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Comforting Rambling

Opening for her more-famous father, Pieta Brown says Tucson played a large role in her burgeoning career

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Some musicians talk about making a living from music as if music were a nonrenewable resource, a mine from which they can scrape out enough of a fortune to live the high life now and to provide a comfortable retirement later on.

Others, such as singer-songwriter Pieta Brown, refer to making a living with music, as if music were a partner, accompanying the artist on a lifelong journey. For these musicians, music becomes a constant source of fresh inspiration. It is the end itself, not the means to achieving something else.

"I never would have guessed that my life would include music and money in same breath, that I could make a living doing it," says Brown via cell phone from her home in rural Iowa.

"Maybe from watching it as a kid, I became drawn to it. Music's very interesting that way. It just kind of took to me. I was following it more than figuring out what to use it for," she says.

Pieta Brown will perform her rootsy blend of blues, folk, rock and country Thursday, Jan. 13. Along with guitarist Bo Ramsey, she constitutes the opening act for her father, renowned folk singer-songwriter Greg Brown, at the Berger Performing Arts Center.

Pieta Brown's parents were both preachers' kids who embraced, shall we say, the bohemian lifestyle. After being born in Iowa, she lived during most of her formative years with her mother in Birmingham, Ala., before returning to Iowa as a teenager.

No matter where Pieta, now 30, hung her hat, music was a constant in her life, as were writing and visual arts.

"Ever since I can remember, I've been in love with blues music, from Country blues to Chicago-style blues. I grew up around it and really fell in love with it as a teenager, and that is the music that still continues to rattle my cage.

"But I was also a rock 'n' roll fan, and I listened to pop and heavy metal--you know, everything a teenager listens to."

Brown never considered playing music, though, until she came to Tucson in her mid-20s, following a stint in New York City.

"I lived there for about a year-and-a-half. I think it was like 2000 and 2001. I pretty much started playing music in Tucson," she says.

"Part of it was due to Calexico, Giant Sand, and Tasha Bundy. They were all my friends and a big influence getting started with the guitar. I'd been writing forever, since I was a little child, and I'd always done that privately, but this was the first time I started doing it in public."

Six months after learning to play guitar, Brown already was performing, she says. Enter guitarist Ramsey, who has played with such artists as Lucinda Williams, Teddy Morgan and Greg Brown.

"When I realized, a few years ago, that I was going to get serious about making a living with music, I asked Bo to help me. I met him when I was about 17. Bo produced the record, and it just was kind of this magic chemistry that happened."

The record was Pieta Brown, released on Trailer Records in 2002. National Public Radio's All Songs Considered called it "a ghostly collection of largely melancholy songs rooted in the blues."

Then, last year, Brown released a new CD, I Never Told, independently. One music writer, Geoffrey Himes, wrote of it, "It's intoxicating to hear song after song that stirs together folk, country, and blues so thoroughly that you can't tell where one stops and the others begin--one of the most impressive singer-songwriter projects of the year."

A San Francisco publication likened Brown's music to "a hushed meeting of Richard Thompson, J.J. Cale, Jeff Buckley and Tom Waits."

She cites Tucson as an important catalyst in her process of becoming a musical artist.

"I think Tucson is one of those transitory towns, where people drift through, bringing and taking with them all this inspiration to make art. There's a real open feel to Tucson, too. It's a place where you can actually get by on very little.

"I'm also a believer in the fact that music and the land are very connected. All that open space in Tucson just feeds creativity."

Brown wrote some of her earliest tunes here, some of which she still performs in her sets. "There's this song called 'Lullaby' that I kind of wrote while I was missing somebody, and I still do it a lot. Then there's 'Fly Right,' which I also wrote in Tucson and do quite a bit."

Brown finds being the eldest daughter of a well-known musician a mixed blessing--comparisons are bound to be drawn, even if not entirely fair. Certainly, she doesn't mind touring with or playing one-off concert dates with her dad.

"Our music isn't really that much alike. Our music is different enough that I really don't get that many comparisons to him. ... I figure if the music is strong enough to be its own thing, it's going to take me wherever it goes."

Besides, she says, most musicians are at least second-generation musicians, "or even 100th generation."

"Music for me is so much bigger than all that stuff. I don't really let it get in my way. If that were the case, I certainly wouldn't be opening for my dad."

Being on the road doesn't bother Brown that much, either, except for the stultifying sameness that results from the proliferation of national chain restaurants and businesses. Most of the time, she enjoys being on the move.

"I've moved around so much since I was a little kid. By the time I was 7, I had lived in like 21 houses. That part of it, the moving, feels very comfortable to me. There's something comforting about rambling."

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