Kevin Brown,
The Beloved Country
(independent, 2012)

Far from the better-known coastal cities, northeastern Washington is part of the West in more than the purely geographical sense. It's the West where something of the Old West hangs on. If not exactly thriving, ranchers, cowboys and farmers still occupy the rural landscape and still help define its culture. It's also where the politics lean far more rightward than they do in Seattle. Idaho and Montana, comparably wild, beautiful, and reactionary, lie just to the east.

That's The Beloved Country of Kevin Brown, whose family is from there and where he still lives. He hosts a bluegrass radio show, directs an annual bluegrass festival and plays in a bluegrass band. This is not, however, a bluegrass album, though Scruggs-style banjo sometimes wells up in the arrangements. Beloved, Brown's second album (I missed the first), is modern folk backed by a band that, if it were so inclined, could effortlessly turn itself to country. This isn't country, though; Brown's thoughtful lyrics, too smart and expansive for country's limited vocabulary, call up the natural landscape as the setting for often unexpected stories and reflections. Along the way, his words work wonders, taking on complex themes without losing their way. Well, maybe once; the metaphor for "Ocean," notwithstanding the strong melody that carries it, gets stretched to the snapping point in the album's single misstep.

These are original songs (in two definitions of "original"), and they are good ones. They invite repeated listening. In his middle age and thus done with the foolishness of youth, Brown has endured on this Earth long enough to have figured out what matters. Thus, unlike many singer-songwriters who spring to mind, he has something to say.

He conveys that something in a weathered, conversational voice. The lyrics, too, have the feeling of conversation, and inside the album package they're printed exactly that way -- in other words, not in the typical line-by-line verse format. One experiences the keenly pleasant sensation that one is in the company of a personable, intelligent man who knows how to tell a story. The harrowing "Northeast of Eden (Fallen Snow)" is simply astounding in this regard. So is the song that follows it, the album's closer, "Comfort," a compelling but bracingly unsentimental anthem of survival in a harsh world.

I have never heard a song like "When I Go Out at Night," whose title stirs expectations of the familiar and confounds them at every turn, meanwhile charming and touching the listener with its surprises and sincerity. Though I don't know if it was his intention, "Desert Wind" led me to think about what a Sons of the Pioneers song might sound like in a 21st-century context. One recognizes the influences -- Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine (especially on "I Wonder") and the broader Western-folk tradition -- and Brown amuses himself with allusions to and quotes from everything to old spirituals and honkytonk weepers to Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young. All the while, one knows one is hearing somebody with a distinctive personal vision, an artist who knows where he comes from and who will take listeners to places they will want to go.

music review by
Jerome Clark

15 September 2012

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