Pieta Brown

Pieta Brown is a special guest performing with Ani DiFranco at the Wilma on Friday, March 24. 

Pieta Brown and Greg Brown are two yards off the same cloth.

She is obviously bound genetically to her much-loved folksinger father. But the 50-year-old songstress is without a doubt also forged from the same rudiments musically. Her songwriting, too, is simple, brilliant, and varied in its moods. Her lyrical bent, similarly, a most singular, curious and wonderful one.

However, it has taken a long time for Pieta to feel comfortable and at ease and to develop into the intimately affectionate troubadour that she is. And even to this day she easily recalls the very first time that she played a few notes on guitar while uttering some homespun lines for her father.

Pieta was in her early 20s, visiting her dad at his southern Iowa farm, when he showed her a 1930s Maybell arch-top guitar. It spoke for itself, almost without further action on her part. Though her understanding of the instrument was limited then, she took it into the bedroom, tuned it by ear, and jotted down some feelings.

“I kind of went into this tunnel,” said Pieta Brown. “At some point during that time period, it might have been within a few months, I somehow got up the nerve to play a couple songs for my dad. We were knee to knee, really close, and my whole body was trembling. I'll never forget it. I was so nervous and scared for some reason.”

After Pieta finished playing, her dad was silent, and she noticed the tears that trembled along his eyelids. It was a pivotal moment for both. Pieta had lived with her mother since she was in junior high school and the relationship between the two was, at best, strained. Her courage and his acknowledgement helped break down the elephantine wall between them.

“He said that it’s a blessing and a curse. And then he said, 'I think that guitar is yours now.”'

Music in the blood

Her dad was intuitive, perceiving that Pieta would stake claim to the instrument and in the future even cultivate her own distinct sound and style as a songwriter and performer. Indeed, she has landed her plane on a great plateau in the mountains of music; unaffected and bursting with tenderly understated intensity, a bejeweled charm of modern folk-Americana, her saga a curious byproduct of rural heredity, chance, geography and practice.

“As a little girl, Iowa was the most extreme,” Pieta said. “We didn't have running water and we had an outhouse. We used the wood stove for heat.”

One of her earliest memories of music revolves around the large, extended, family jams transpiring in rustic Iowa, in a town called Selma. It was the quintessential rural scene — laughter, noisy instruments, improvised picking, plenty of country and bluegrass derivatives to be heard. 

Pieta’s great-grandparents had spent time jamming in the Appalachian Mountains, especially North Carolina, and had brought the high, lonesome, Southern-twanged, sound of the region back with them to Iowa.

“My great-grandfather played the banjo and he would be there,” Pieta said. “My great-grandmother played the pump organ. Great-uncle Roscoe had a country band, and so he would be there, and there was a fiddle player who had a beard down to his belly button, and he's kind of a mythical character in my mind still. And he was called Buzz Fountain. It was really beautiful, this energy of music, and the people who danced a bit. I often danced around with this little hat turned upside down, and my job was collecting money from musicians.” 

By the time Pieta was 7, her mother and father had permanently split and by then she had moved away from Iowa to Alabama with her. Time and again, they changed places, apartment to apartment, one house to the next. The upside was that she was then exposed to local and regional Southern rhythm and blues and soul artists.

Her mom worked untold hours and often Pieta would sit in the car, waiting, fidgeting with the radio, channel hopping, finding answers that were perfectly satisfactory for her. Also, her mother rented a piano from the music store and she would exhaust countless hours, alone, messing with the keys, singing, or sometimes even not singing at all, but just free-form expression. The vast reach of the spirit of sound stretched out before her, she recorded whatever she’d created on cassette tapes, frequently mailing them to her dad, whose schedule as a traveling artist was at its most hectic.

Pieta’s mother further opened up her daughter’s mind with a vastly extensive record collection; lots of jazz compilations, and a number of LPs boasting the presence of strong women vocalists. Pieta virtually wore the grooves out of the Billie Holliday discs.

“I spent all of that time, alone, playing piano, and kind of making up my own songs and then listening to these women singing on those records," Pieta said. "Something about that obviously had a really big impact. Pretty early on I seemed to be drawn to writing songs and making them up…my mom loves to tell the story about how I would get up and write in my notebook before school, when I was just learning to write…I was always drawn to writing songs, and I still feel that maybe that’s gotten in the way of me being a better musician.”

Flash of writing

First and foremost, Pieta remains a songwriter, a musician enamored of a verse, a line, a pure flash of writing, and the gnawing stick-to-it-itiveness of revision; indeed, most of her albums retain the rugged charm of hopeful demos, recorded without overdubbed vocals or endlessly re-sung tries.

“I'm revising as the song grows and forms and as I'm working out the kinks as I sing it," she said. "How a word might land or stay in or stay out, that’s actually because of the singing of it.”

One of Pieta’s most enduringly irresistible songs, “Other Way Around,” a track off of One and All (2010), is a microcosm of the best that she delivers to us, mingling curiosity and sweet wonder, you could almost read her heart.

“I love that song not just from within, but as an outsider and listener,” she said. “I love singing it every time. Any time that a song connects like that one does, even if you just get a few of those like that while you're here on earth, it’s worth it.”

Her dad, who has been semi-retired from performing for several years, looms softly in the background, more of a quiet inspiration than some type of intimidating, larger-than-life specter that Pieta needs to stare down or pedestal or psychoanalyze.

“There is something really deep in dad’s music,” said Pieta. “I respond to his music like a lot of other people do: I want to hear it. I have a natural, primal, human, and artistic respect for him. In the strangest kind of way, music has been the healing and the grounding connection for us.”

Brian D’Ambrosio’s newest book, Montana Eccentrics, will be available in the summer. He may be reached at dambrosiobrian@hotmail.com.