Greg Brown has a strange effect on people.
At first hearing, Brown seems to be a typical folksinger, albeit one with a fine eye for detail. Listen a little closer, however, and you'll likely discover that his modest, laconic approach cloaks a lyrical and musical style that's as distinctive as it is satisfying.
It's also sneaky. Brown is best known, if he's known at all, for the mid-Eighties period when he was a regular contributor to Garrison Keillor's radio program Prairie Home Companion, singing ditties about the small pleasures of rural life. But Brown's compositions often cloak caustic surprises of the sort found in "One More Goodnight Kiss" (the title track of a fine album released in 1988), in which Brown fatalistically offers a peck on the cheek as a futile defense against nuclear catastrophe. Brown's songs are multifaceted, but they don't wave their complexity in your face.
"I like to look for the connections to the bigger issues," Brown says. "But when my work slides toward overt political statement, this little censor goes off in my head. I don't think good politics is an excuse for a bad song, and that certainly happens a lot. I love politics--it's part of what life's all about--but I try to have that be just one slice in the soup."
An Iowa native, Brown has taken a low-key tack to his career. He's earned strong notices for In the Dark With You, Dream Cafe and the other exceptional albums he's released over the course of the past decade-plus on Minneapolis's small Red House Records, but he's never knocked himself out trying to become the next Bob Dylan. "That's never been a real big goal of mine," he claims. "The best thing about playing my music and staying small and independent the way I have is that I feel a part of a small, vibrant community of people who aren't interested in acquiring as much as they can. They live their lives in a different way--and so do I."
Nevertheless, Brown's profile seems in danger of rising. For example, he found himself nominated for a Grammy this past year for Friend of Mine, a disc on the Philo imprint that he cut with fellow folkie Bill Morrissey. "It was goofy that it happened," Brown concedes with a chuckle. "It was an okay little record, but I don't think it's a real strong piece of work." In fact, Brown feels that the album, cited as one of the five best traditional folk albums of 1993, didn't even fit its category: "It was a record of cover tunes, and Bill brought some old folk tunes, but I brought in songs by the Rolling Stones and Howling Wolf and Hank Williams. It wasn't exactly a traditional album--but it was fun to see everything happen."
Brown talks about his latest recording, last year's Bathtub Blues, in a similarly unassuming manner. The disc is being pushed as a children's record, but he says, "I'm very ambivalent about the whole notion of kids' music. I think a lot of times it's just a marketing thing. But I'd done a lot of work with kids through the Iowa Arts Council, so it seemed like a natural thing to do. It's meant to be kids' stuff that won't make their parents nauseous."
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The latter recording has sold well, but don't expect Brown to go out of his way to capitalize on its success. When he isn't zig-zagging the country on solo tours, he's spending time with his family or engaging in his favorite hobby, fishing (about which he writes beautifully on the Dream Cafe cut "Spring Wind"). "Steven Wright, the comedian, says there's a very fine line between fishing and standing on the bank like an idiot, and that's true," Brown admits. "But I find it very calming. It teaches you to pay attention to what's going on around you.
"I've never had the drive for fame, which is lucky, because when I look objectively at the kinds of songs I write and the way I present them, I don't think that was ever in the cards for me. I know some musicians who want big fame and big bucks, and they're probably not going to get it, either, because of what they play. I think you need to know who you are and what you're going for. And it was always pretty clear to me what I wanted to do."
Greg Brown, with Erica Wheeler. 8 p.m. Saturday, May 14, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $13/$11 Swallow Hill Music Association members, 777-1003.