Grey Reverend: Bedroom Ballads, Spare By Necessity

Originally published on August 21, 2011 7:37 pm

Larry "L.D." Brown, an acoustic songwriter who performs as Grey Reverend, suffers from one of the worst ailments a guitarist can have. Some years ago, he discovered he had focal dystonia, a neurological condition that causes muscles to constrict involuntarily, and which eventually caused Brown to lose the use of his left ring and pinky fingers.

Brown adapted to the problem, looking to guitarists such as John Fahey as examples of how to use fewer fingers more effectively. That folk-infused style is showcased on the first full-length album from Grey Reverend, Of the Days, which Brown recorded in his apartment in Brooklyn. Brown tells NPR's Laura Sullivan than his decision to record at home came after some less-than-ideal experiences with proper studios.

"I attempted to record some of these songs in a studio, and found that to be very foreboding and unorthodox and strange for me. I couldn't concentrate and I couldn't emote the way I wanted to," Brown says. "I come up with different versions of just about every song that I write, and I was just waiting for the right moment to be inspired — whether that would be at 4 in the morning, or 1 in the afternoon, or if I had just gotten out of the shower. I realized what it needed was for me to be able to leisurely record these songs whenever I wanted to."

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Now, time for music.


SULLIVAN: This is fingerstyle guitar playing, one hand forming the chords, the other plucking out notes. It takes a certain dexterity and a whole lot of practice to get this good. So when aspiring guitarist Larry Brown started having trouble controlling two of his fingers, he thought his career might end almost as soon as it began. But here he is, playing the song you're listening to right now without the use of those two fingers.


SULLIVAN: He performs under the name Grey Reverend, and his debut solo album is called "Of the Days." And the diagnosis for his fingers: focal dystonia.

GREY REVEREND: It's a neurological misfiring to your digits, and it's something that happens to pianists, surgeons, typists and guitar players. A particular person who is kind of famous for working through this is Leon Fleischer, the classical pianist.


REVEREND: I started dealing with problems with my hands within two or three years of playing the instrument, so...

SULLIVAN: When did you start playing the guitar?

REVEREND: Fifteen years ago. So, yeah, that would be 1996.


SULLIVAN: If you don't mind my asking, were you young? Were you a teenager, what...

REVEREND: No. I was 22 years old when I started playing the guitar, yeah.

SULLIVAN: You started playing the guitar when you were 22 years old?



REVEREND: And I started off kind of - I wanted to be Wes Montgomery.

SULLIVAN: The jazz guitarist.

REVEREND: Yes. I wanted, I mean, I really wanted to just be this, like, ripping jazz guitar person. And then because of that, I practiced constantly. I probably played about 12 or 13 hours a day.


REVEREND: And not to say that that exactly leads to it. It's a very random disease that can affect anyone.

SULLIVAN: So the guitar playing, it sounds like it exacerbated sort of an underlying condition you didn't even know you had.

REVEREND: Yeah. I guess it kind - yeah, just kind of - it was dormant to a degree and then came out, and I lost basically the ability to use my ring finger and my little finger on my left hand.

SULLIVAN: What went through your head when that happened?

REVEREND: It was horrible. I really - I didn't know what it was for so long. I was seeing chiropractors and, you know, I mean, everyone under the sun to try to figure out what was wrong with me. I thought I had arthritis, tendonitis, every other type of itis. And I finally went to see a piano player, who, he - and he was the first person to mention focal dystonia. And at first, I thought, like, oh great. You know, I'm totally - I'm brain damaged, and, you know, it's the end.

But I kind of looked it up, obviously, started reading more about it, and I realized that it was something I just kind of had to deal with, and I had to make a decision as to whether I would continue to play the instrument or not. And in making that decision, I became very immersed in different styles of guitar playing, kind of getting into folk singers such as Joni Mitchell and blues players like Mississippi John Hurt, and particularly John Fahey. I heard his music, and his sound and what he was doing with the music seemed like something I could understand.


SULLIVAN: Did what happened to your fingers change the way you were playing the music? Or did it - it sounds like you're saying it changed the music you were playing.

REVEREND: It did, to a very strong degree in that I stopped using a guitar pick, and I started learning how to play with my fingers on my right hand, more like a classical style or folk kind of fingerpicking style.


REVEREND: (Singing) (Unintelligible) a pioneer performs an episode. He can't pull you through...

Basically, a lot of the syncopation and a lot of the movement that started to occur was happening more with my right hand than my left because I couldn't use the left as well. And I eventually developed a technique of using my thumb on my left hand to play very standard chords, and that helped me to be able to construct my own songs or write pieces of music that would have moving baselines in them that you wouldn't hear very often.

SULLIVAN: Well, you've brought your guitar with you...


SULLIVAN: Would you mind playing a little bit from one of these new songs? And tell me a little bit about it before you start.

REVEREND: OK. I'll play a tune called "Box." I was having a discussion with another musician - this is years ago in Philadelphia - he admired this guy he was working with who could write songs about anything. And he said, he could write a song about a box, that's how, you know, that's how great this guy's writing is.

I was challenged to write a song about a box, and to - long story short, the approach to writing a song about a box was using the idea of something that, you know, I feel like most people can identify with throughout growing up and having relationships is you always have this box of photos around that, you know, have pictures of your ex-lovers and friends. And sometimes you kind of, you know, when you're cleaning or something you'll find it, and you just start kind of looking through it, and it can evoke such nostalgia. And that's kind of what this song is about.

SULLIVAN: OK. So this is Grey Reverend with "Box."


REVEREND: (Singing) Some days seem to go so fast, getting lost in your photograph taken just before we said goodbye. But I saved all that we couldn't leave in a box made of memories. Some say that it's not good for me. It doesn't matter where I go, up above or down below, no one knows the troubles I've seen. And I don't mind how it feels today 'cause in time we all will go away when it seems an expiration date is on our love, mm, mm, mm-hmm. So don't ask me why it takes so long. Sometimes I see it when it's gone. And sometimes we're made for holding on. It doesn't matter where I go, up above or down below, no one knows the troubles I've seen. And you can say it's mystery but everything's so clear to me. When I look inside that box it still reminds me. Mm, mm, mm. Mm, mm, mm. Mm, hmm.

SULLIVAN: That is incredible. It's just lovely to listen to you - to play the guitar like that.

REVEREND: Oh, thanks.

SULLIVAN: That's the music of Grey Reverend performing "Box," a track off his new album "Of the Days." He spoke to us from our New York bureau. Larry, thanks so much for joining us.

REVEREND: Thanks so much for having me.


REVEREND: (Singing) Colorful buttons (unintelligible) too much. Silver laces again. Golden slippers that are paid for still you walk the same. Satin lovin' well, it's tattered now/. Seems the thick was just too thin. Free the dog from its collar now. Dire leaves against the wind.

SULLIVAN: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our podcast. Subscribe or listen at iTunes or at We post a new episode Sunday nights. We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.