THE SONGS OF PIETA BROWN have a youthful sound with an old soul. Her voice is soft and airy, swooping around the melody like Edie Brickell, while her guitar taps into the classic cadences of country blues and Southern folk. Brown sounds so at home in this zone that it’s no surprise she comes from a long family lineage in music: her father is celebrated songwriter Greg Brown, her grandmother played guitar in church in southeastern Iowa, and her great-grandparents played banjo and pump organ.
During a vagabond childhood living with her mother after her parents split up, Pieta started writing very early—at five she was scribbling in a journal and making up songs at the piano. But she didn’t connect with the guitar, and find her groove as a songwriter, until she was in her mid-20s.
“I was in awe of guitars—they always seemed like mystical, magical instruments to me,” Brown says in a backstage conversation in Syracuse, New York, during a tour with Amos Lee. A turning point came during a visit with her dad when he gave her a 1930s May Bell archtop he’d just obtained. “I took it up to the room where I was staying that night, and everything converged,” she says. “I was in town for a couple weeks, and songs started coming out. I just tuned it to my ear, and it ended up being some kind of weird D-minor tuning. That’s when I got obsessed, and I’ve been in that obsessive zone since.”
Based on the Blues
Anyone familiar with Greg Brown’s music will recognize the slinky lead guitar heard on Pieta’s latest release, Mercury, as well as her previous records—it’s the unmistakable sound of Bo Ramsey, Greg’s accomplice onstage and in the studio since the late ’80s. When Pieta first started writing songs, she sent cassettes to both her dad and Ramsey for feedback.
“Bo called me whooping and hollering and was like, ‘Let’s make a record!’” she says. Ramsey co-produced her 2002 self-titled debut, and eventually their musical partnership blossomed into a marriage, as well. They have collaborated on numerous albums over the past decade—five of hers and two of his—and frequently perform as a duo.
The blues is a strong connection between Ramsey and Brown, who recalls wearing out a Muddy Waters record from her dad’s collection as a teenager. Blues, she says, is so “bottom line, fundamental. I guess that’s why I like the old country blues—those simple forms lend themselves to so many directions that you can go.”
As a songwriter she has also found inspiration in the language of the blues, citing for instance the “free but accessible” poetry of Sonny Boy Williamson. On Mercury, she finds her own shades of blue on tracks like the eerie minor-key “Butterfly Blues,” on which she sings about “These butterflies up in my head / Why won’t you let me go?”
On Mercury, Ramsey’s understated guitar is well matched to Brown’s hushed, intimate style as a singer and songwriter. “He’s so in the moment listening,” she says. “He’s like a jazz musician—he can just go wherever you go. As much as I love words, I think I love no words more.” For her solo work, Brown writes alone, bringing the completed song and basic arrangement to Ramsey, who fills out the sound with atmospheric slide and subtle lead lines. From the gospel-style “Glory to Glory” to the tender folk ballad “How Much of My Love” to “Blue Rider,” which places Joni Mitchell–style chords over a loping country beat, Ramsey locks right into the moods of Brown’s songs.
One of the duo’s highest-profile gigs to date was a 2010 tour opening for Mark Knopfler, who makes a cameo on Mercury on the blues “So Many Miles.” Knopfler’s influence on the album goes deeper, as the core band includes his band members Richard Bennett on guitar, Glenn Worf on bass, and Chad Cromwell on drums. On Mercury, all the musicians recorded live in one room in a studio in rural Tennessee, completing the album in three days.
Reflecting on her travels in the music world, Brown says that in the past she often felt wary of the music business—in particular because of the hardscrabble early years when her father was struggling to establish himself and the family lived in a rural shack with an outhouse and no running water. In this era of so much uncertainty about how professional musicians will support themselves, Brown still finds the business a little strange—but she never questioned playing and writing music, which comes as naturally to her as it sounds. “I hold music in very high regard,” she says. “It’s precious to me. I wish I could live to be 500 years old so I could really learn how to play and write songs.”
WHAT SHE PLAYS
ACOUSTIC GUITAR: On Mercury, Pieta Brown played Bo Ramsey’s 1950s Gibson LG-2. Onstage she plays a new Martin HD-35, a 1997 Gibson AJ Advanced Jumbo, and a National Reso-Phonic Estralita Deluxe. At home, she often writes on a 1970 Guild dreadnought that she says is “just full of songs,” and she also loves playing her ’30s May Bell archtop, which was her first songwriting guitar.
AMPLIFICATION: In the stage guitars, Fishman Matrix pickups run through a Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre preamp. Lindy Fralin pickup in the May Bell.
STRINGS: John Pearse and D’Addario phosphor bronze, lights or mediums depending on the guitars.
CAPO: Shubb and Kyser