Ask Greg Brown to identify the essence of his songwriting and the troubadour protests that it’s not possible for him to be that introspective about his own work. Then he proceeds to give an introspective critique of his own work. “You know there is something that I read by John Keats when I was 17: ‘If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all,’ ” Brown says in his trademark gruff voice, during a phone call from his Iowa home. “In my case, it came naturally. And I just went with it — I always had the feeling that I was more going with it than directing anything.
“The important thing is to be able to hear what’s really going on with what you’re trying to get at.”
Brown emerged in the 1980s as a staple on the public-radio show A Prairie Home Companion. He released his breakthrough album, Iowa Waltz, in 1981. The recording garnered instant acclaim. “As sweet as a watermelon on a hot summer afternoon, and as a beautifully simple as a dusty country road,” music critic David Freedlander opined.
Over the years, the 68-year-old musician has become one of the greatest folk acts of his generation. He is now “semi-retired,” touring occasionally, writing a bit, and not recording at all (due to the low royalties paid by such streaming services as Pandora and Spotify).
Many of Brown’s songs — often laced with a wry country wit — are tributes to small-town life and modest pursuits involving Zen and trout fishing. His songs generally fall into two categories: sentimental, like the delicate “Canned Goods,” which recalls pastoral summer nights spent at his grandmother’s farm; or edgy, as heard on “Wild Like a Sonny Boy,” a rustic banjo-driven ode to hell raising that careens like an old pickup truck on a midnight run through the woods, lights out and a bottle of Wild Turkey tucked between his legs.
His last studio album, 2012’s Hymns to What Is Left, found Brown lamenting arthritis (“Bones, Bones”) and a bulging belly (“Fat Boy Blues”).
Retirement, he says, is not all it’s cracked up to be.
“You know, it’s not that different for me because I’ve always liked to poke around a lot,” he says. “I still enjoy playing and singing and writing and all that, and I’m still going out and doing a few gigs. Being a musician is not really like having a job in a way. I mean, you work and you travel, but you determine your own hours. So when you’re a musician and you quit, nobody gives you a gold watch or makes a speech.
“You can kind of go at it at your own pace, which is one thing I like about being a musician.”
Music came naturally to Brown—he is married to the country-folk artist Iris Dement and has three children, all are professional musicians.
“I was surrounded by music,” he says of his upbringing in rural Iowa. “My mother was a guitar player and a singer, my grandparents played banjo, organ, mandolin and whatnot. And my dad was a Pentacostal preacher, but I lucked out there, too, because his message was of love—he didn’t buy into scaring people into heaven. He was quite a gentle soul as he moved on through life. So I got the good things from fundamental religion: I got the music and the liveliness and avoided the fear and guilt and hatred. I was surrounded by a lot of storytelling and I liked it—I read like crazy from the time I could read. I loved the whole about trying to do something with rhythm and tunes.
“So, I was surrounded by it—if I hadn’t liked it I guess I would have been in trouble.”
Since the conversation moves into something akin to an exit interview revolving around retirement, I ask Brown to pontificate about life. His responses reflect the sense of goodness that permeates many of his songs.
“There’s that old Western proverb: Life is not a walk across the field,” he offers. “And that’s very true. It’s tough. There are all kinds of awful things that can happen to you and to the people you love. Life is not an easy deal. But here’s life and here we are in it, so the thing to do is to try and help each other get through it and to enjoy the things you can.
“It’s important to be kind to people. It’s important to try to help out the people that you care about. It’s important to try to be honest. And I think it’s important to find something that you really like to do, whether it’s a job or something else. I always loved music and looked forward to writing and playing, so I didn’t have to think about that too much. But it’s important to find a way to spend your life doing something that’s at least somewhat fulfilling to you.
“All in all, I feel pretty lucky in life. I can’t think of any one off the top of my head that really hate me or that I really hate. I have a lot of friends that I’ve had for a long time and who have stuck by me through thick and thin. I got married to the greatest country singer since Tammy Wynette. I have beautiful children. My mother is still alive—she’s 89. And I had a job I liked, one that suited me pretty well.
“So I’d have to say I pretty much lucked out.”