad in the film). When he grew up he (like a lot of people) left to live in places away from his roots, but his love for the areas he grew up in is obvious as is the respect and love for his family. There’s a sequence of the older generation of his family and including his uncle Roscoe Brown (who’s interviewed in the film too), making music together in a living room with (what I believe to be) his grandma on the pump-organ and his granddad on the banjo, Roscoe Brown on the guitar and a fiddle player  – very old-timey and lovely. Apparently he bought his grandparents farm around the time the documentary was filmed, although he seems to be living in Iowa City now with his second wife, fellow singer-songwriter Iris Dement.

Interviewed too is his childhood-friend Jimmy Chapman, telling the story of the catch they did in Earlville, Iowa’s Plum Creek while out fishing, told about in the compilation’s title-song If I Had Known. Also shown are some of the various places in Iowa he lived in growing up, small, rural farming towns with all their attendant problems, a theme recurring in a number of his songs. Ample room is given to various live versions of his songs – indicative of his recording style is perhaps the fact that these live versions often don’t vary all that greatly from the recorded versions that can be heard on the CD, (with the exception of Canned Goods which I like better in the faster and more stripped-down version in the film). Evidently he’s very entertaining live (haven’t seen him playing live, sadly), just note the live rendition of Poor Back Slider (from 1992’s Down In There) about guys trying to stay away from booze after visiting church – but ending up drinking even harder after a couple of months abstinence.

I also love the scene where standard Will The Circle Be Unbroken is sung by a church congregation – a true insight into, what I as a European at least, believe to be small town religious US-American life. As mentioned before, the struggle of people living in these small towns face is a theme of many of his songs, for example what is at the moment, my favorite of his songs Our Little Tow’ (from One More Goodnight Kiss) which can be heard here interspersed with photos from Earlville, IA (where his dad was a minister at one point). It’s a simply arranged song with just his deep, resonant voice and an delicately strummed acoustic guitar – all he needs in fact to stun you/me – very beautiful, if troubled, you simply cannot make Folk music any better than this.

Our Little Town is also featured on the 17 track CD. Unsurprisingly the songs on the CD vary quite a bit stylistically and one or two of them don’t work that well in my opinion, especially arrangement-wise, for example Good Morning Coffee (although the unusual pan pipes are not without a certain charm), and I am not too fond on the clarinet in Downtown either, a quite dark song in theme and sound also featured on the DVD in an acoustic guitar and harmonica version which I prefer, mainly for the haunting harmonica.

But the songs to be loved are by far in the majority, starting with the compilation’s title tune If I Had Known. Another highlight for me is Ella Mae an acoustic-guitar-and-voice-only live recording from 1982, originally released on the One Night album (1983), it’s an ode to his grandmother and not one bit mushy or overly sentimental – it’s honest and all the better for it. Canned Goods is bemoaning the fact that said canned goods haven’t got the sunshine in them like his grandma’s used to have – it certainly IS sentimental (and maybe arranged a tad too sweetly for my taste) but I love it nevertheless.

Laughing River (which can also be heard in the documentary in a scene where we see Greg Brown fishing) is another song much to my taste – folky, slightly up-tempo and showing Greg Brown at his best. The song is dealing with an artist longing for a place after spending a long time on the road – so it is tying in nicely with the documentary and one can assume is rather more autobiographic. As is clear for a Brown-novice like myself from watching Hacklebarney Tunes, he can make almost any song work with only his voice and acoustic guitar (which is of course a sure sign of any exceptionally talented singer/songwriter)

Worrisome Years is probably the most pessimistic song on the compilation, about a guy living in a small town, clearly not happy with his life and in some sort of economic tight spot ‚ …can you please tell me when does the good part start?’ clearly he’s run out of options ‚I think about leaving, but where would I go? How would I get there? I don’t know…’. Actually it doesn’t really sound that depressed, it’s a rather lovely folk-tune with a beautiful fiddle and backing vocals by Shawn Colvin.

I also like The Train Carrying Jimmy Rodgers Home a lot, it’s an old-timey Country tune with the sound mimicking that of Rodger’s era and of course featuring some yodeling – good fun. Spring Wind is amazing too – an acoustic guitar, some wonderful background vocals, a little bit of bass and harmonica and understated yet highly effective percussion and a gorgeous tune. The Poet Game is another song I have to mention, the thoughtful, intelligent lyrics recalling various people and situations in his life, both sad (a good friend he doesn’t talk to him anymore) and nice (a particularly happy time with a girlfriend) coupled with a melancholic melody and a lovely electric lead guitar by Bo Ramsey.

Where Is Maria is only very slightly marred by a in my opinion somewhat inelegant chorus, but otherwise a very fine, understated, acoustic Folk song too. Boomtown is the one track on here standing apart quite clearly stylistically from the rest, being a sort of all-electric and slightly bluesy up-tempo R’n’R/Pop song, I like it very much, especially the oh-so-true lyrics. The two last tracks on the compilation Two Little Feet and Driftless do round up the album rather nicely, the first one a midtempo Folk track and the album closer another melancholic song with Bo Ramsey on both electric and a Weissenborn lap guitar – Roots music at its best.

Now the only question left to answer is which Greg Brown albums to get next first. I guess I will either be going for The Poet Game or One More Goodnight Kiss (mainly because it’s got Our Little Town on it), well, most probably both.

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4 thoughts on “Greg Brown : If I Had Known (Essential Recordings, 1980 – 1996)

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  4. Pingback: Pieta Brown : Flowers of Love | Back Road Bound

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