Most musicians pray for lightning to strike when they're working in a studio. For Greg Brown, that wish came true way too literally.
Iowa's great gravel-road poet was recording at the former home of Flyte Tyme Studios in Edina last year when his entire batch of new music was wiped out by a nearby lightning bolt that fried the computers. To add irony to the digital fire, this was the first time that the change-eschewing Brown had used the now-standard digital recording program Pro Tools.
"They said they could get it back on the hard drive, and they tried for about a week," the veteran tunesmith recounted dryly, "but apparently the bolt had gone farther into the hard drive than they thought."
With a smirk you could hear through the phone from his farm deep in Iowa, he added, "I just kind of laughed and thought, 'Well, that's that.' I'm a big one for taking signs, and the sign there was for me to just shut up a while."
Brown gave up on Pro Tools, but he didn't dismiss the idea of trying something new. Next month, he will issue his redo of an album, "Freak Flag," on the hip North Carolina roots-rock and punk label Yep Roc Records. This career changeup follows a steady tide of personal reinvention.
Over the past decade, the 61-year-old singer downsized his tour schedule, moved into his dream house on his grandparents' land in southeastern Iowa and married fellow songwriter Iris DeMent, with whom he also adopted a daughter about six years ago.
Returning to town Saturday for another sold-out set at the Cedar Cultural Center, Brown said he and DeMent have worked out "a pretty good routine" for maintaining a stable home life.
"In a lot of ways, living with another performer is easier," he said. "For people who aren't musicians, the stresses of it and the pleasures of it and the eccentric side of being a songwriter can be kind of hard to understand."
Brown's daughter with DeMent, named Dasha and now almost 12, had to adapt to that lifestyle and a whole lot more when she arrived from Russia at age 5. She is DeMent's first child and his fourth (his other three daughters are all adults).
"She's from Siberia and was all of a sudden thrown into American culture, a different language, and it was just like it was nothing to her," he marveled. "It's been an amazing thing. I would highly encourage people who are thinking about adopting to do it."
Glimpses of Brown's happily changed home life pop up right away on "Freak Flag" in the opening track, "Someday House." ("I don't mind doing the laundry, if you'll help me fold," he sings. "Looks like bright sunshine, let's hang 'em out on the line.") The track is named after the rural getaway that Brown spent six years building "with the intention of living there someday," he said.
"I planned to finally move in just by myself, sit on the deck and spit and drink and watch the raccoons go by. Plans obviously changed. It's been a good thing, though, I'll say that much."
Bridges of Los Angeles County
Aside from assorted reflections on his personal life, nearly everything else about "Freak Flag" sounds like classic Greg Brown.
He and longtime guitarist/producer Bo Ramsey returned to Memphis to finish the album at the famed Ardent Studios. Playing to tape instead of hard drives, they also stuck to the same dusty, bluesy folk sound Brown has cultivated over three decades and 16 previous studio albums.
Other standout tracks include an atmospheric, Daniel Lanois-style prairie ode called "Flat Stuff," the gospel-ish barnstormer "Where Are You Going When You're Gone" and the classic-folky title track, inspired by a recent trip to Kent State University.
"Freak Flag" also includes two songs by writers Brown knows well: His wife's classic "Let the Mystery Be," and his singer/songwriter daughter Pieta Brown's "Remember the Sun." The seemingly fearless music vet said he was "nervous as hell" recording those tracks, but was happy "when they heard the tapes and didn't complain."
Well versed in having his songs cut by others -- including Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana, Lucinda Williams and all the women on the 2002 tribute album "Going Driftless" -- Brown got a phone call a few years ago from Jeff Bridges that led to the actor singing "Brand New Angel" onscreen in "Crazy Heart." Bridges went on to star in "True Grit," which featured a tune by none other than Iris DeMent.
"Iris and I are sort of like, 'What's next, Jeff?'" Brown quipped. (Presumably, neither had songs considered for "Tron: Legacy.")
Brown went outside his usual music family when it came to the business side of "Freak Flag." After decades of recording for St. Paul's Red House Records, he opted to move to Yep Roc, whose roster includes everyone from Loudon Wainwright III and Nick Lowe to Gang of Four and the Rev. Horton Heat. While Red House remains strong following the 2006 death of its founder, Bob Feldman, Brown said it just didn't feel right working there.
"There was a club in Iowa City I played at for like 25 years called the Mill, and I just stopped playing there when the guy who ran it retired," he said. "I feel the same way about Red House. I had a really good time there, but now it's like, 'Well, that's over.'"
Somehow, though, he doesn't view the recordings he lost to the lightning storm last year with quite the same level of finality: "We were joking that the first album we made was just going to get better and better over the years," he said.
"Because nobody will ever hear it."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib