A self-described prairie stomper, Pieta Brown fondly recalls her first childhood home as “a little shack” at the end of a long gravel road, about 20 miles from Iowa City.
“In my memory, it was magic,” she says. “We had a wood stove for heat, and I remember taking baths in a little metal tub. We didn’t have a TV. We didn’t even have running water.”
Surrounded by the plains and farm fields, Brown spent her early days playing in the garden with her parents, and listening to her dad, singer-songwriter Greg Brown, make music.
This was at the very early stages of the decades-long touring and recording career that would make the elder Brown famous. So Pieta Brown’s earliest life was a simple one characterized by a grounding sense of place, a strong connection to nature and an endless supply of music — from her mother and father, and from her father’s extended family.
“My dad’s grandpa played banjo, his grandma played pump organ, and Uncle Roscoe played guitar,” Brown recalls. “The whole family would get together and take part in these old-time music jams.”
Those group sessions left a lasting musical impression on Brown, and the period also shaped her notions of community, connection and well-being. “I think those first years had a big impact on my idea of what a healthy lifestyle is really about,” she says.
Another profound influence on Brown’s early life was her parents’ divorce. At the age of 3, she moved with her mom to Iowa City for a while. When she was 8, they moved to Alabama, where her mother had chosen to complete her medical residency. Brown wound up spending a good deal of time on her own.
“I did a lot of knocking around and scribbling in my notebook,” she recalls. “The writing became a kind of lifeline — a way of comforting myself and feeling connected to the world in some way.”
As her scribbles morphed into poems and lyrics, Brown began working out her own songs at the piano. “Writing and playing music was just something I did very naturally,” she says. “The internal part of that [creative process] wasn’t ever something I had to struggle with.” Back then, though, Brown wasn’t very inclined to share her creative output.
In her early teens, Brown and her mother moved back to Iowa. She finished high school and then flirted with college, but by that time, she was nursing an artist’s urge for wandering.
It led her to New York City, a place where she went looking for creative community and inspiration, but soon found herself overwhelmed by noise and traffic.
“I was 23, and I think I had a glamorous, idealized idea of what it would be like to be an artist in New York,” says Brown, now 36. The reality was far more challenging than she could have imagined.
The community of musicians and artists she spent her time with were “good people, people I loved very much,” she says, but they were deeply entrenched in an unhealthy culture of drinking, smoking and drugs.
Two years into her New York experience, Brown had nearly lost three good friends to overdoses and was still reeling from the suicide of one friend and the murder of a close friend’s younger sister.
“I knew then I had to choose a different direction,” she says. “I realized ‘If I’m going to get out of here alive, I’ve got to do it now.’”
Brown ultimately connected with a healthier, more positive creative community in Tucson, Ariz. While there, she became increasingly clear that her path was leading her toward a musical career. But she still had mixed feelings about performing. Plus, she says, “I didn’t even know how to play the guitar.”
That changed when, on one of her visits home to Iowa, her father showed her a 1930s arch-top May Bell. “He was always showing me guitars,” says Brown, but this one turned out to be something special.
“He took it out of the case and said, ‘Hey, sweetie! You should check this out,’” Brown remembers. “I picked up that guitar and strummed it a little bit. Then I took it upstairs. And that was it for me. I was hooked.”
Brown spent the next several months, doing almost nothing but playing and singing, doing her best to keep up with the flood of music that poured out of her.
Back in Arizona, she started playing her first gigs in local bars. Not long afterward, she sent a demo tape of her original songs to three people: her mom, her dad and Bo Ramsey — a longtime family friend (whom Pieta had met around age 17) and a frequent musical collaborator of her father’s.
Ramsey, a seasoned performer who had most recently earned popular fame as a lead guitarist for Lucinda Williams, was impressed by what he heard. “Bo called me from the road hollering,” Brown recalls. “He said, ‘Let’s make a record!’”
Brown moved back to Iowa shortly afterward, and Ramsey became her chief musical collaborator and co-producer. Several years and albums later, he became her husband. Ramsey and Brown now have a young son.
Working with Ramsey, Brown has released four full-length CDs (and three EPs) over the past eight years, all of which have earned strong reviews and critical acclaim.
Her most recent release, One and All, (Red House Records, 2010), came out in April. A Boston Herald review proclaimed the album “an early contender for top folk/Americana album of the year.” The album’s second track, “Other Way Around,” rapidly rose to the top of the folk charts.
This January, Brown was invited to open for Mark Knopfler during his spring “Get Lucky” tour — an experience Brown describes as “amazing.”
Brown’s core musical influences include country blues artists like John Lee Hooker and Elizabeth Cotten, as well as singer-songwriters like Tom Petty, JJ Cale, Loretta Lynn, Rickie Lee Jones and, of course, her father. But more than any one musical tradition or style, Brown draws on a poignant sense of spiritual and emotional truth she finds in all the music she loves.
With a voice reviewers alternately describe as “rich,” “dark” and “dreamy,” and a musical style that ranges from haunting to rocking, Brown draws her emotionally layered songs directly from personal impressions — and from a desire to make a powerful, potentially healing connection with those who listen to her music. “One of the best things about music,” she says, “is its power to connect and transform.”
Brown is committed to staying healthy herself, even when it means resisting the temptations of a rock-’n’-roll lifestyle. While touring to promote One and All, Brown took care of herself by eating at least three healthy meals a day (she’s a vegetarian), drinking a lot of water, practicing yoga, meditating and doing breathing exercises.
She credits these regular routines — along with strong family connections, a good sense of humor and the music itself — for keeping her body centered and strong, and for keeping her mind clear, calm and ready for whatever comes next.
With songs for a new album under way, and a growing body of critical acclaim piling up behind her, it looks like Brown is wise to prepare herself for a long and promising musical future.
For a schedule of Pieta’s upcoming tour dates with John Prine, visit www.pietabrown.com/tour.cfm.