Pieta Brown
Photo: Missing Piece Group

The Bejeweled Charms of Pieta Brown

Americana artist Pieta Brown discusses her father, Greg Brown’s influence and how she was drawn to songwriting as a little girl like a moth to a flame.

Pieta Brown and Greg Brown are two yards off the same cloth. She is obviously bound genetically to her much-loved folksinger father, but the 50-year-old songstress is undoubtedly also musically forged from the same rudiments. Her songwriting, too, is simple, brilliant, and varied in its moods; her lyrical bent is a singular, curious, and wonderful one. 

However, it has taken a long time for Pieta to feel comfortable and at ease and to develop into the intimately affectionate troubadour that she is, and even to this day, she easily recalls the very first time that she played a few notes on the guitar while uttering some homespun lines for her father.

Pieta was in her early 20s, visiting Mr. Brown at his southern Iowa farm, when he showed her a 1930’s Maybell arch-top guitar. It spoke for itself, almost without further action on her part. Though her understanding of the instrument was limited then, she took it into the bedroom, tuned it by ear, and jotted down some feelings. 

“I kind of went into this tunnel,” said Pieta Brown. “At some point during that time, it might have been within a few months, I somehow got up the nerve to play a couple of songs for my dad. We were knee to knee, really close, and my whole body was trembling. I’ll never forget it. I was so nervous and scared for some reason.”

After Pieta finished playing, Greg was silent, and she noticed the tears that trembled along his eyelids. It was a pivotal moment for her and him. Pieta had lived with her mother since she was in junior high school, and the relationship between the two was, at best, strained. Her courage and his acknowledgment helped break down the elephantine wall between them. “He said that it’s a blessing and a curse. And then he said, I think that guitar is yours now.”

Greg was intuitive, perceiving that Pieta would stake claim to the instrument and, in the future, even cultivate her distinct sound and style as a songwriter and performer. Indeed, she has landed her plane on a great plateau in the mountains of music; unaffected and bursting with tenderly understated intensity, a bejeweled charm of modern folk-Americana, her saga a curious byproduct of rural heredity, chance, geography, and practice. “As a little girl, Iowa was the most extreme,” said Brown. “We didn’t have running water, and we had an outhouse. We used the wood stove for heat.”

One of her earliest memories of music revolves around the large, extended family jams transpiring in rustic Iowa in a town called Selma. It was the quintessential rural scene, with laughter, noisy instruments, improvised picking, and plenty of country and bluegrass derivatives to be heard. Music radiated warmth – golden, luscious, and perfectly ripe like a pear – and she thought that if she held out her hands, she could feel its comfort. 

Pieta’s great-grandparents had spent time jamming in the Appalachian Mountains, especially North Carolina, and brought the region’s high, lonesome, Southern-twanged sound back with them to Iowa. “My great-grandfather played the banjo, and he would be there,” said Brown. “My great-grandmother played the pump organ. Great-uncle Roscoe had a country band, and so he would be there, and there was a fiddle player who had a beard down to his belly button, and he’s kind of a mythical character in my mind still. He was called Buzz Fountain. It was really beautiful, this energy of music, and the people who danced a bit. I often danced around with this little hat turned upside down, and my job was collecting money from musicians.” 

By the time Pieta was seven, her mother and Greg had permanently split, and by then, she had moved away from Iowa to Alabama with her. Time and again, they changed places, apartment to apartment, one house to the next. The upside was that she was then exposed to the rollicking grunts of local and regional Southern rhythm and blues and soul artists. 

Her mom worked untold hours, and often Pieta would sit in her mother’s car, waiting, fidgeting with the radio, channel hopping, finding answers that were perfectly satisfactory for her. Also, her mother rented a piano from the music store, and she would exhaust countless hours alone, messing with the keys, singing, or sometimes even not singing at all, but just free-form expression. The vast reach of the spirit of sound stretched out before her; Pieta recorded whatever she’d created on cassette tapes, frequently mailing them to Greg, whose schedule as a traveling artist was at its most hectic.  

Pieta’s mother further opened up her daughter’s mind with a vastly extensive record collection, lots of jazz compilations, and several LPs boasting the presence of strong women vocalists. Pieta virtually wore the grooves out of the Billie Holliday ones. “I spent all that time, alone, playing piano, and kind of making up my own songs and then listening to these women singing on those records. Something about that obviously had a really big impact. Pretty early on, I seemed to be drawn to writing songs and making them up… my mom loves to tell the story about how I would get up and write in my notebook before school when I was just learning to write… I was always drawn to writing songs, and I still feel that maybe that’s gotten in the way of me being a better musician.” 

First and foremost, Pieta remains a songwriter, a musician enamored of a verse, a line, a pure flash of writing, and the gnawing stick-to-it-itiveness of revision; indeed, most of her albums retain the rugged charm of hopeful demos, recorded without overdubbed vocals or endlessly re-sung tries. “I’m revising as the song grows and forms and as I’m working out the kinks as I sing it. How a word might land or stay in or stay out, that’s actually because of the singing of it.” 

Since she was a little girl, writing strangely excited her sympathies. It was very persuasive. It was like a balm. Songwriting, she said, still puts before her a clear and definite purpose. While she exerts perfect lyrical tact at her best, she is not fixated on originality so much as she is writing with a total lack of self-consciousness. “There are a lot of suns in my songs,” laughed Pieta. “I think it’s kind of dangerous to edit yourself and edit too many thoughts and start to think that you shouldn’t write any songs with the word “sun” in it or whatever. First of all, it’s not as fun.”

Pieta describes songwriting as a “playful” and “open” place she goes to express herself. This playfulness and openness, she said, contributes to the “general charm” of the craft, and “that’s probably the reason I love it so much,” she said. 

One of Pieta’s most enduringly irresistible songs, “Other Way Around,” a track off of One and All (2010), is a microcosm of the best that she delivers to us, mingling curiosity and sweet wonder, you could almost read her heart, for so close feels our observation. “I love that song not just from within but as an outsider and listener,” said Brown. “I love singing it every time. Any time that a song connects like that one does, even if you just get a few of those like that while you’re here on earth, it’s worth it.”

Once incredibly shy about sharing her songs with her father, Pieta said that she was also once painfully timid when it came to taking others into her private space – stepping up to the microphone at those early gigs, her cheeks burned with a crimson heat and her lips trembled a little – perhaps mindful of the inevitable comparisons that would be made with Mr. Brown. Whereas once it felt as if she might be pursuing an ideal that was hidden in a cloud of unknowing, these days, songwriting and performing are as natural to Pieta as the full swing of the earth and sun.   

Greg Brown, semi-retired from performing for several years, looms softly in the background, more of a quiet inspiration than some type of intimidating, larger-than-life specter that Pieta needs to stare down, put on a pedestal, or psychoanalyze. “There is something really deep in Dad’s music,” said Pieta. “I respond to his music like a lot of other people do: I want to hear it. I have a natural, primal, human, and artistic respect for him.”

Music has well-served a number of different purposes and regards in Pieta’s life, including shrinking the rather large chasm that once existed between her and her father. These impediments aside, the fact of Greg’s previous successes as a raconteur only has made Pieta’s load more to bear and much more attentive to the art of songwriting because of it. “I’m sure that kind of made me really take my time checking in with myself to see if I thought I had the goods, you know? In the strangest kind of way, music has been the healing and the grounding connection for us.”

There is no reason to think that Pieta won’t live happily ever afterward as an exceedingly keen whisperer of all matters of songwriting, confident in the authenticity of her vision. Indeed, Pieta’s career smoothly moves forward, strongly possessing that buoyant, searching shrewdness that has characterized it. “The music never lies,” she concluded. “You play a song in the room a few times, and you know if it’s going to connect or if it doesn’t.” 

Brian D’Ambrosio’s newest book, Montana Eccentrics, will be available in the summer. He is at work on his next book, New Mexico Singers & Songwriters. He may be reached at [email protected].