Red House Revs Up 'Slant' To Build Brown's Audience

Billboard Magazine, September, 1997
By Jim Bessman

NEW YORK--"In so many ways, Red House is the house that Greg Brown built," says Bob Feldman, president of the Minneapolis folk-based label, which is readying the Oct.28 release of "Slant 6 Mind," Brown's 15th album for the label which Feldman launched 14 years ago expressly to advance Brown's career.

"I saw him at a coffeehouse and was so blown away," says Feldman, then a high school teacher who "couldn't believe anybody could be like that--blues and soul and folk and gospel." So, in 1983, Feldman and some friends booked a benefit concert featuring Brown, for which they called "everyone in town" and sold out the then 1,400-seat Guthrie Theater. Previously, Brown, and Iowan, had never played before more than a couple hundred people in Minneapolis.

Feldman first met Brown at that show, and afterward, Brown became a regular an NPR's "A Prairie Home Companion," which originated in Minneapolis.

"I was teaching a class in how to start a small business with no money," Feldman says, "and Greg said he had two albums he'd put out himself, and he asked me to start a record company to put them back in print. So I took my own course, basically."

Red House was off and running, thanks to the reissue of Brown's first two ablums. Felfman notes that since then, Brown's steadily selling catalog has topped 400,000 units total, "not alot by major standards, but it's a great niche cult audience, and his shows sell out almost everywhere he goes."

Significant too is that Brown's audience is getting younger and younger. "With the last couple of albums, we've been trying to break him out of the niche, and he got alot of attention when he got a four-star review in Rolling Stone for (1996's) 'Further In,'" Feldman says.

He also notes that Brown's profile rose through Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter's single and video of his "One Cool Remove" as well as the fact that Willie Nelson and Carlos Santana had a hit in Europe with their duet of Brown's "They All Went To Mexico." Another of Brown's songs, "Sadness," was used in the soundtrack to the film "Dream With The Fishes," while a video for the song, aired on M2. "So alot of things are leading up to 'Slant 6 Mind,' which will help Brown break out more," says Feldman.

Ironically, the new album (the title comes from a phrase from the lead track, "Whatever It Was," which uses the name of the durable '60s car engine to describe a woman's mind) was not in Brown's mind.

"It came from out of nowhere," says Brown, who hadn't planned on making an album when he took a winter break from touring to work on compiling a songbook to published eventually by Red House. "I was working on it, but found myself writing new lyrics instead of going through old ones. So I called up some friends and went into the studio."

Acoustic guitarist Brown produced "Slant 6 Mind" with longtime cohort Bo Ramsey, who also played electric guitar and sang backup. Other past collaborators present were lap guitarist/vocalist Kelly Joe Phelps and acoustic bassist Gordy Johnson. "The only new guy was [percussionist] Paul Griffith, who played a garbage can on one song, a chair on another; and an Irish hand drum and an African drum between his legs simultaneously on another," says Brown.

Brown singles out "Vivid," which he wrote as an answer to Ani DiFranco's "This Bouquet," which she wrote for him and sang on her album "Not A Pretty Girl." "My fans are old farts like me, but some of their kids who've heard my records around the house when they were growing up are now getting out on their own and checking me out," says Brown of his younger fans, whom DiFranco represents.

Feldman also cites DiFranco, who regularly preaches Brown's merits to her audiences. "One of our main efforts now is to reach those 'Brownies,' so we're stickering the albums with 'transcendental hillbilly beatnick jive tent meeting' and 'wickedly sharp,' a quote from Rolling Stone," says Feldman. "We're also going with listening-post programs to reach the younger audience at retail."

Red House is "reaching out" to chains for "Slant 6 Mind," adds Feldman. Noting that indie stores account for up to 70% on Brown's sales, he says that Brown is a "too-well-kept secret" to be disclosed via listening-station programs at Borders and Barnes & Noble. The label has also developed two-sided posters for larger in-store displays.

A heavy advance CD campaign has also targeted retail and media, as has a postcard mailing. Not to leave out Brown's traditional mom-and-pop store base, Feldman in planning activities to be coordinated through the Coalition of Independent Music Stores.

The album is already being worked at triple-A, roots music, college and public radio formats, according to Feldman, who feels that tracks "Whatever It Was" and "Billy From The Hills" are the prime candidates at these formats. "I love the new record, and there's nothing I love more than winning over new Greg Brown fans," says Rita Houston, music director at New York non-comercial triple-A station WFUV. "Everytime we play him we find new ones, and what's interesting is that even though he's been doing it for so long, he continues to build with remarkable albums like 'Further In.'"

Feldman expects additional radio support from syndicated shows on which Brown is "pretty much a regular," like "A Prairie Home Companion," "Mountain Stage," "E-Town," and "West Coast Live." Feldman notes that Red House is taking on its biggest national ad push yet with Brown.

On the concert side, Red House is officially launching "Slant 6 Mind" with an appropriate Nov. 3 Guthrie Theater outing. Brown will hit other major cities this fall solo, with a band, or with Ramsey on guitar.

But Brown pledges to resume work on his songbook this winter, and he vows he "won't get side-tracked" by writing new material again. ~~