With very little fanfare, Iowa-based Greg Brown has quietly put together one of the finest singer/songwriter careers of his generation. Perhaps he's ignored because he's neither as sentimental as our "sensitive" singer/songwriters nor as overstated as our "innovative" artists. Instead he writes understated, unflinchingly honest, unromantic stories about working-class folks in the Midwest and then delivers these songs in a gravelly baritone filled with hints of Dylanesque folk, Delta blues, and Hank Senior honky-tonk. His 13th album, Slant 6 Mind
, pulls off the devilish trick of mixing jokes and despair--often in the same song. The album's title comes from the first song, "Whatever It Was," a laundry list of all the things that have gone from good to worse in America. There's genuine anger in the way he describes farmland chopped into housing developments, main streets turned into ghost towns and conversation replaced by TV and the Internet. And yet he is surely chuckling when he delivers such punch lines as, "She says, `Come hither,' but when I get hither she is yon," and "It's been quite a week, there was a drive-by shooting in Lake Wobegon." The reason these jokes work so well is that Brown sings them in the same deadpan drawl that he does his fiercest indictments. He respects the intelligence of his listeners enough to assume we'll be able to tell the difference. And because he allows us the pleasure of deciphering his songs ourselves, we learn how anger, hope, and humor are not opponents so much as partners.
Many songwriters have paid tribute to Robert Johnson, but few have captured the mystery and power of that legendary bluesman as Brown does on "Dusty Woods." Kelly Joe Phelps's slide guitar lends a Delta blues feel to several other songs, and there's an eerie mystery as well to songs such as "Speaking in Tongues," a sincere tribute to holy-roller churches, and "Billy from the Hills," a tribute to his backwoods father. Many of 1997's albums are more obvious than Slant 6 Mind, but few have been as substantial. --Geoffrey Himes