As much as I love looking for the newest, craziest fad in music, I have an appreciation for tradition. The tradition to which I am referring is Americana, as it was basically invented in the Appalachian Mountains. (I learned that from a Belgian movie, I’m a terrible American.) There is something irresistible in the familiar chords, rhythms, and above all, simplicity. Jay Brown is a self-proclaimed one man band, though he’s not a street performer; instead he belongs in coffeeshops and intimate theaters, creating his ageless folk melodies.
Jay Brown is a humble musician. His latest album, Beginner Mind, is a look into his personal life and beliefs. Clearly a family man, the first sound you hear upon putting the record on is a baby’s laugh, an ode to his new daughter no doubt. The song that follows, “New Lovin’ Mother,” is actually my favorite, with its Simon-and-Garfunkel-like feel to it, sung directly to his newborn. Brown’s single, “Get Your Fill of Feelin’ Hungry,” was written about his time as a youth living alone with his (singular) cup and bowl. Though this track is clearly retrospective, he is giving advice, to himself sure, but also to his daughter. Creating new life makes one reflect on his or her own experiences, and I’m sure we all can think of things we would have done differently. The thing is, I’m not sure Brown necessarily agrees; “Get Your Fill of Feelin’ Hungry” serves more as a note of carpe diem- take things as they come, live simply, and appreciate life.
Jay Brown plays in many other bands, but his self-duplication has its advantages. Many artists these days are adept at personally creating all the sounds that went into their record, like Beck did for his recent Grammy triumph, Morning Phase. This is essentially what Brown means when he says he is a one man band, but when he performs live he really does have a harmonica around his neck and a tambourine under his toes. Impressive sounds can come from the most unlikely setups.
If you dig folk or roots music, there is very little chance that you won’t enjoy Beginner Mind. Unless of course you’re a sensitive conservative. I appreciate songs that have hidden political digs, or in Jay Brown’s case, not hidden at all. (Thom Yorke simply dedicated “Atoms for Peace” to Sarah Palin, he didn’t name the song after her.) As you can probably tell from the title, “Fox News (Help Me Jesus),” does not sing praises of the infamous program, Fox and Friends. How serendipitous that I should find this track now, after the nonsense Fox spouted off about Muslims in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. At least we can laugh along with this song.
Traditional folk music is a fundamental piece of America’s cultural tapestry. It has a history that is rich yet incomplete. Thanks to folks like Jay Brown, there is no danger of this genre ever disappearing. “I’m carrying on this ancient tradition of putting life into music and music into life,” Brown says. Unapologetically so.
Beginner Mind is out now. Find more information on Jay Brown and his one man band on his website.