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Photo by Sandy Dyas

Performing, writing or even living, Greg Brown is at his best when he can settle into a groove.

With 25 studio albums, the 64-year-old Brown has carved out his own distinct path among folk singer-songwriters. His rich baritone, in a rounded, cozy Midwestern drawl, delivers songs with wry humor, existentially yearning poetry and stories of sharply observed detail.

“I’m what you call a groove player,” Brown says. “I try to get in the groove and go with the groove. It’s just that intuitive thing that carries you along. You’re like a boat going down a river, it feels like, and some night you hit a lot of sand bars, but I always give it a good try.”

Brown will perform three increasingly rare Arizona dates this week (“Some people just live on the road, but I’m easing out slowly,” he says) and in these solo shows, he goes without a set list, jumping from song to song as the mood strikes him.

“Usually I might have some idea of what the first few songs are going to be when I go out, and after that I just kind of improvise,” he says. “I don’t understand how it works myself. When I get on a roll, one song leads to another, there’s something that suggests the next one. You can tell maybe the audience is feeling heavy or depressed, so I’ll play some funny shit. I try to get with the people and give them a good night of entertainment.”

Performing for 40-plus years, from winning a campus talent competition at the University of Iowa to a residency at the venerable Gerde’s Folk City in New York to a stint in Los Angeles to a return to Iowa, where his career slowly started building in the early 1980s, Brown says he’s learned to trust his intuition.

“I know a lot of players that go out there with a set list and do pretty much the same show every night and they have their stories memorized and they go out there and it’s almost like a play. I’ve tried that and it felt like I was doing my homework,” Brown says.

“I get some kind of a groove going and I just go with that. I write that way too. I get in the groove and something just happens. I get that feeling going, or the feeling gets going with me, and I just write,” Brown says. “I pretty much live my life that way, for better for worse. That’s the person I am.”

Brown’s latest studio album, 2012’s Hymns to What Is Left, is a collection of weary and battered tunes like “Bones Bones” and “Now That I’m My Grandpa” that center on aging and the songwriter’s singular take on life in its ever-steady advance.

“I think I wrote my old man songs. I’m done with that now. I got in that groove. Those songs were coming along and I enjoyed doing them. But you can’t keep writing the same song over and over and over,” Brown says. “The new songs I’m working on now are more ballads, story songs with characters in them.”

That sort of songwriting reaches back to when Brown first started realizing his songwriting voice.

“I was 19 or so and my dad had given me my grandmother’s journal of her life in the Ozark Mountains. It was full of poems and observations of nature. She knew all the birds and trees and flowers. I read that journal and it touched something off in me. I was at that age when all I was writing about was ‘Here’s how I feel today.’ That journal opened something up for me. It’s a big life and there’s a lot of things to sing about. That was a big moment for me,” he says.

Published May 22, 2014 in the Phoenix New Times.

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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