Among the latter generation of American singer/songwriters, those who came of age in the late '70s and early '80s, Iowa's Greg Brown stands apart. Brown has been making records for nearly 30 years and has assembled a formidable body of work and has established both the Red House and Trailer Records labels, which issue both his own recordings, and other artists'. He is a "folk" singer in the old sense of the word: he absorbs styles, arrangements, and stories, and writes them into heady, infectious songs that instantly bear his own signature and experiences, no matter the topic. The first volume in this retrospective, If I Had Known
, focused on songs released between 1980 and 1996 and was issued in 2003. Dream City: Essential Recordings, Vol. 2
, released in 2009, highlights tunes from 1997 through 2006. It's a two-disc collection compiled with great taste by Eric Peltoniemi
. Where the first compilation focused on Brown as a storyteller and extender of the "folk" tradition, this one offers something more mercurial, which is plain in his work but usually missed by most: that he is a modern bluesman of the first order, straight from the old tradition.
Along with his guitar-slinging companion Bo Ramsey
(one of the greatest and most criminally underrated slide and blues players of the modern era), Brown offers 16 tracks on disc one that showcase his various blues personae, whether it's in the more evident, rocking "Whatever It Was," or the more surreal, Jack Kerouac
-inspired folk-blues "Rexroth's Daughter," or gorgeous, simple love songs such as "You Gave Me Flowers," or covers like the overt tune of the traditional "Samson and Delilah." The 12-bar form is always in evidence. Brown's lyrics nod to the Delta tradition continually -- without false humility or bravado. Even the folk songs like "Your Town Now" echo the influence of John Hurt
in their storytelling and moral challenges. But through it all, Brown is no one but himself. His sense of humor can be bawdy, it can be romantic, and it can be ironic or scathing. (Check out the haunted beauty of "Lull It By," which is a straightforward narrative yet suggests something deeper than its surface). "Joy Tears" calls the country-testifying blues out of Son House
and carries them into 21st century folk music. The second disc in this collection (provided at no extra charge) contains four songs. Three songs -alternate versions of "Verona," "Lull It By," and "Gallery" were recorded with violinist Peter Ostroushko
. The final track, "Christmas Song," is an impromptu improvisation recorded at a music festival, has never been issued before. While both volumes are essential in understanding Brown and his work, it is Dream City
that may prove more useful in introducing his work to new audiences.