One of American folk music’s most prolific and profound singer/songwriters of the past three decades, Greg Brown has earned respect from his peers and a far-flung, passionately-devoted fan-base via a burnished, intimate baritone, a seemingly effortless gift for swinging, organic melody and–perhaps most of all–a humble, unvarnished poetic grace that can imbue even the most mundane, everyday human endeavors and emotions with quiet dignity, startling insight and gently twisted humor.
Freak Flag (the Iowa native’s 24th studio album and first on Yep Roc) was recorded–for the most part–in Memphis, Tennessee’s time-tested rock’n’soul incubator Ardent Studios with the artist’s longtime sidekick/guitarist Bo Ramsey producing; it features nine Brown originals plus a gorgeous pair of cuts ‘borrowed’ from his mega-talented family–wife Iris Dement’s “Let the Mystery Be” and daughter Pieta Brown’s “Remember the Sun.”
Additionally–in an embarrassment of six-string riches–Ramsey’s trademark atmospheric soundscapes and stinging blues licks are augmented on a half-dozen tracks by studio legend Richard Bennett (Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Billy Joel, Dire Straits, etc.) plus–on the evocative, haunting “Flat Stuff”–an elegant cameo solo by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler.
The four year gap since Brown’s last studio effort (2007’sYellow Dog) is by far the longest since his 1981 Red House Records debut, and, with Greg weighing considerations of a new addition to the family in 2005, the accumulated wear-and-tear of touring and the uncertainties of a record industry in upheaval, the new album very nearly didn’t happen at all.
“I wasn’t sure for a while that I would do any more recording,” Greg confessed. “I had done a fair amount, and the business is in a shambles. But I thought well, hey–maybe it would be good to put another one out–tender songs for these harsh times.”
The Freak Flag project originally launched in a Twin Cities’ suburb, where Brown, Ramsey and crew recorded the basic tracks direct-to-digital (for the first time ever). But, as fate would have it, a massive thunderstorm blew through the area before most of the tracks could be safely backed-up, so when lightning zapped the studio, all cuts–excepting the title track and “Lovinest One”–were transported electrically (the very old-fashioned way) into the remotest recesses of a digital Valhalla.
(Judge for yourself whether ‘outside forces’ were at work then, reminding these decidedly ‘old school’ roots mavens in no uncertain terms of the brittle, ephemeral aspects of digital technology…)
In any case, they high-tailed it to the cozy, sepia-toned confines of Memphis’ Ardent Studios, where the likes of The Box Tops, Big Star, Leon Russell, The Replacements, Led Zep, R.E.M., The White Stripes and so many more before them had captured timeless aural magic on magnetic tape.
The resulting sessions captured another kind of lightning in a bottle: a seamless Americana quilt of country, blues, folk and old-time balladry delving into the singer/songwriter’s recurring themes of the challenges, pitfalls and rewards of marriage and family pitted against grimmer, outward-looking explorations of such crushing socio/political issues as wanton materialism, superficial celebrity and a blind, headlong surrender to modernization at all costs.
Dedicated to Iris, Freak Flag takes its place alongside Greg Brown’s most enduring long-players.
In addition to previously-mentioned cuts, highlights include the deep-grooved, schizoid boogie of “Where Are You Going When You’re Gone” (wherein Greg’s rare falsetto chorus nags his customary voice’s self-absorbed verses), the Woody Guthrie-flavored title track, a jagged, dissonant blues entitled “Mercy Mercy Mercy” (“a way of greeting the spirit of Marvin Gaye and of asking those same old questions that he asked…”) and a father’s aching, closing benediction, “Tenderhearted Child.”
Underpinned by the lean, muscular rhythm section of drummer Steve “Chief” Hayes and bassist Jon Penner (with spot-on textural shadings from Hammond B-3 wizard Ricky Peterson), the core group presents a broad spectrum of expert guitar interplay throughout this pan-genre tour-de-force.
The by now-familiar, unique dynamic of Brown’s long-underrated acoustic picking against Ramsey’s distinctive electric brush-strokes is here in spades; the bonus of Bennett’s singular stylings creates some surprising, alchemic moments that add new dimensions to the mix.
“Richard is so good as to be nearly otherworldly–a complete delight to play music with,” Brown said. “He came into the studio in Memphis for one day, jumped right in, and it was like we had all been jamming for years.
“I asked him to stay, and he graciously agreed,” Greg continued. “He played on six or seven songs–he and Bo play so well together it is like listening to two old friends talking, their stories and laughter interweaving inextricably…”
At a still-youthful 61, Greg Brown certainly has little left to conquer in the music world, what with multiple Grammy nominations and an astonishingly deep songbook that’s been covered by dozens of artists (including Willie Nelson & Carlos Santana, Ani DiFranco, Gillian Welch, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joan Baez, Victoria Williams, Robert Earl Keen, Nina Gerber, Shawn Colvin, Richie Havens, Rainer Ptacek, Tim & Mollie O’Brien, Maria Muldaur, Lucy Kaplansky, Eliza Gilkyson, and The Nashville Bluegrass Band).
The founder of exemplary indie folk label Red House Records (with more than 200 titles to date), he’s also been a tireless champion for numerous humanitarian causes, routinely making his time, talent and music available for charitable fundraisers, and he’s been a ‘go-to’ guy for myriad artist tribute/compilation projects.
At the personal request of copacetic, eclectic and abiding film star Jeff Bridges, Brown contributed two songs (including “Brand New Angel”) which were recorded by Bridges for his Oscar-winning role as rugged, faded country star ‘Bad Blake’ in the Oscar-nominated “Crazy Heart.”
Without a doubt, it’s been quite a run, but–thankfully–Freak Flag has reenergized Brown:
“I enjoyed it; even though it was a bitch–what with the lightning, mixing problems, etc., ” he admitted, ” it got me interested in recording again, and I hope to put out a few more low-key, small pressings.
“Smaller and smaller is my goal,” he continued. “Some poet said, years ago, ‘You find if you just step to the side, the whole machine rolls on by you’…
“It is getting harder and harder to find the side of the road, but music is on the bright side.”
More to the point, the music on Freak Flag IS the bright side…