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[whitespace] Greg Brown Songs of Experience: Brown, who lives on a farm in Iowa, has founded a thriving grassroots music scene in cyberspace.

Brown's Sugar

Life's little pleasures loom large in Greg Brown's lyrics

By Gina Arnold

HIS NAME SOUNDS like someone whose face you can't remember from high school, but for some people (the kind of older, liberal, long-haired rock fans who listen to KPIG and WFUV on the Internet and like to spend an evening snuggled up with a Steve Earle or a Lucinda Williams album), an evening spent in the company of Greg Brown is the equivalent of going to see the Beatles at the Cavern in 1962.

Despite the fact that you probably never heard of him, his fan base is so rabid and committed that his shows routinely sell out around the country in no time flat. (At presstime, Brown's show at the Rio was sold out.) His Internet message boards and chat sites are among the most active in the entire sphere of music, reinventing the whole idea of a grassroots music scene in the realm of cyberspace.

Brown, an Iowa native, began his career in 1969 writing songs for Buck Ram of the Platters, but soon branched off into the kind of nuevo white folk that was popularized in the '70s by characters like Jackson Browne and James Taylor. Greg Brown isn't quite as pop as that: his songs are way more rooted in real folk music and have what is always called "a Midwestern sensibility," which seems to mean that they're about family values, nature, the seasons, food, the well of loneliness, and how funny it is that time slips away (as opposed to more urban sensibilities, like derision, sarcasm and sex).

Brown songs may be genial and heartwarming, but the idea is still the same: sensitive singer/songwriter, with a beard and a hat, setting short stories about life's travails to music. A recent profile in The New Yorker put it best: "It's as if Johnny Cash sang Joni Mitchell songs, and meant them."

BROWN IS JUST ONE of a cadre of new folksingers, like Richard Shindell and Robert Earl Keen, who are the male equivalent of Lilith Fairies. Their music is quiet and thoughtful and easy to hum; but their real forte is the strength of character they show in concert. Their shows are about making a connection with the audience, telling home truths, and exuding a low-key, sexy, down-home humor--kind of like Bruce Springsteen in overalls, singing about life on the farm. (Brown still lives on an Iowa farm, in a town with the unlikely name of Hacklebarney.)

Unlike Bruce, however, these singers don't emphasize life's woes as much as life's little pleasures. In fact, Brown's songs aren't so much folky as "folksy"--straight-ahead rock colored by mandolin and fiddle, with lyrics about things like grandma's cookin' and the smell of the summer rain. Throughout the '80s, Brown played many a hoot night at New York Folk City and Minneapolis' famed Extemporare Cafe, released 14 LPs including his best-known, 1989's One Big Town, 1986's beautiful Songs of Innocence and Experience, which set some of William Blake's poems to music, and this year's One Night, which is a live recording of a 1986 show at the Extemporare. His recent work is more on the roots rock, rather than the folk, side, but it all exudes the quiet charm that is the hallmark of his persona.

Numerous songwriters, including Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana and Shawn Colvin, have covered Brown's songs, but two people in particular have put him on the map: Garrison Keillor, on whose Prairie Home Companion Brown is often featured, and Ani Di Franco, who has long championed him and taken him on tour with her. (Both Keillor and Di Franco have the kind of core audiences that can transform another artist's career by association.)

Despite Grammy nominations and plaudits from everywhere on earth, the understated Mr. Brown is probably never going to get bigger than he already is, but that's not a problem for him, and it's certainly not a problem for his audience, who'd probably like to keep him to themselves.

Happily, the Internet was made for guys like Greg Brown: he can sell his records (which are produced on his own label, Red House), while fans foster ties between one another that are even stronger than those that are made in nightclubs. Better to start up an email relationship than to buy someone a drink. But doing both is best of all, and a night with Brown will give you that opportunity.

Greg Brown performs with Nina Gerber and Slaid Cleaves at 7:30pm on Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Rio Theatre. Tickets are $25, 479.9421.

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From the September 12-19, 2001, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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