While driving down an Iowa highway one night, folksinger Greg Brown started picking up a strange frequency full of interesting tunes?but the car radio was off.
?I was coming home from Colorado, right down through this country where I live now, and I heard all these songs in my head, one after the other,? he says. ?I felt like a radio station?like the songs were coming out of the ground or the trees or something, and I was just catching them. I have never had an experience quite like that.?
Brown, whose smoky voice and deep-reaching songs are the stuff of legend in the folk and roots music world, says he usually has to work much harder at his craft. For example, he wrote and rewrote the title track many times for his most recent album, Milk of the Moon (Red House), a song he casually describes as ?a tough one.?
?Some of them, you feel like you can?t ever get it right,? he says over the phone from his home in the Hacklebarney region of southeastern Iowa.
Brown often gets it right, to judge from his loyal fans and frequent critical kudos. Many other songwriters also revere his work, and the Iowa troubadour has recently been the subject of the ultimate symbol of musical iconhood, the tribute album. Last year?s Going Driftless (Red House) attracted artists including Lucinda Williams, Ani DiFranco, Iris DeMent (whom Brown recently married), and Mary Chapin Carpenter to serve up their versions of Brown tunes, with royalties going to the Breast Cancer Fund.
Brown?s latest project is a first for him: an album of traditional folk songs, called Honey in the Lion?s Head, which is slated for a late-spring release on the small Iowa label Trailer Records.
?The title is a line from an old song called ?If I Had My Way,? ? Brown says. ?It?s about Sampson??Sampson killed that lion dead, and the bees made honey in the lion?s head.? I always liked that image.?
Apart from that song, the album will include time-tested numbers like ?On Top of Old Smokey? and ?Pretty Polly??songs, he says, ?that a lot of people have heard, and maybe they haven?t heard all the pretty verses.?
?I just always loved those old songs, and I find myself going back to them,? he explains. ?They?ve got beautiful melodies, and they?re fun to sing. A lot of them are models of good storytelling?I think one reason those folk songs last is that people can find their own story in there somewhere.?
In late summer Red House Records, the label co-founded by Brown and his artistic home for the last 20 years, will release a career retrospective CD. The singer is taking a hands-off approach to the project, saying he has no clue what songs will be on it.
Brown, 52, says he hopes these tributes and retrospectives don?t mean he should wrap up his career. He continues to write new material and tour the country, playing in venues that range from restored movie theaters to folk clubs to hole-in-the-wall ?joints,? as he calls them.
He?s got a story for every town, and when he hears that his autographed photo was spotted in a joint in Talkeetna, Alaska, he tells of a burly stranger there who gave him three fresh-killed ptarmigan as a token of appreciation for his music.
Brown has relaxed his touring pace and his life now is centered at a newly built home on his grandparents? farm and his recent out-of-the-blue marriage to DeMent. He declines to discuss their union last November 21 in Kansas City, Missouri, but seems calm and content while speaking from their Iowa hideaway, with pots and dishes clanking in the background as DeMent prepares a Saturday-morning breakfast. The man who once sang ?gonna go on down to Hacklebarney and have me some fun? seems to have done just that.
Keith Goetzman is a contributing editor of Utne.