I once interviewed the singer Greg Brown on a park bench in Iowa City. For the first few minutes, I was distracted by an intermittent subterranean vibration passing through the bench similar to those generated by subway cars in New York City. There had been a lot of changes in Iowa City, but I was pretty sure they hadn’t installed a subway. Then I noticed the vibrations commenced whenever Greg Brown spoke, and ceased when he went silent.
I once wrote that Greg Brown’s voice “sounds as if it was aged in a whiskey cask, cured in an Ozarks smokehouse, dropped down a stone well, pulled out damp, and kept moist in the palm of a wicked woman’s hand. I think if he says good morning across his coffee cup, it raises ripples. The voice is a perfect match to his lyrics, biblical and bar stool and garden loamy as they are, all Rexrothian and as easy-rolling true as a brand-new ’64 Dodge.”
That voice was center-stage beneath the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua tent up there by Bayfield last week as Greg Brown gave the final show of his touring career. He appeared at a benefit a week later and has plans for a scattering of similar events, but as far as packing up his guitar and fishing rod to hit the calendar-driven circuit as he has for decades, he says that’s over.
Greg Brown is one of those artists who helped me understand you could care about literature and art and beauty and poetry and still love dirt and fishing and Slant Six engines. That it was just fine to listen to Dylan Thomas Caedmon recordings in an old pickup truck. First time I heard him sing “I’m a Midwest boy, I’m a big dumb man,” I thought, Yep. It is also relevant that the first show I ever saw at Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua was a Greg Brown concert, an evening of music that led directly to me — this very week —celebrating my 15th wedding anniversary.
A year after I interviewed Greg Brown on that park bench, I went on a book tour that took me through Kansas City. I dropped by Rainy Day Books to sign their stock. There was no audience, just me at the counter writing my name. Glancing to my left, I saw a guy reading Dostoevsky. That looks like Greg Brown, I thought. I wasn’t going to bother him, but right then he looked up, made eye contact, and said, “Dude.” He recognized me from Iowa City. We conversed briefly. I kept my cool, but inside it was a fan-boy moment, and back in the car I thought, He remembered me! Then I looked down and realized I was wearing the exact same pants, boots and T-shirt as I had that day in Iowa City.
Backstage at the Big Top after his final show, we shot the breeze. Mostly about poetry and raising daughters. We relived the Rainy Day Books moment, and he says he would have recognized me even if I had changed clothes. As far as Mr. Brown’s retirement, I don’t have any red-hot scoop other than he’s 70 now and feels it’s time. I figure that’s good news for his garden, to which he may now tend after leaving us a lifetime of musical preserves.