Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
The best way to get to where Pieta Brown lives (and this is coming from someone who doesn't know exactly where she calls home here in our shared state of Iowa) is by taking one of any number of gravel roads that you'll encounter in our rural areas - where there are more cows than people sometimes and where there's about to be a lot of work getting done, as a harvest is closer than most pay attention to. These are the country roads that get overtaken by beastly, wide as a house combines and tractors with dual-tread tires - different and exactly the same as the ones that John Denver chose to write a song about.
Cars meeting these rumbling machines on the road must simply slip into a gate hole and wait for them to glide past, in a whir of motors that's as booming as an angry airplane processing stalks and ears of corn and shooting the unneeded junk out the back. Brown lists this place where she lives as "the middle of nowhere Iowa" and the words feel as if they were typed very lovingly, not as if she was depressed about the middle of nowhere. It's a quick and easy departure from the main drag through the state (Interstate 80, it's called) to the places where there's a momentary time-warp into little towns that celebrate their high school's football and wrestling championships with bluster and pride, more so than most people would think is right.
These are places where - in the right places - you can smell caked in manure on the soles of farmers' boots as they mow through a lumberjack's breakfast of toast, eggs and flapjacks, plus a gallon of coffee or so. They don't talk about sports - just the weather - and the waffling smell of hog shit is light enough and familiar enough that it doesn't bother anyone. There are places where the soda fountain is still a magical spot and someone inside will likely twist your arm into getting dessert every time, looking at you funny if you turn down the pie or the rhubarb cake. Nobody gets off with the excuse of being full in these parts.
Even so, these quaint All-American joints are too busy for the likes of Brown. When she means nowhere, I think she means it - talking about a place that neighbors very little, where the next closest people would be tuckered and out-of-breath by the time they got from their front door to hers. Her father - the legendary folk singer Greg Brown - has a farm just like this description in southeastern Iowa, where you can completely hide yourself away if you want to. You're able to lay low and just be a person - full of whatever cares, worries, disasters and pleasantries you'd like to carry. Talking to him, you get a sense that he was born for seclusion. His daughter might not be completely the same way, but the pretty starkness and the sensual way she sings about railroads and black-smoking trains leads you to believe that the apple and the dumpling didn't fall far from the tree.
You'd be driving around the back sides of farms, with the loose white gravel pulling you toward the ditch - the cattails erect and standing there in the middle like mailboxes for the crickets and garter snakes that live there - and suddenly the house that she'd make her home would emerge from beneath a grove of 200-year-old maple trees that make a mess, but are great for comfort and temperature control. It's that cool breeze they invite, that shade that they provide for her tree swing and her delicate barefoot toes that Brown allows to drift into her songs and stain them with the healing powers of nostalgic mistiness. The songs that she sings in her radiant, smoky way are crisp and they're damp, like an attic and a basement all at once. They seek candlelit friendships and loves that have to fade whether they want to or not. She is a dynamic piece of solitary writ, letting it all just unravel out, spill like a broken jar of lemonade.