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Strong Midwestern Songwriters Come Together at Galvin PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 27 January 2004 18:00
On Friday night, St. Ambrose University’s Galvin Fine Arts Center will host a don’t-miss triple bill of roots music, when Greg Brown, Lucy Kaplansky, and Bo Ramsey play together. All will perform separate sets of their own material, and then they’ll share the stage for a finale.

It’s a bit surprising that the three have not played together more, given the connections among the trio. Kaplansky records for the Red House label that was formed to promote Brown, and Ramsey has worked regularly with Brown since 1989, producing and playing guitar on his records. (Ramsey also co-produced and played on the 2002 debut of Brown’s daughter Pieta.) Brown and Kaplansky are more acoustic acts than the rough-and-ready Ramsey, but Bo’s producing work has often been quieter than his own material.

Brown and Kaplansky have brand-new albums, with Brown’s coming out this week and Kaplansky’s due in stores February 10. (Kaplansky will be selling her new disc, The Red Thread, at Friday’s show.) The River Cities’ Reader interviewed both artists recently to learn the stories behind their records.

While Ramsey hasn’t had a new solo CD out since 1997’s In the Weeds, he hasn’t been slacking in the meantime, appearing on or producing a wide variety of records, including those by Ani DiFranco and Lucinda Williams. Last year, he worked as a producer on Joan Baez’s Dark Chords on a Big Guitar.

Friday’s concert starts at 7:30 p.m., and adult tickets are $15. For reservations, call (563)333-6251 or visit (

Lucy Kaplansky Tackles Impending Motherhood on New Disc

A lot has changed for Lucy Kaplansky since her last record came out. Every Single Day was released on September 11, 2001, a date that’s particularly resonant for New Yorker Kaplansky, who lives a mile north of the World Trade Center site.

But beyond that, Kaplansky and her husband adopted a daughter, Molly, from China last fall, and impending motherhood was the force driving her to finish her new record, The Red Thread, out in two weeks on the Red House label.

“I worked really hard to get the album done before I became a mother,” Kaplansky said.

The adoption process was done a year ago, and after that it was a waiting game; adoptive parents are given about five weeks notice. “I had tons of time” to work on the album, she said. Still, she was reviewing album artwork in China via e-mail.

Molly, who is now 13 months old, is all over The Red Thread, even though the singer-songwriter Kaplansky hadn’t met her when she was writing (with her husband and frequent collaborator Richard Litvin) and recording the album.

Three songs on The Red Thread – “I Had Something,” “This Is Home,” and the title track – are “very much about finding Molly,” Kaplansky said. Other songs are “informed by this huge impending change.”

“This Is Home” features one verse from an orphan’s perspective: “She’s lying on a bed in some crowded room / Trying to sleep, not much else to do / The faces change around her, they speak to her sometimes / She’s getting used to being left behind.”

The liner notes explain the concept of the album’s title: “There is an ancient belief in China that when a child is born, invisible red threads reach out from the child’s spirit to all of the important people who will be part of the child’s life. The threads may tangle but they will never break.”

The title song itself seems a neat summary of Kaplansky’s life, looking back at her parents and forward to her new daughter: “And when I wrap her up warm you’ll be right next to me / ’Cause they say the red thread that ties me to you ties her to me.”

The album also tackles the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “Land of the Living” is a sharp, refreshingly unsentimental portrait of New York City in the aftermath.

Musically, The Red Thread is a delicate affair, with gentle, subdued, but detailed folk rock giving Kaplansky’s precise, warm, country-inflected voice the space it needs.

Kaplansky, who will turn 44 on February 2, took a strange path to her music career. She left her Chicago-area home when she was 18 to become a singer in New York, but gave up that dream and pursued a career as a clinical psychologist. “I ran away from the thing I wanted, which was to be a singer,” she said.

While the 15-year detour away from music kept Kaplansky from her dream, it did have its advantages. When she returned to music, she still held down a full-time job for about three years. “I could go and do these virtually unpaid gigs,” she said.

And the psychology stint also helped her songwriting. “I became a wiser, more insightful person,” she said.

It’s unclear what effect motherhood will have on Kaplansky’s songwriting, because “I haven’t really written anything since we got Molly.” And she’s just come off her longest period of time without performing since she returned to music a decade ago. “I felt rusty,” she said of her first show a few weeks ago. “I felt: ‘What am I doing in front of these people, trying to entertain them?’”

It is certain that Molly will mean less touring. “I’m cutting back a little bit,” Kaplansky said of her performance schedule. “I used to be this road warrior.” She’s limiting her shows to weekends, and “our plan is about half the time, the three of us will go together.”

But Kaplansky recently experienced her first night away from Molly, a 24-hour separation for one of her shows. “It was very strange,” she said. “I was worried she wouldn’t remember me.”

Greg Brown Makes Honey with Folk Classics

Honey in the Lion’s Head, the new album from singer-songwriter Greg Brown, originated as a Christmas present, and it’s taken a few years for it to find its way into the public’s hands.

The record, featuring 10 folk classics (including “Old Smokey” and “Down in the Valley”), one original, and Jim Garland’s “I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister,” was released this week on the Trailer label, but it started as a tape for his three daughters one Christmas six or seven years ago, Brown said in a recent interview. The gift went over well, and he attempted four or so years ago to turn it into a proper album. It didn’t work. “I tried it before at a fancy studio,” he said. “I just couldn’t catch the spirit somehow.”

The setting was one of the problems. “It’s kind of a sit-down record,” he said, best recorded casually. That’s what Brown and his collaborators did six months ago, and the result is the evocatively titled Honey in the Lion’s Head. The album’s name comes from a lyric to the track “Samson,” and Brown thinks it’s an apt metaphor for the record.

After Samson kills the lion, “the bees made honey in the lion’s head,” the song says, and like those insects, Brown is creating something sweet and fresh using songs that, though not “dead,” are certainly getting on in years.

Rolling Stone once praised his voice as “surprisingly flexible and undeniably sexy; he can bait that rusty hook with honey, whiskey, or blood.” But Brown is primarily known as a songwriter; that same review called him “a wickedly sharp observer of the human condition.”

Of course, Brown’s songwriting voice is missing from this record of folk songs. “A lot of them have been around for 100 years,” he said of the pieces he chose for the new record. “They’re kind of a high-water mark,” he added. “I grew up with a lot of these songs.” But because the songs are so old and familiar, there was little urgency in laying down the tracks. Brown said he figured he’d record them “this decade or next decade.”

Brown, who lives on a farm near Fairfield, Iowa, doesn’t feel bound by previous incarnations of the songs, he said. “They’ve gone through so many versions,” he noted. “I play it until I find the song, the way I can do it.”

Although years passed between its initial form and finished product, some of the songs on Honey ended up being “pretty close” in treatment to those on the Christmas-present tape. And of course the project features Brown’s distinctive voice, described by the All Music Guide as a “sandpaper-coarse but sensitive baritone.”

There were some important additions to the songs, he said. “It turned out to be almost a family project,” he said, with his wife – the acclaimed singer-songwriter Iris DeMent, whom Brown married in 2002 – and two of his daughters singing harmony, and one daughter doing the cover art.

For all it has going for it, though, the standards of Honey will probably be a bit of a disappointment for fans of Brown’s observant, short-story-like songs. His last album of new original material, Milk of the Moon, came out nearly two years ago, and there’s nothing new on the horizon, he said.

Brown has been writing; it just hasn’t come together as an album. “I’ve got kind of a backlog of original tunes,” he said. He’ll cut a new CD “when I have a group of songs I think assemble well together,” he added. “Right now I’ve got a lot of disparate material. I still tend to think of a record as a record.”

There has been other material for fans, though. His label, Red House, last year released the 17-cut retrospective If I Had Known, which collects work from 1980 through 1996. Brown didn’t participate in preparing the set.

“I didn’t really ask for any” input, he said. “It’s probably better for somebody else to pick the tunes. … I’d put one together on Tuesday, and Thursday it would be a completely different deal.”

And fans have also had the opportunity to hear Brown’s songs interpreted by other artists with the 2002 tribute Going Driftless, featuring such luminaries as Ani DiFranco, Lucinda Williams, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, Victoria Williams, and – you guessed it – Lucy Kaplansky.
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