Notes on Greg Brown from Richard Pinney

Richard Pinney was a friend and collaborator of Greg's back in the "old days." They recorded a joint album, Hacklebarney, in 1974. He plays regularly at the Breman Café in Milwaukee.


[...] I collaborated with Greg early in his career, having pulled him off the Holiday Inn circuit in Duluth, MN, to join me doing original songs. I went off to Hollywood to work in the music and film business, but have returned to the midwest to raise kids and play again.

Do you think your members would enjoy an account of those days and the story behind the Hacklebarney album? Greg had written over a hundred songs before that album was recorded. Most of them are lost forever.


In 1974 one of the hottest folk venues was Charlotte's Web in Rockford, IL. Greg and I played there a lot (together and alone), as did Leon Redbone, John Prine, Steve Goodman, etc. The club owner recorded us live and that was the lost album, Hacklebarney. Our shows were more like 2-person reviews. We each did 6 or so tunes and then teamed up for mostly Greg's stuff. We were all so naive. The owner/producer thought if he got 2 two track recorders and played them back at the same time, we'd get 4 track! The recording, though, got good reviews, but never had good distribution. Greg hates it and, I think, still prowls used record stores in search of the last copies to dispose of. My discography is smaller than Greg's so I am more apt to include it. I need it to make it look like an actual list.

The album, on the later-to-be-great Mountain Railroad label, is long out of print. The songs, of course, were vintage Greg and all mentioned sheep and/or death. One of the two tunes we wrote together appears on the album as well as other songs found no where else. It's for collectors only, but from what I can tell of this site, that would be just about everyone here. Sorry I can't help you get one.

The master is safe and available to me and I may re-release it as Richard Pinney Presents Hacklebarney (with greg brown). (Ed. note-That's a joke!)

Old Songs

I loved a song called "Aspen Turned Gold" and would give anything to hear him sing "Dream of Wild Geese Flying" again. Another gem (that I sometimes still do) is "How Black the Fields," a short, achingly evocative tune that Greg played on piano. "Flim Flam Hobo" was another great one (but I always was suspicious that the song was about me). The problem with asking him to do early tunes is that he couldn't possibly remember them all. There are hundreds that are not in his current songbag. There exist some real good live tapes from the early days that contain a lot of these songs. But most are lost forever.

What got the crowd going? I guess it was "Rooty Toot Toot For the Moon" which he says he wrote in about 5 minutes after a vivid dream. The "real" name, the original name for it was "Moon Tune in June." Michael Johnson (Bluer Than Blue, Cain's Blood) made a regional hit out of it. There was a lot of midwest Top-40 and national college radio airplay. That song gave Greg's career some wings as it passed from musician to musician, campfire to campfire.

I spent an afternoon at Michael's house teaching him some tunes, mine, Greg's and others. Leo Kottke was there. He played along using a beer can as a slide. Michael started playing "Pilot Me" and "Rooty" in his sets. Michael's big time manager called me a couple of months later to say "congratulations," Michael was releasing one of my songs as a single.

"Oh, wow!" I said, "Which one?"
"Rooty Toot Toot."

That version of "Rooty" was recorded with great somber seriousness, but the song is basically a nonsense song. You know, a weird dream. Greg hated seeing the "Kumbaya factor" applied to this song. He tried to demolish it every night by singing it as ragtime, be-bop, funk - anything but a waltz. I actually thought I was helping by writing an extra extra stupid verse for it:

"All of us are primates and some of us were classmates,
Some of us were lovers in the fall,
There were periods of fondness,
And periods of blondness,
Periods that never came at all"

But that verse propelled the song even further when Bill Staines picked up on it. It now resides firmly in print in the Rise Up Singing songbook published by Sing Out. Who knew?

One night, one guy, one dream. Wake up, take a leak, write it down, go back to sleep. There's a Dilbert cartoon where Alice is trying to explain a weird dream she had. In the last panel her audience of bored co-workers is trying to slip away. She cries, "No, wait! You don't understand! It was a SEEDLESS grape!"

Leon Redbone

In one fabulous evening Greg's way of looking at music was transformed by another musician.

We were the opening act for a very mysterious character who, advance rumor had it, might be Bob Dylan traveling under an alias so he could play small clubs. The guy arrived at the gig carrying an army duffel bag that contained only hats and a toothbrush, no other clothes or belongings. He asked to borrow a guitar for the gig. My big beautiful Guild was offered, but the fellow rejected it in favor of a small beat-up Gibson with dead strings.

The guy took the stage and, never saying an audible or intelligible word for the next hour, blew us away with an old timey blues style that was also totally unique. He put on a pair of white gloves and played flawlessly anyway. We were in the presence of an odd, but compelling new talent, Leon Redbone. Jimmie Rodgers and Lightnin' Hopkins were dead, but to Greg, they were alive in this man.

Greg went home to his shack outside of Iowa City and "became" Leon Redbone for about six months. He sang like him and played like him. One of us kept his cigar stub (me I think) for a few years. After Redbone's absorbed persona wore off and Greg Brown emerged again, he was a new person musically and evoked the growly singing style you can still hear today. Those Redbone licks are there in the background every time he plays.

Check out Redbone's early stuff and see if you can hear it.


Photos courtesy of Richard Pinney.

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