Red House Records came into existence a quarter century ago as an amateur independent label designed to support a little-known Iowan folksinger named Greg Brown. Named after the red barn that Brown was living and recording in, the label was an idiosyncratic adventure, a personal necessity, and even a bit of a lark, considering that Brown had, back in 1983, almost no following outside of the Midwestern smoky folk club circuit. But, as chance would have it, by the end of the year, Brown had found an unlikely backer in a Minnesotan high school teacher named Bob Feldman, and gotten a huge break as Garrison Keillor chose him to become a regular on his new national radio show, The Prairie Home Companion. In 1984, Red House Records released its first Greg Brown LP, the excellent In the Dark With You, and set to work signing and recording other folkies.
This classic story of the rise of an independent label with a rare combination of autonomy, vision, and extraordinary artistic success, is the stuff of dreams in the corporatized music biz. Brown and Feldman’s little label stands, 25 years on, as having produced some of the best and most enduring acoustic music of its era. Boasting talent ranging from Lucy Kaplansky to Utah Phillips, Ralph McTell to Loudon Wainwright III, The Wailin’ Jennys to Eliza Gilkyson, and Jorma Kaukonen to Rambin’ Jack Elliott, Red House has secured its reputation as a musician’s label, and as a home for folksingers’ folksingers. What’s more, at the centre of it all has always been Greg Brown himself, certainly among the most consistently impressive performers of the past few decades; a songwriter’s songwriter if ever there was one, and a giant in the world of folk music.
On this terrific collection, marking the 25 years since the inception of the little label, Red House has gathered 17 tracks from its current roster of folky, rootsy, acoustic artists. It is uniformly good stuff, and, unlike many other collections and mix tapes, maintains a fairly consistent mood and atmosphere throughout. Although it is perfectly inessential for those of us who follow these artists individually, this is a terrific intro for others. These tracks offer different perspectives, themes, and approaches, but are all, at the root, echoes of the basic integrity of the singer-songwriter thing. These songs demand your ears, but aren’t really demanding. They invite you to think, but they don’t preach at you much. Fundamentally, they shine with intelligence, with careful optimism, with defiant thoughtfulness. At their best, these songs remind you that you are part of something much bigger than this current hegemony of blandness, this enveloping blanket of cynical fear, this broken looking glass of modernity, this thumping drum-beat of empty-headed jingoism.
Highlights are many, lowlights few. Jimmy LaFave offers a gorgeous alt-country number (“Hideaway Girl”), his soft voice drifting towards the sky as his melodies burn into the memory. Eliza Gilkyson whispers across “Borderline”, the marvelous opening track from 2005’s excellent Paradise Hotel. Peter Ostroushko gets political on “Baghdad Blues”, a tightly arranged instrumental number. New Jersey’s John Gorka offers the gospel-tinged “When You Sing”, a reminder of the warm whisky of his voice, of his gift for immediacy and affection. One hates to play this game, singling out favourites on a collection of very good songs by very good artists—it’s really just cherry picking, I guess. This is all good stuff, folks.
But, at the end of the day, one song here stands up a bit taller, creeps around in the shadows of the mind just a little longer, opens your eyes just a touch wider. Greg Brown’s “Cold + Dark + Wet”, a standout track from his 2006 LP The Evening Call, is the one. A simple little blues riding Bo Ramsey’s spooked-out electric guitar lines, the number tells the awful story of a man at the edge: at the edge of his health, of his life, of his age. He is alone in a new America, too old to play along, too young to write it all off completely. Here is the violence of liminality stunningly evoked, stark and harrowing in its brutal, rain-drenched honesty. In a long line of unforgettable characters, this is one of Brown’s most powerful. If there were ever any endorsement of Red House Records, of Greg Brown, of the power of the folksinger to critique the current scene, this is it:
“So, tell me what’s a fella supposed to do
When a car costs what a house used to
And a house is a pile of chipboard, paint, and debt?
I’m at the city limits, and it’s cold and dark and wet.
Big rig rolling over me in a blizzard
I’m living on beans and chicken gizzards.
One day I was young, the next day I was old.
Late November, it’s wet and dark and cold.
Jobs, I guess they’re like wild geese:
They all went flying overseas.
I’m standing in the rain, smoking my last cigarette.
Morning in America is cold and dark and wet.”
Oh, but ain’t it warm and dry in the Red House?