There is a moment when we, as listeners, make the conversion and become faithful followers of an artist. It could be prompted by a lyric, a snippet of a melody, an inflection, a whisper or a growl, something that, if we paid close enough attention, we could identify. My conversion to the church of Greg Brown came after his 1996 release, Further In, thrust upon me as a wedding gift by a close friend of my wife’s. The friend was a huge fan, and couldn’t believe that I, a musician and music writer, had never listened to Brown before. Well, neither could I once I hit play on my CD player. How had I missed this talent? It’s still a mystery. The actual moment of my conversion happened upon hearing a lyric for the first time, half a lyric really, a metaphor. It didn’t matter what the context was. I understood immediately. The line, “smug as a commentator on NPR”, from the song “Where is Maria?”, the fourteenth track on If I Had Known, brought me to my knees, where I prayed with fervor to the cornfields of the great state of Iowa from whence this hairy, aging, bardic hippie hails.
Not only can Brown write a lyric, his melodies are infectious and his harmonies rich. Having grown up among musicians and having access to all kinds of literature, Brown is the product of myriad influences. One hears Dylan and the Beatles (do we even have to mention these two anymore?), Jimmy Rogers, Hank Williams, Joni Mitchell. Yet speaking of Brown’s influences seems insincere somehow, as if not enough credit is given to this artist’s originality, his warm and unmistakable baritone, his deft, folksy, and unique rhythmic concept.
Brown’s songs are rife with references to his home state of Iowa, family and friends, and stories from childhood, in keeping with the folk tradition. “Ella Mae”, the seventh track, is a heart-wrenching ode to his grandmother describing the day of her funeral and the gifts she left behind. Brown sings/speaks, “Ella Mae, I can see you just as plain as day / Sailing out like a ship to your garden / In your old white brimmed straw hat / With a long handled hoe in your hand / Pausing at the gate, I see you look south to the pond / A long time quiet smile on your face”. “Canned Goods” was inspired by a visit to his other grandmother’s home. The song begins with twinkling piano soon joined by upright bass and acoustic guitar, taking on a playful, childlike quality. Brown sings, “There’s peaches on the shelf / Potatoes in the bin / Supper ready, everybody come on in / Taste a little of the summer / Taste a little of the summer”.
Personal favorites on If I Had Known include “Laughing River”, a story song about a washed up minor league ball player settling down for good on the Laughing River in Michigan — a metaphor for Brown’s own music career — where Brown sings “I’m trading in this bat for a fishing pole / I’m gonna let the Laughing River flow right into my soul”. In “Who Woulda Thunk It?”, another song about settling down, Brown sings “We used to say ‘I could eat a horse’, and we could and we did / At the fast food joints in the middle of someplace on the way to someplace else / … / But now / … / We want something from the cookbook / That new one with the great graphics / We want something from the cookbook”.
Several tracks are performed with no more than an acoustic guitar. Others have a full band. No arrangement has more instrumentation, or less, than it should. There is economy here, a musicality rooted in conservation, in taking only what one needs from the land and not one drop more. Brown surrounds himself with competent players. Guitarist Bo Ramsey appears frequently, as do Dave Moore on harmonica and Gordy Johnson on bass. Prudence Johnson sings many of the background vocals. Shawn Colvin also lends her lush harmonies to a couple of tracks.
Included is a 46-minute DVD documentary full of interviews, jams, and concert footage. The documentary was made on the cheap sometime in the early ’90s. The interviews are awkward and forced, the concert footage merely brief clips from various performances, and the sound fidelity of the jams not so hot. The overall camerawork is also shoddy. For the diehard fan, it’s nice to have. Otherwise, there’s not much here worth mentioning, or, for that matter, watching a second time. In fact, just seeing how mundane Brown’s hometown is and how regular his friends and family are takes away a little of the mystique.
For the converted, the songs gathered here have been remastered from the original master tapes, and the DVD, while kind of ridiculous, is kind of fun. And for the uninitiated, If I Had Known is a great place to begin getting to know a true treasure of the American heartland.