January 15, 2003
funny in Kansas
Arts and Entertainment
By Josh Kun
Corn Belt gothic
Every time I turn around, some ghost wants to buy me a beer.
IN 1982, Greg Brown sang some songs for a room full of strangers in Minneapolis. Twelve years later he did the same in Traverse City, Mich. He didn't sing any of the same songs save for one, "Canned Goods," a song that turned his grandmother's canned-fruit cellar into a metaphor for canning the memory of summers spent on her Iowa strawberry farm, preserving the sweetness and flavor of a life that had moved by him without warning and without mercy.
When he sang it in 1982 and it was recorded on One Night, the song lasted four minutes and was as wistful and nostalgic as an old photograph buried in a family trunk. In 1994, on The Live One, it was 13 minutes long. Brown sang an octave lower, slowed his pacing to an off-meter crawl, ranted about his aunt's bosom, quoted Pablo Neruda to explain the look on a chicken's face, and pulled on his verses like they were taffy the clarity of fondness slipped into the abstraction of reverie. The way he sang "tomato," it could have been "tomorrow" or "tornado."
It was the year he released The Poet Game, the great earthquake of Brown's career. It turned out that the drifter hillbilly bard of bucolic Iowa, who was schooled on church hymns and country blues and had been singing of frogs, creeks, and cold winds for eight albums (a ninth was Brown doing Blake poems) had another side waiting to be born: a Midwestern existentialist hobo with a quick-draw mouth, a bloodied heart, and bourbon on his breath who pees in the dark beneath a laughing moon. The sawmills and oat stalks were still there, but now they had secrets and stories to tell.
The signs had been there on 1990's Down in There, on which Brown sang about girls who become strippers after their stepfathers touch them funny, about husbands and wives who trade bottles for knives. But on The Poet Game, Brown's eye for the vivid, gothic details of rural America masterfully shuttled between the acute and the epic. The past needed to be reckoned with ("Have I done enough father, can I rest now?" he asked), and the present was a footprint left before he even stepped in it, the here-and-now as "the going going gone." Brown's father was an itinerant Holy Roller gospel preacher who spoke in tongues, and on Poet, Brown invited God into "the rags and the bones and the dirt" of his heart, offered him whiskey, and then told him to leave.
Every album of Brown's music since then including his latest (his 17th), Milk of the Moon, and the new tribute to Brown by top female singer-songwriters, Going Driftless has found him walking farther down that same road into the wry, scoured heart of Corn Belt memory and Corn Belt alienation. "Sorrow is hooves of rain," Brown sings in a crazy man rumble of scraping gravel and thick mud at the beginning of Milk. "Oh our lives are poor and plain." Milk's Iowa is the Iowa of "pheasant clucking, ice cold dew, backseat shotgun, frosty slough, Chevy coughing" and an Iowa of small towns full of men and women struggling to learn how to make big love last. The album's centerpiece, its title track, is a slide guitar hallucination of the heart, a growling sensualist's moan to a moon that gives milk and a woman made of silk.
Like all of the songs covered on Going Driftless, and like Brown himself, Milk is born of the hills and woods of southeastern Iowa. He now lives on his grandparents' original homestead in the middle of the place that is his ground zero: Hacklebarney, a part of Iowa not drawn on maps that is neither city nor town. "I got my song from a secret place," Brown sang on 1997's "Billy from the Hills," which is about his father, and his Hacklebarney is like a Midwestern Middle Earth, a place of everyday magic and everyday secrets where death and deliverance wade in the same river, where ancient choirs hum in dusty red air. "I hear the voice of the ancient ones," he declared on 1996's "Two Little Feet," "chanting words from a different time."
Families grow from land. The earth holds the memory of generations. Music is ground and body both, the sound of land and family making memory together. Brown wrote one of his earliest songs in that spirit, "Ella Mae," about his grandmother. She is in her garden, or she is looking out at the pond. There are pine-covered hills, and there are redwings that come after the rain is done. Brown tells her that one day his daughter will fly with them too. On Going Driftless all three of Brown's daughters sing "Ella Mae." They sing it for their great-grandmother just like Brown did, but they also sing it for their father, who has returned to his family land and who grows songs from gardens of memory.
E-mail Josh Kun at email@example.com.