Greg Brown: Well, thank you.
PM: So, you're back in Iowa, right? Your home state?
GB: That's right.
PM: I went to Grinnell [College] out there.
GB: Did you?
PM: For about three semesters. I like Iowa, it's a pretty place. I hear that this is a sabbatical year for you.
GB: Yes, I won't tour again until February or so.
PM: How do you feel about a sabbatical, is that a good thing for you?
GB: It's wonderful.
PM: You are one of the workingest guys out there, as far as one can see.
GB: Well, for the last 5 years, I've been doing about the right amount, about 100 shows a year. I tried to cut it down to about 70, but it just wasn't working. It's my own fault, my booking agent's real good, and very responsive to what I want to do. But I'm not very good at saying no. So I decided to take a year off touring, and I hope when I come back, to try doing 50 gigs a year. I have a lot of other things I'd like to do.
PM: What kinds of things?
GB: I want to try a lot of other kinds of writing, and see where that leads me. I'm also building a house on some old family property in southern IA. I want to get a big garden going there, and have a lot of work to do on that place, get an orchard going. I'd like to spend a little more time at home, working on other kinds of projects as well.
PM: Do you have kids?
GB: Three grown daughters. My youngest is 17.
PM: Anybody in college?
GB: Two of them. Well, one is in and one about to go in.
PM: But it's three and out, right, you're calling it at three?
GB: Oh, yeah.
PM: Bob Feldman [Red House Records] mentioned in passing that you'd just been to Mexico.
GB: Yeah, I just got back about a week ago.
PM: I'm a big Mexico fan. Where did you go?
GB: We went to Tulum, in the Yucatan.
PM: Ah, that's nice.
GB: Yeah, I love that area, it's interesting. A lot of Italians and Argentinians, more of an international feeling than, say, Central Mexico, or something like that. Near the Mayan ruins, there's a big reserve, about a million acres. Mangrove swamp, mostly.
PM: Yeah. I honeymooned out in Isla de las Mujeres.
GB: Oh, you did. Then you know that area. It's beautiful.
PM: My brother and I just came back from Costa Rica. Funny how down there, there's absolutely no ruins, no trace of the Aztecs or the Mayans.
GB: It doesn't spread as far as Costa Rica?
PM: Well, I think that you can find a little more in Panama, further south.
GB: It certainly seems to be happening in Guatemala.
PM: Yeah, that's where I have to go, Guatemala. So, Covenant. One of the things I really liked most about it was the deep, rootsy blues feel to it. As far as blues goes, who are your favorite singers and writers?
GB: Well, kind of an endless list, you know?
PM: Of course.
GB: Let's see. J.B Lenoir, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Little Walter.
GB: And a lot of the older figures, Skip James, Robert Johnson.
PM: Country blues guys.
GB: Right, the country blues. Also Howlin Wolf. Probably my favorite kind of blues, you might say, is when country blues was turning into city blues. That era, there.
PM: Right. That's the best. When bluesmen were deciding about whether or not to move into the city.
GB: Yeah, I love that stuff.
PM: I was at a highbrow guitar shop here in Nashville yesterday, and there was a guy playing Blind Arthur Blake stuff, really good.
GB: Oh, wow. That's not easy to do.
PM: With all the correct double thumbing, you know, how'd he'd sweep the bottom strings to get the piano feel.
GB: Oh yeah.
PM: Pardon the expression, but you're one of the elders now in the folk music scene. You've been doing it 25 years or more, no one I can think of is more qualified to speak about the scene than you are. So I hope you'll indulge me a few questions in that area.
GB: Yeah, sure.
PM: Although this is a hopelessly wide question, you can answer it any way you like. How do you think the scene has changed since you started doing it?
GB: Well, one thing that's happened in the last 10 or so years is that a few people like Tracy Chapman or Ani DiFranco have achieved some commercial success. In some ways, it's become a little more visible. The thing I've always liked about the folk scene is that generally it's sort of been tucked away. A lot of people don't even know it exists.
GB: Even jazz has a higher profile, where people at least know that it exists. [laughs] I always kinda liked that about it.
PM: It's underground.
GB: It is, and it's community based. A lot of the gigs I do are sponsored by a community organization, a folk society, or an acoustic music group of some kind. People who love the music and bring it in just because they like it.
PM: And God bless the Unitarian Churches.
GB: God bless the Unitarian Churches! [laughs] So, that aspect of it is still true, I think a lot of the folk scene is still civic. In terms of major labels, it's pretty far off to the side. It's part of what I always liked about it.
PM: Oh yeah, jazz has an infinitely higher profile. There are jazz channels on good cable TV, and I don't see any folk brunches going
on at finer eateries around town.
GB: It's true.
PM: Though there should be. Even in a town like Nashville, there isn't a folk brunch anywhere.
GB: Yeah, Nashville's a terrible town to play in, I remember that. But most industry towns are not good for gigs. L.A. is pitiful, New York's not good.
PM: Even if you're a well regarded songwriter in Nashville, it's hard to get people to come out to your gigs, it's a somewhat jaded atmosphere. I was talking to Dan Hicks on the phone the other night, and he said he had a hard time here, as did Randy Newman. I heard for Randy Newman it was a third full at the Ryman Auditorium, and that he had some scathing remarks about it on the radio the following day.
GB: Good for him.
PM: About the folk scene in general: do you think it's growing, shrinking, or hanging tough?
GB: Well, it seems to be growing, at least in certain areas of the country, like New England. There seem to be more and more singer songwriters, and more and more gigs, actually. A few other areas, like Northern CA and the Northwest have a pretty healthy scene, too. Nationally, I would say it's just hangin' in there.
PM: So, not just more singer songwriters, which certainly seems to be true, but more gigs as well?
GB: Yeah, in New England, for sure.
PM: So much of the juice in the modern folk scene seems to come from Boston. Is that just folk politics, or is that where the talent or the audience is best? What's your sense of that?
GB: I think that area is so strong because there's so much radio support and so many venues. New England has always been very supportive of traditional music, like Celtic music, contradance music, and so forth. I think the basis of the support for today's folk scene was the long standing support for traditional music. The singer songwriter scene successfully attached itself to that, somehow. And radio is a big factor. Nationally, you don't find so many stations that support or even include acoustic music. But in New England, there are lots of them that support or even feature it.
PM: Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head there. It's about radio.
GB: Sure. If I hit a town, and the radio's playing my kind of stuff, I stand a better chance of getting a good crowd. And of course, as radio gets more and more monopolized, controlled and owned by just a few people, everyone suffers, American people just aren't getting to hear American music anymore on the radio. Not just folk music, but jazz or blues, all kinds of things. You have to go hear and buy it at the CD store, because they're not playing it on the radio.
PM: It's one of the reasons we started Puremusic. Grownup people need places to go to find out about new music that they'd like.
GB: Yeah, one thing about the whole internet deal is that you can hear great regional radio stations like KFAT out in CA from wherever you are. That seems kinda like magic.
PM: Even in Nashville, where two stations (to varying degrees) support this music we're talking about, it sounds like they're still working from a small play list. It's a version of monopoly. A friend's personal management company was just getting looked at by a larger entertainment conglomerate. They not only owned management companies, they owned the venues where the acts play, they owned the concessions that sold the popcorn...
GB: [laughing] Yeah, it gets a little scary out there. You know, I'm a great believer in the power of music. The popularity and the accessibility of this music, it's going to rise and fall. But I can't believe that human beings aren't always gonna want to hear some good, juicy, soulful stuff, whatever the style may be. So long as there's a hunger for that, it's gonna be okay. I don't think anything can keep it down. It's just a natural thing for soulful music of one kind or another to emerge.
PM: A guy like you has seen the term New Folk come and go a few times in your career. What do you think of the new crop? continue