We have so much for which to thank the Coen brothers: for the genius of casting John Goodman in just about every movie they make, for the brilliance of making the editor’s cut of Blood Simple even shorter than the original, and for each and every wonderful second of The Big Lebowski. We should even express gratitude to them, as result of their sleeper of a soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, for bringing back to the forefront of popular culture the once popular genres of music we now refer to as bluegrass and folk. For the surprising success of O Brother has not only brought Alison Krauss and her Union Station countless accolades, awards, and album sales, but it has also unleashed a spate of new old-time music on the American public in every conveivable form: the re-release of classic material (namely everything the Stanley Brothers and their star Ralph ever recorded); a live album (the O Brother companion, Down from the Mountain); more movie soundtracks (the pale-by-comparison Cold Mountain); and even bootlegged imports (my favorite of which is the feminist-influenced O Sister, Where Art Thou?).
The latest float trotted in this folkie parade comes not down from any mountain, but out of the corn fields of Iowa, and from the voice of one Greg Brown. Since earning a gig on A Prairie Home Companion in the early ‘80s, Brown has made a cottage industry of his prodigious songwriting talent that has long flirted on the edge of fame. His insight and grace as a crafter of melody and rhyme earn Brown the complete adulation of a small cadre of fans, and have garnered him the high compliment of a good tribute album. On Brown’s latest release, however, he sets aside his own material in favor of time-tested classics of yore. Of the 12 tracks on Honey in the Lion’s Head, ten are credited Trad., arr. Brown. Of the remaining two, one is Jim Garland’s Depression-era classic, “I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister”, and the other is “Ain’t No One Like You”, a new song actually written by Brown, even though it sounds like it’s from a hundred years ago.
Honey in the Lion’s Head is a good listen, although nowhere near as compelling as any of Brown’s original work. The breathtaking moments are few and far between: it’s a long time between the harrowing apathy of “Who Killed Cock Robin” and Brown’s starving plea “Just give me / My old job back” in the aforementioned “Millions Mister”. The album’s highlight is the penultimate tune, “Samson”, which is probably better known to all through the Grateful Dead as “Samson and Delilah”, although purists know it as Blind Gary Davis’ “If I Had My Way”. Brown pounds his way through this driven tale of infirmity and strength, of longing and loss, with the focused intensity of a man truly in need of a hero.
For the most part, though, Honey in the Lion’s Head lacks such passion. As much fun as it is to know that the second stitch of “On Top of Old Smokey” has nothing to do with being covered in cheese, there’s little need to revisit the song once this revelation has set in. Similarly, although Brown brings a plaintive beauty to both “Down in the Valley” and “I Never Will Marry”, neither performance is of the kind that keeps you in rapt attention. Even “The Foggy Foggy Dew”—which sounds so much like a Greg Brown song that I’m tempted to disbelieve the liner notes—is compelling and vibrant, but ultimately not of the same ilk as even the least of Brown’s own songs.
Honey in the Lion’s Head sounds and feels like the result of Brown sitting out on the back porch in Iowa with his friends [including Dylan side-man Bo Ramsey] and family [which, thanks to marriage, now encompasses singer Iris DeMent]. The result is an album that is as organic and honest as a conversation with a good friend. However, like too many of those conversations, Honey in the Lion’s Head is worthwhile, yet likely to be passing: when more important subjects arise, when more remarkable statements resound, there will be less room in our memories for this tidy little album that stands proudly but not tall amid the great works of Greg Brown.