Classic Americana Albums: Greg Brown “Covenant”

Red House Records, 2000

Back in the year 2000, prolific folk singer-songwriter Greg Brown released two excellent records: ‘Over and Under’ and, a few months later, ‘Covenant’.  Over the years, Brown has released a huge amount of material and if you’re wondering where to start, then go for the latter, which won the Association for Independent Music award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.  Brown’s music is steeped in the hills, prairies and rural life of south-western Iowa and there’s a timeless quality to his songs that may sound like they could have been written decades previously, rooted in folk tradition, and yet his language and delivery connect to modern audiences.  Similarly, the themes he tackles, such as relationships, love, loss and family are the age-old stuff of life but again, his words bring often bring them up-to-date: “Half the people you see these days are talking on cell phones // Driving off the road and bumping into doors //People used to spend quite a bit of time alone //I guess nobody’s lonely anymore //’Cept you and me babe ‘cept you and me //It’s raining sheets of rain everything is cold and wet //Nobody’s going out of doors //They’re all at home living it up on the internet //So I guess nobody’s lonely any more’Cept you and me babe ‘cept you and me.”  Brown’s marriage of modern lyricism and roots music stylings make this a great turn-of-the-century album.

The first two songs on ‘Covenant’ are as good an album-opening as you’ll get.  ”Cept You and Me Babe’ is an atmospheric song notable for Brown’s strangely compelling melodic talk-singing over delicate guitar.  As on many of the album’s songs, there’s a beautiful sonic undercurrent provided by Rob Arthur’s organ and Wurlitzer and Eric Heywood’s pedal steel.  This continues on the second track, ‘Rexroth’s Daughter’, which winds its way through a beautiful vocal melody that draws attention to Brown’s fine lyrical narrative details.  This song showcases Brown’s typical singing style, his warm, rumbling, deep baritone.  His voice is striking, distinctive and full of storytelling character, and that’s the real takeaway from this album.

Then, we move onto ‘Real Good Friend’ and ‘Blues Go Walking’, another pair of songs that hang together well, oozing bluesy rhythms and tones.  Later on the album, this swampy blues feel continues on ‘Living in a Prayer’ and ‘Dream City’, which surges along with a more insistent rocking beat.  All these songs possess a moody swagger, a gripping, soulful atmosphere propelled by regular collaborator Bo Ramsey on guitar with his jangling blues notes and languid solos.  Dave Jacques adds the tunefully thudding bass that sustains the hypnotic rhythms. While Brown’s vocal is more distinctive on the folky numbers, the fusion of styles is what keeps the record dynamic.  The blend is especially effective on the mournful, resigned ‘Blue Car’, in which Ramsey’s guitar is like another voice, beautifully melodic, meandering around Brown’s wistful, tuneful low vocal.  This is masterful songwriting.

The more delicate songs on the album are particularly absorbing.  ‘Waiting On You’ and ‘Lullaby’, are great vehicles for Brown’s weary, lived-in voice, delivered over fluttering guitar.  Such songs are full of heart and humanity.  The sense of time passing through ‘Lullaby’ is really affecting, and it leaves the listener reflecting on the intimacy and ephemeral nature of human relationships.  It’s a gorgeous piece of work.  The album closes with another almost-spoken vocal on ‘Marriage Chant’, a ‘hidden’ track on the original album that takes a good-humoured look at the nature of marriage.

When we talk about music being timeless, we tend to mean that it’s rooted in traditional sounds and instruments and that the quality of songcraft is such that it will still be engaging audiences for many years to come.  In both these ways, ‘Covenant’ by Greg Brown is a timeless album, paying respect to the folk and blues artists who have inspired him, while being brilliantly written in its own right and very distinctively his own work.

About Andrew Frolish 1435 Articles
From up north but now hiding in rural Suffolk. An insomniac music-lover. Love discovering new music to get lost in - country, singer-songwriters, Americana, rock...whatever. Currently enjoying Nils Lofgren, Ferris & Sylvester, Tommy Prine, Jarrod Dickenson, William Prince, Frank Turner, Our Man in the Field...
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Kurk Dorsey

All true–and Walkin’ Daddy is a great song as well. “I know what I am here to do: To be of use, to help the deal along.” Can’t argue with the sentiment or the rhythm.