Everyone’s searching for purpose. We’re constantly seeking for some kind of meaning—in virtually every aspect of life. Often, people view music and the arts in general, as an escape from that search. Turn on the radio or binge watch a handful of episodes of the latest Netflix series craze. It’s often thought of putting the world on pause. It’s stepping off the train for a brief moment.
Great art isn’t that though. Art with a purpose puts life in proper perspective. It can guide that meaning. Singer-songwriter Kirby Brown writes songs with a purpose. His latest efforts, the robust Uncommon Prayer, finds Brown searching for more.
“Every song I’m singing, there’s some level of desire or longing for the invisible world,” Brown tells Wide Open Country. “Prayer’s a bad word for some people. But I believe most songs are like a prayer. What art wants to do for us is lift us out of the mundane. The regularity of our lives. It wants to give us an opportunity to experience the world around us from an elevated point of view.”
Uncommon Prayer, the follow-up to Brown’s 2011 debut Child of Calamity, gets its name from The Book of Common Prayer, a popular book of prayer in the Episcopal Church. Brown’s Uncommon Prayer very much serves a similar purpose. His songs may not be a part of any religious service, but they still find Brown reaching out for guidance in everyday life.
“For me, I feel like the songs I’m writing are an uncommon form of prayer. They’re about desire, longing and wanting to find that missing piece that you lost touch with,” says Brown. “That piece you never found that completes the puzzle.”
Over the past few years, Brown’s lived in Dallas, New York City and most recently, settled in Nashville. In many respects, Uncommon Prayer often finds Brown searching for home—or at least the idea of home.
Songs like lead single “Gimme a Week” and “Place to Stay” see Brown looking for some kind of acceptance. They unpack the ideas of what home is and should be. We’re left wondering what home truly is as Brown looks to items that should be comforting turn sour and unwelcoming.
“Gimme a compass needle, some honest people, and a place that I can stay. I can find my own way home,” sings Brown on the bustling hustler “Gimme a Week.” There’s a jangling Bob Dylan-esque streak that lends itself to Brown’s playful side as he finds his stride and footing. Once he gets his bearings, it’s off to the races.
Anyone’s who’s had a conversation with Brown knows he’s packed with southern charm and a suitcase full of quick-witted analogies and expressions all of our grandparents would be proud of. These charms lend themselves to all of Brown’s songs, but none better than the engaging and lovely character sketches “Joni” and “Little Red Hen (Apologies to Chicken Little).”
We get a bit of “aww shucks” from Brown with “Little Red Hen” lines like “She loves Picasso but don’t like Dali. She bet on Joe Frazier ‘cause she doesn’t like Ali.” It’s a bit of a callback to “Joni’s like a prizefight, she’s a Cassius Clay with green eyes” found on “Joni.” They flirt around with sly winks and cheerful nods like classic John Prine staples.
Born in deep East Texas and raised in rural Arkansas, Brown spent his fair share of time on his grandparents’ dairy farm. He may have not been aware of it at the time, but these moments highly influenced Brown’s sense of storytelling and a strong vernacular that’s rooted in colloquial stylings. That’s lent a hand to Brown’s appreciation for rich detail that throws you in the middle of a scene. As Brown says, “you have to put enough furniture in the room for them to see it in their mind.”
His storytelling can turn on a dime and goes from those laidback back porch pickers of “Little Red Hen” to intimate conversations between two individuals. He finds the small places of deep exchanges and slowly unwinds them into moments worth telling.
It’s in songs like the haunting “Mystery” and desert-swept “Paint Horse.” They feel as though we’re eavesdropping on Brown for brief moments. It’s as though we’re standing in the hall with our ear to the door. We’re able to slip away just before the door creaks open and they return to the living room.
“Don’t lay your cards down and you’ll keep me around cause if you’re in my hand, I’ll probably cash you in. Don’t look so damned sad, I’m really not that bad but the only games I play are the games I plan to win,” sings Brown on “Mystery.” It feels like a gut-punch in some sense. It feels cold natured at first, but there’s a deep connection between Brown and whoever he’s singing to. That kind of intimacy can’t be faked or mailed in. You feel the quiver in his voice and the deep exhales of a trying to compose himself after.
“I’d like for my songs to be for everybody, but sometimes they’re just for kids who grew up in the church and aren’t very well adjusted to the real world,” says Brown. “There’s as much nuance and personal detail in the characters and songs that I write as anyone’s—if you want to dig into it.”
Brown gets a lending hand from fellow Texas songwriter Leon Bridges on the idling groove of “Sweet Shame.” There’s a heavenly glow in the gospel-tinged organ and warm harmony vocals. Again, Brown leaves us with simple truths that fly off the paper.
“It’s a sweet shame, I could be sorry for all the things I am and the things I ain’t. We could give it some time and say that things will change but, baby, things don’t change,” he sings. “It sways back and forth like a slow-burning cigarette waiting to be ashed.”
On U2 cover “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Brown finds his center. Though he’s honest throughout, it’s perhaps here where he finally finds a way to express a common expression that resonates on a universal level. He may have not found the missing puzzle piece, but in some sense, it’s the ties that bind Uncommon Prayer so eloquently together.
Uncommon Prayer‘s deep American roots stylings can be mainly contributed to Brown’s work with The Texas Gentlemen, producer Beau Bedford and recording in the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. They add a level of textures and tones that feel like warm apple pie cooling on a window sill. It’s comfortable and familiar without feeling worn or outdated.
“You’re on hallowed ground when you’re down there,” says Brown. “That mythology of Muscle Shoals is as real as you want it to be. There’s the good kind of ghosts in that place.”
Brown’s Uncommon Prayer is due out Sept. 7. You can pre-order Uncommon Prayer here.