Greg Brown,
The Iowa Waltz
(Red House, 2013)

Issued in 1983, The Iowa Waltz was Red House's initial release. At the time singer-songwriter Greg Brown's renown didn't extend beyond the Upper Midwest. Since then, both the label and the artist would go on to acclaim and success in the folk realm and beyond. One day Brown would be the subject of a full-length New Yorker profile. Meantime, Red House has won awards and signed a range of first-rate acoustic, roots-based songwriters, plus the occasional jazz or country performer.

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary, the label has remastered and reissued the album. The Iowa Waltz remains an engaging work, accomplished in itself but also hinting at even more remarkable art to come. The title song, hard to put out of your head once you've heard it, joins Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and other states as the subject of a celebratory waltz. Brown sings, "Here's where I was born / Here's where I'm going to stay." And he did. He lives today in Iowa City, with his wife, Iris DeMent, herself a singer-songwriter of no small accomplishment. It is worth noting, however, that Iowa City is a college town.

"I come from southern Iowa. I've lived a lot of places," Brown wrote in the original liner notes. "Going back to the small towns was like going home. These songs are a homecoming too." As I know from my own experience, the arc of rural return leans inexorably toward disenchantment. On a 1997 CD, Brown puts it, "I was looking for love / Whatever it was it's gone." The context makes it clear that he's not regretting a failed romance with a woman but with landscape and memory. If you've returned and lived long enough in it, you can fall out of love and sympathy with rural America. You grasp one day -- for but one disheartening revelation -- that the country is no longer so much the country as just another corporate outpost.

Heard through the ears of this Midwesterner who returned to his small-town roots well into his adult life, Waltz speaks to the first blush of rediscovery, to the imagined impression that one has found his way back to a haven of nature and contentment. While Brown is too intelligent ever to have confused rural small towns with Mayberrys, even those of us who ought to have known better allowed sentimental portrayals in popular culture to creep into our distant recalls and perceptions in ways we would not know until we were forced to test them against reality. Rural life certainly has its pleasures, but often one suspects that persons who have never left that existence fail to recognize or appreciate what they are, and thus are destroying them. Yes, good people live way out here. Then again, good people can be found just about anywhere.

I don't know Brown -- I met him once very briefly -- so I'm only speculating when I suggest that one inspiration for Waltz, aside from its creator's memories, may have been the back-to-the-land movement of the counterculture's latter days. Happily, this album contains nothing like John Denver's sappy "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." Even in his early career Brown could not have written anything that execrable. Still, most of the songs here take the rosy-hued view, though pulling up short -- if at moments just short -- of naked sentimentality.

In later times Brown would fully digest his influences and move further toward songwriting less obviously traceable specifically to Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers. Even so, traditional ballads and downhome blues remain very much part of Brown's sensibility (as they do for Bob Dylan). While manifestly the work of an artist just starting to find his way, Waltz lives up to its longtime critical reputation as an outstanding contribution to second-generation singer-songwriter folk. Three decades down the road, the songs hold their appeal, and the album's open-heartedness, if naive in retrospect, still touches wished-for, occasionally glanceable truths. It will waltz you through an Iowa of the spirit.

music review by
Jerome Clark

16 November 2013

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