By STEVE SEYMOUR
Internationally renown musician Greg Brown knows the power and purpose of folk music.
His "Yellow Dog" album, drawn from an Aug. 26, 2005 performance at the historic W. C. Peterson Auditorium in Ishpeming, describes a way of life in the Upper Peninsula being threatened by a proposed metallic sulfide mine in northern Marquette County.
That single show continues to reverberate as proceeds from the disc benefit the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, an organization dedicated to protecting the area being targeted by Kennecott Minerals Co. for a controversial nickel and copper mining project that opponents say threatens to irreversibly damage a fragile ecosystem. The by-products of this type of mining, sulfuric acid and heavy metals, pose a serious environmental risk, including water pollution, critics contend.
"I'm proud to be here. Proud to stand up for a little river," Brown told the audience during his performance at the 1,100 seat venue, built in the 1930s.
But Brown almost didn't make the engagement. Due to flight delays, he arrived two hours late. While folks at the show may have been getting restless, Brown made up for it by performing reworkings of old favorites and fresh material from his fabled "notebook."
"I brought out my notebook tonight. I'm gonna sing a bunch of stuff I never sung before. I figure it's been a nutty day already, why not take it on home that way," the singer-songwriter stated.
Yellow Dog CD
With that Brown launched into a satisfying set of nine original tunes, including "Laughing River" and his take on "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone."
"You'd think some things in this life would be so obvious such as taking care of our rivers," Brown told the audience.
Brown is not a newcomer to safeguarding the environment through the performance of his folk songs. He's been involved in protecting rivers in Montana and his home state of Iowa.
The folk singer routinely fishes the Yellow Dog River, known as a unique habitat for native brook trout. Over 50 miles in length, the main branch begins in the Ottawa National Forest at the boundary between Marquette and Baraga counties. The river runs through the Yellow Dog Plains, a remote wilderness area which has been routinely logged, but is otherwise virtually untouched.
The few people in the area reside in Big Bay, the 265-person community famous as the backdrop for several scenes in the 1959 film "Anatomy of a Murder."
Brown's "Yellow Dog" album is the first release on the Earthwork Archive Series. Earthwork is described as "a Michigan-based independent record label, songsters collective and community of friends." The Earthwork Musical Collective "serves to facilitate and encourage the creation, production and promotion of original music in the state of Michigan and beyond."
While Brown has long allowed his music to be used to support awareness for environmental and social concerns, fans know other parts of his musical history, as well.
He grew up in Earlville, Iowa, where his father was a Pentecostal minister. The youngster was introduced to music by his mother, who played electric guitar, and his grandfather, a banjo player. His professional career began at 18, when he ran hootenannies at New York's infamous Gerde's Folk City.
Later, he moved to the west coast, living in Portland, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. He landed a gig "ghostwriting" for Buck Ram, the manager who penned "Only You," a Top Five hit for the Platters in 1955.
While Brown traveled with a band for a few years, he eventually returned to Iowa where he wrote songs and performed hundreds of shows in Midwestern coffee houses and clubs. By the 1980s, he had built a solid musical reputation through constant touring and frequent appearances on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion program broadcast live on National Public Radio.
He also founded Red House Records which has released over 200 discs by acts such as Ramblin' Jack Elloitt, Pat Donohue, and John McCutcheon.
The prolific Brown also has recorded 26 albums under his own name. "One Big Town" and "Further In" were praised by influential Rolling Stone Magazine. He also counts two Grammy award nominations to his credit.
In addition, Brown has been widely acclaimed as a songwriter and his material has been performed by a wide variety of musicians, including Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana, Lucinda Williams, Michael Johnson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joan Baez, Ani DeFranco and Shawn Colvin. He married singer-songwriter Iris DeMent on Nov. 21, 2002.
Although "Yellow Dog" captures Brown at his peak, rough-edged baritone and songwriting wit in top form, a question remains. Are enough people listening?
Recently, Rebecca Humphries, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, announced the agency was delaying a decision on the permits requested by Kennecott until more information could be obtained.
Regardless of the outcome, Brown has used the best traditions of folk music to make an eloquent point in an effort to preserve an irreplaceable part of the Upper Peninsula's ecological heritage.