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BROWN ACT: Folk hunk Greg Brown plays the Rio this Sunday.

Heartland Hero

Greg Brown may be the original Americana superstar

By Paul M. Davis

ONE OF the highlights of the new film Crazy Heart is the washed-up country singer Bad Blake's performance of Greg Brown's "Brand New Angel." In a recent interview with Under the Radar magazine, actor Jeff Bridges fingered Brown as an inspiration for the character of Blake. Considering the disheveled state of Bridges' character in the movie, this might appear to be a backhanded insult, but the inspiration Bridges speaks of has nothing to do with Brown's lifestyle choices; rather it points to his musicologist's grasp of American music, from country to folk to jazz.

Unlike Bridges' country singer on the skids, Greg Brown's career is going stronger than ever, but it's been a long road. Brown's career seems to have been defined by his penchant for confounding folk music cliches: a preacher's son who escaped the Midwest for the fertile '60s coffeehouse folk scene, Brown quit music and returned to his native Iowa just as he was gaining attention in the early '70s. After lying low for a number of years, Brown returned to the music business, but on his own idiosyncratic terms, building a following through appearances on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion and on the strength of unexpected endeavors such as 1986's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, a song cycle based on William Blake's poetry.

In the two decades since, Brown has proven to be an American treasure. The Boston Globe hailed Brown as America's "most essential modern troubadour," an apt description of a songwriter whose dry wit and capacious warmth is self-evident. Through his grizzled baritone, Brown portrays affecting miniatures of American life with a literary bent that at times recalls Raymond Carver. There's not a whole lot of glit or flash to a Greg Brown composition, nor does there need to be: this is music that is as intrinsically down-home as Iowa cornfields and rusted-out carburetors. Which isn't to tar Brown with some reactionary association that doesn't fit him. Brown's politics are avowedly progressive, but he has no place for a simple Red State-Blue State divide in his work, even when he is explicitly critical of contemporary politics and culture. Instead, Brown seems intent on rendering a picture of American life that opts for honesty and empathy over polarization.

These days, Brown's music is a family affair: in 2002 he married Iris DeMent, an accomplished songwriter in her own right, and his daughter Pieta Brown's own musical career is a growing concern. On recordings, Brown is often joined by the family. While onstage, he continues to be supported by players such as intrepid sidekick Bo Ramsey, who has played beside Brown for so long that he could nearly be considered family.

Brown's latest release, Dream City: Essential Recordings Vol. 2, is a two-disc compilation of his work from 1997–2006 that collects fan favorites from previous albums, as well as a handful of unreleased tracks and live recordings. For Brown's legion of die-hard fans, such a compilation might be redundant, as his albums are so consistently solid that it's difficult to hand-pick a few highlights from each. To Brown neophytes, however, the compilation provides a serviceable introduction to the recent work of a man with 27 albums under his belt. And at this point, Brown has more than earned a valedictory lap.

If history is any indication, however, the artistically restless Brown won't rest on his laurels for long.

GREG BROWN plays Sunday, Jan. 31, at 7:30pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $22 advance/$40 gold circle. For more information, call 831.423.8209.

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