A new generation has discovered the joys of wintry, isolation-fueled ballads, but Greg Brown has been wallowing in them for four decades. With songs that straddle folk and country and resist outsized hooks in favor of gaunt, gently rippling chord changes, the Iowa-based troubadour, who’s released over two dozen records, has been a cult figure for a reason. He’s only approached a degree of mainstream exposure here and there (appearances on Prairie Home Companion and taking on the voice of Hades on Anaïs Mitchell’s original Hadestown album). But along the way, he picked up a huge fan in Seth Avett. Avett once made an album of Elliott Smith songs, and on Seth Avett Sings Greg Brown, he’s again ventured outside the confines of the Avett Brothers to salute another one of his heroes.
The Brown songs that Avett picked for his tribute pinpoint what’s long set Brown apart from his peers. Like, say, John Prine, Brown writes little character studies and sings them in a voice that’s grown gruffer and more wizened over time. But the songs are specific and vague at the same time. “Laughing River” is ostensibly narrated by a minor-league pitcher who wants to hang it up after 20 years, and the restless narrator of “I Slept All Night By My Lover” is kept awake by the thought of “madmen with guns” outside. But in fact, the lyrics supply just enough information so that they can be about Brown, a character, or maybe even you, and they’re as intimate and internalized as these songs get.
Avett sings and plays these songs effortlessly, as if he’s been performing them his whole life, and he recorded them alone, in various hotel rooms on the road, for added intimacy. His voice is more lilting and fluid than Brown’s and he makes some of these songs his own: “The Poet Game,” a sprawling mini-epic that takes in teen lust, wrecked friendships, and a country that invests more in strip malls than racial tolerance, is particularly mesmerizing. Like many a singer-songwriter, Brown can wander into cutesy turf. Listening to Avett’s rubbery version of “Good Morning Coffee” makes you wonder if Brown was also a major influence on singing surfer Jack Johnson. As interpreted by Avett, though, Brown’s darker, more brooding songs are the keepers—and for a moment in history when we’re all losing a lot more sleep than usual.