Play that folksy music …
Folk singer Greg Brown can’t stop playing his songs across the country, even when he says he’ll temporarily stop touring.
His resolve officially lasted a year, two months short of his target date.
Unofficially during that year, however, Brown played at numerous benefits around the country and at gigs around Iowa. That didn’t really constitute touring, though, Brown pointed out Friday from his Iowa City home.
Brown officially resumed touring the first of the year and returns to Grass Valley Friday for the umpteenth time.
“My so-called hiatus was a real nice break,” Brown said. “The goal was to take a pause.”
During his respite, Brown worked on watercolors and wrote poems and songs.
“I’m really good at poking around. I know others just have to work, but I was happy as a clam during my time off,” said Brown, who kept music a priority during the year, just minus the constant touring.
Brown has learned to say “no” to concert promoters, which he said in December 2000 was a hiatus objective. The 52-year-old has performed on the road for almost 30 years, with about 100 headlining gigs a year across the country.
He has just 40 gigs this year.
“It’s a lot easier to say ‘no.’ We (Brown and his booking agent) sat out by the barn and drew a line through gigs,” he said.
The KVMR gig survived the cut.
“I’ve loved that gig forever and the stage there. That was just a natural. I went back to my favorite gigs,” Brown explained. “Forty gigs for me is like nothing. I’ll keep doing it as long as I feel good.”
Canadian folk singer-songwriter Garnet Rogers, who opened at Brown’s Grass Valley concert in December 2000, returns in the same role Friday.
There were a few rather scary minutes at the last concert. When Rogers jammed with Brown toward the end, Rogers screamed and fell backwards off his chair. Brown, who first thought Rogers was having a seizure, was relieved that all Rogers had experienced were 220 volts as he sat on a metal chair and grabbed a microphone.
Now, Brown, who has played often with Rogers since then, can laugh about the mishap.
“We’ll have some electrical jokes, and we’ll check the amps pretty good,” Brown said about Friday’s concert.
As for the actual performance, Brown can’t predict what it will be like, except to say there will be new songs, old songs and covers.
“I never know what I’ll do,” Brown said. “It depends on the mood. I’m feeling good; I’m enjoying playing again.”
Several songs will be from his CD “Milk of the Moon,” released a few weeks ago. Brown says they are a mix of love songs, “happy, sad and everything in between.”
What will be different for certain at Friday’s gig is that Brown’s longtime album co-producer, electric guitarist and friend Bo Ramsey won’t be there.
Ramsey is in good company, touring with Brown’s daughter Pieta.
Without any prompting, Brown explains his daughter’s slightly unusual moniker by saying she was named during his hippie days: “I told her she could change her name to Sally if she wanted, but I guess she didn’t want to.”
“First, (singer) Lucinda Williams stole Bo, now my daughter Pieta,” Brown said good-naturedly. Ramsey produced Pieta Brown’s self-named CD, to be out in June. Her father plays banjo and sings on one song.
Brown and Rogers will jam at the concert’s finale.
Rogers spoke Monday from a phone booth.
“I’m pretty happy being in a Nebraska phone booth,” Rogers said. “It’s 60 degrees now. I’ve literally driven through a foot of snow in the northeastern United States and Canada. It’s not snowing here. I’m a happy boy.”
He rehashed the electrical mishap story. “It could have been really bad. I was being electrocuted. It was so terrifying,” Rogers said. “I didn’t want to stop the show because then all I would have thought backstage was that I could have been dead.”
“This is not what I want to be known for in Grass Valley. I want to be known for my songs,” Rogers said.
With nine recordings out, he writes songs about unsung heroes and of each day’s small victories.
Rogers considers Brown, his friend of 15 years, a huge influence.
“Greg is such a fearless writer. Sometimes I think my songs are too personal, too erotic,” he said. “Then I look at Greg, and he’s right there on the line. He writes beautiful songs. He’s brave about what he writes.”
Rogers averages 200 shows a year in the United States and Canada. In his 25-year career, he has shared the stage with such performers as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Billy Bragg, Bill Monroe and Guy Clark.
“When I was in grade three, my parents took me to see Bob Dylan in Toronto,” Rogers said. “Halfway through the concert, literally a riot broke out because he started playing electric guitar.”
That concert changed his life.
“There was such incredible reverence for one guy with acoustic guitar to people suddenly screaming and ambulances called when he switched to electrical,” Rogers recalled.
“I wanted to be in the middle – somewhere between the real quiet delicate of the acoustic and the loud electric that was annoying at the concert. That’s where my music’s been ever since.”
Brown’s life a musical history
Greg Brown’s life has revolved around music.
His mother played electric guitar, his father was a Pentecostal preacher who mixed the gospel with music, his grandfather played banjo, and his grandmother was a poet.
As a child, Brown studied classical voice and piano and sang with choirs and in state competitions. He took up the pump organ at age 6 and the guitar at 12.
Six years later, Brown won a contest to open for New York folk singer Eric Andersen in Iowa City, and Andersen encouraged him to move to the East Coast.
Brown ran hootenannies at Gerdes Folk City in New York City for a year, then performed for a few years in Portland, Ore., Los Angeles and Las Vegas before returning to Iowa.
There, Brown recorded his first albums, (“The Iowa Waltz” in 1983 and “44 & 66” in 1984) and landed a weekly gig on National Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”
After Brown started touring nationally, he passed the reins of his record company, Red House Records, to his friend Bob Feldman.
Brown’s originals mix gospel, blues, country, rock and jazz.
Musicians who have covered his songs include Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana, Michael Johnson, Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Two of Brown’s CDs have won National Association of Independent Record Distributors awards. He’s also received two Grammy nominations.
His “One Big Town” in 1989 received an Indie Award for Adult Contemporary Album of the Year, as well as three and a half stars in Rolling Stone magazine. “The Poet Game” in 1994 topped the Gavin Report’s Americana chart and earned Brown another Indie award for singer-songwriter Album of the Year.
In 1993, Brown recorded “Friend of Mine” with Bill Morrissey and received his first Grammy nomination. Brown’s 1997 release, “Slant 6 Mind,” earned him another Grammy nomination.
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Grass Valley is due for a quick drop in temperatures on Thursday, though they’ll return to seasonal norms the following day, the National Weather Service said.