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One of Colorado’s most influential writers saved the state’s music history one cardboard box at a time

G. Brown's 2-year-old online trove, the Colorado Music Experience, couples with an ambitious book series to capture pop music roots here and beyond

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Colorado Music Experience founding director and longtime music writer G. Brown arranges an archive of musician photographs and biographical material in his basement on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The cardboard storage boxes form a chronological grid, left to right, on an entire basement wall — stacked five tall and 10 across, starting with the 1970s on the top left. They contain artifacts spanning generations of musical acts: press kits, publicity photos, notes and writings that chronicle an era, reveal a penchant for collections sprung from stamps and baseball cards and chart a collision course with history. 

In the last several years they’ve become G. Brown’s creative lodestar. The 67-year-old longtime fixture in Colorado’s music media — he has chronicled the scene both in print and on the radio since his high school days — has channeled his professional life toward preserving and cataloging the state’s pop-music legacy.

LISTEN: The Top 50 Colorado Songs

Listen while you read: Click here to see G. Brown and the Colorado Music Experience’s Top 50 Colorado Songs playlist including links to listen and artist bios at CoME’s website, or open our YouTube playlist in a new tab to listen while you read.

“My gift — the luck — was that I was writing for a major daily newspaper, when that meant something,” says Brown, whose work appeared for 26 years in the pages of The Denver Post from 1977 to 2003. It was a period when a few major record labels ruled pop music, and a vinyl album release — and the attendant buzz over cover art and liner notes — fueled much-anticipated tours and fed a music writer’s hunger for the big interview. 

“It’s really hard to think of just how many generations don’t even know about the hard goods, just that idea of someone’s records coming out and caring about the liner notes and all that,” Brown says. “But that was my life. And I got to see everything.” 

Brown’s late-career passion project pours the contents of all those basement boxes, and all that he saw and heard, into a digital platform that didn’t even exist when many of the artists performed at the height of their talents.

In his 2-year-old nonprofit, the Colorado Music Experience, he’s building what he envisions as a highly inclusive online historical archive. The site features profiles, podcasts, videos and photos of artists whose connection to the state ranged from memorable performances to visits to deep-rooted institutions like the legendary Caribou Ranch, where many performers sought high-altitude inspiration and round-the-clock access to a recording studio.

Profiles feature stars like Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey, a Denver East High alum and one of the many who recorded at Caribou. Videos celebrate acts like country-rock group Poco, whose musical family tree flourished far and wide. There’s even an extended nod to early 20th-century artists like Elizabeth Spencer, Colorado icon Glenn Miller and others. 

More than two dozen (and counting) podcasts feature superstars like Graham Nash sitting down in a local studio. An appreciation for production values rubbed off on Brown from his experience in radio, and he has always insisted on recording in a professional environment — even as some subjects, particularly during the pandemic, would have been happy to Zoom. Overall, the podcasts trace the arc of Brown’s experience writing about not only classic pop performers, but newer Colorado-centered artists like The Fray and the Lumineers. 

The exploration of Brown’s personal archives also gave birth to another, more conventional historical project. He’s already three volumes into an ambitious 21-book series called “On Record,” which eventually will tell the year-by-year story of pop music in America from 1978 to 1998. Each book features roughly 350 pages of bite-sized historical perspective gleaned from his archival interviews and photos. Though not a Colorado-centric undertaking, proceeds from the books’ sales go back to the nonprofit Colorado Music Experience.

“I’ve got a passion for this stuff,” Brown says. “I did not start it out of spite, or to compete with anyone. But no one’s doing this work, OK?  So it’s on me and that’s what I should be doing.”

The gig that catapulted him to prominence and allowed him to accrue decades of pop music history ended abruptly in 2003, when he resigned from the Post in the wake of the discovery that one of his concert previews contained sentences lifted from another article. That triggered an investigation of his previous year’s work that found 12 more passages from other publications.

Brown maintains his mistakes were unintentional but that he should have been more careful in his writing. He calls the episode “the worst time of my professional life.”

“I read voraciously, everything I could, to be well-informed,” he says. “It bit me in the ass and I got sloppy. I’ll definitely cop to that. But I don’t think that the people who disparaged my work get to define my legacy. I worked too hard for that to happen.”

Brown immediately moved to a radio job at KCUV, a Denver-area progressive rock station where he helped build a small but loyal following. But ownership pulled the plug five years later, citing low ratings and the faltering economy. Brown shifted his focus to helping launch the Colorado Music Hall of Fame — he served seven years as a founding director — and also drew on his vast inventory of music history to tackle multiple book projects. 

All paths ultimately led him toward the Colorado Music Experience.

Colorado Music Experience founding director and music writer G. Brown poses for a portrait before an entire wall lined with compact discs in his home on June 10, 2021. Photo by Andy Colwell, special to The Colorado Sun

Life-changing interviews

Ask G. Brown if he ever was a musician himself, and he’s got the quintessential rock ‘n’ roll rejoinder primed and ready.

“I was a drummer,” he says. “So … no.”

But percussion did beget passion for the genre.

“Hearing Led Zeppelin’s first album ruined me,” he says. “(Drummer) John Bonham on that opening cut, ‘Good Times, Bad Times.’ He’s doing triplets on the bass pedal, right? And, you know, I sprained my ankle just listening to that. If I was a better person, I would have said, ‘I’m going to practice and I’m going to be able to do that someday.’”

Instead, he gravitated toward understanding what makes musicians tick, and then writing about it. The passion was rooted in music, not journalism, but writing was the means to an end. And so, at 15, Brown pedaled his bike to the Arvada Citizen, one in a string of suburban Denver papers, and pitched “this horrible column” he’d written about how you could actually clean vinyl records with a mild detergent. 

The paper ran it, with the idea that Brown’s subsequent writing would focus on record reviews. He cobbled together enough clips to leverage his first big break in 1970 — an interview with Burton Cummings, the lead singer for The Guess Who, the Canadian rock band that had hit its stride and was touring behind its hit album and single, “American Woman.”

Dressed in his eighth-grade graduation suit — brown wool, orange shirt and matching tie — Brown showed up with his notebook and met a rising rock icon. He’s sure Cummings must have wondered who let this kid backstage.

“But God bless him, he did the interview,” Brown says. “I always mention that he picked his toes during the entire interview, which was very instructive. I had yet to go to journalism school. So I had that deification, if you will. And then there was that discovery right out of the box that he’s just a guy.”

If those two guys hadn’t talked to me, at that age if you’re shut down for whatever reason, it destroys you. You’re devastated. But if you’re encouraged, you’re on fire…

G. Brown, longtime music writer and director of the Colorado Music Experience

Brown parlayed that story into a second big interview, with Joe Walsh, whose “Rocky Mountain Way” would soon become a Colorado rock anthem. But at the time, Walsh had just left the successful Cleveland-based group The James Gang and moved to Colorado, where he spent a year living near Nederland before emerging with a new band, Barnstorm. 

They were set to debut at a club on Colfax Avenue in Denver — “just a little cinderblock bar,” as Brown recalls. He managed to set up the interview and then showed up in late afternoon (no suit and tie this time) only to find that the bar wasn’t about to allow an underage kid on the premises. Brown asked for someone to relay a message to Walsh that he was waiting outside, then crossed his fingers and retreated to his car. The ‘60 Dodge Comet, his first car, handed down to him from his grandmother, was the only vehicle on the venue’s dirt parking lot.

He was about to give up when the club’s door swung open and Walsh poked his head out. Spotting Brown, he crossed the parking lot, got into the Comet’s passenger seat and proceeded to talk for more than an hour about his breakup with The James Gang — “just pouring his heart out, and it was unbelievable,” Brown says. 

“I always reference those two interviews in the beginning of my career,” he adds. “I’ve always said, I’m not anything but lucky. If those two guys hadn’t talked to me, at that age if you’re shut down for whatever reason, it destroys you. You’re devastated. But if you’re encouraged, you’re on fire, you’re gonna say, ‘Well this is pretty cool, I’m going to interview everybody.’ And as it turns out, I kinda did.” 

After graduating high school in 1971, Brown turned his attention to the University of Colorado, where he studied journalism off and on over the next eight years, pausing his academics to earn money at a variety of jobs. Along the way he worked at Tulagi, the legendary Boulder nightclub, where he hoped to write press releases or take on some other task dealing with the acts that cycled through town. Instead, he ended up serving 3.2 beer, but rubbing elbows with amazing acts on their way to stardom.

“That was the other part of my education,” he says. “You know, the real world part. And this is the early ’70s, so I saw ZZ Top and their first show outside of Texas, the Doobie Brothers on their first tour, Linda Ronstadt. The great thing about that club was that they did everything.”

He watched blues legends Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins and Willie Dixon. Comedians Steve Martin and Albert Brooks. The Earl Scruggs Review and Doc Watson tuned his ear to bluegrass. Heady stuff for a self-described “Top-40 kid from Arvada.”

Brown recalls that patrons at Tulagi drank beer from paper cups and munched on peanuts, tossing the shells on the floor, while watching performances from the bar’s distinctive wooden benches. At the end of the night, the workers would move the benches aside and sweep up the discarded cups and shells.

Once, they got some unexpected help from a rising young blues singer and guitarist named Bonnie Raitt.

“Out of all the acts in nearly three years working there, Bonnie was the only one who grabbed a broom and helped clean up,” Brown says. “She was one of us — probably 21 or 22 — touring behind her first album, sweet as can be, fantastic playing slide guitar. Just a doll.” 

Cultivating a writing career

Brown’s journalistic interests always did lean away from biting music criticism, and toward offering a window into the artists themselves. The interlude at Tulagi gave him intimate contact with the lives of those he wanted to chronicle. He wasted little time seeking a bigger stage for his work. 

In 1977, two years before earning his CU degree, Brown met with The Denver Post’s entertainment editor and made a pitch to take on the music beat. He brought with him a profile of the rock group Genesis, which was about to open a tour at CU’s Macky Auditorium in the wake of a major shakeup that had thrust Phil Collins into the spotlight.

“I had this interview, and he published it and said, ‘You got more?’” Brown recounts. “That was the beginning of a 26-year stint.”

G. Brown, left, poses with singer/guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, member of Fleetwood Mac in addition to his solo and other ventures, in this 1984 photo. “Shaking his hand was instructive,” Brown says. “It looked and felt like he’d put it in a meat grinder, collateral damage from that genius-level fingerpicking style of his.” (Photo by David Gans)

The G. Brown byline became a fixture, memorable certainly for the content that followed, but also for its unwavering commitment to an initial rather than his given name, which is Gary. That development dates back to high school, when he was one of two Browns in his gym class. For identification purposes, he wrote “G. Brown” on his gym shirt.

“And I’ve been G. Brown ever since,” he says. “Didn’t think much of it for a long time.” But the small, cool mystery of the initial coupled with his common surname gave him an instant identity. 

The name grew to carry weight in pop music circles. California-based Michael Jensen had just started working in tour publicity for Columbia Records in the late ’70s when he met Brown at an event featuring Boz Scaggs at Denver’s Brown Palace hotel. (The location launched a long-running joke in which the two refer to Brown’s personal residence as “the palace.” In fact, Brown also did a radio show at KCUV called “G. Brown Palace.”)

In the symbiotic worlds of record promotion and music writing, the two men forged a bond and remain good friends.

“You could pick the top 10 people that you wanted to deal with (nationally), and he would be one of them,” recalls Jensen, who now runs his own communications firm out of Pasadena. “He’s a super smart writer, and the artists have always had a liking for him — at least my artists. When you have personal relationships with the artists, that can lead to some pretty amazing opportunities in terms of getting exclusives or having access.”

A couple of those opportunities — with very different artists — stand out either for the bizarre circumstances or the unexpected depth behind a performer’s stage persona.

In the early 1990s, Sting had just struck out on his own from the Police — “the biggest band on the planet,” Brown notes —  to pursue a solo career and was set to play Red Rocks. Brown scheduled an interview and showed up at the venue but Sting was in the midst of a massage. So Brown waited. And waited.

“After maybe an hour and 15 minutes they said, he’s still on the table, but he said just to come on back,” Brown says. “So I go back and there’s the superstar, on the table, getting his massage. And he’s just a puddle of goo at this point, in this tranquil state.” 

He proceeded to talk about a song he’d written — “Fields of Gold,” a romantic and sensual hit that appeared on his first solo album. Although his responses occasionally lapsed into “gibberish,” as Brown recalls, the utter vulnerability of a rock superstar doing an interview from a massage table stuck with him.

“You know, when you interview celebrities they’re usually so guarded and he was just totally an open book,” Brown says. “I thought that was pretty cool.”

Another career high point: Marilyn Manson, post-Columbine shootings.

The heavy metal performer had taken heat after Columbine over his band’s purported influence on the shooters. Ahead of Manson’s Denver concert appearance, Brown pitched an in-depth interview to address the controversy and Manson accepted. Brown traveled to Manson’s home in Hollywood Hills, where he recalled Manson “put on the dog for me” with his “quasi-Goth thing.” 

In this 1978 photo, G. Brown, then a young, up-and-coming music writer for The Denver Post, poses with singing star Dolly Parton. (Photo provided by G. Brown)

“I didn’t have an attraction to his music,” Brown says. “But full credit, he knew his First Amendment rights and where he stood on these things chapter and verse — a really intelligent guy. And, you know, at that late stage of the game I should have known better, not to have expectations. But I was surprised when he was really a sharp guy.”

On the lighter side, there was his experience riding the tour bus with Ozzy Osbourne, lead vocalist for heavy metal’s Black Sabbath, back in the early ‘80s.

“I remember thinking, ‘What’s this guy gonna be like in 20 years?’” he says. “And then we all found out.”

While Brown was racking up bylines at the Post, another music writer a few hours away at The Kansas City Times (which eventually melded into the Kansas City Star) would scan the pages of the Post and quickly noticed Brown’s ubiquitous presence. 

Leland Rucker eventually tired of Kansas City and headed west to Boulder, where he became the music writer for The Colorado Daily. He just had to meet this G. Brown fellow.

Rucker, now 74, writes and edits for a national alt-weekly and consulted on one of Brown’s books. He figures the two of them have been meeting for coffee roughly once a month for at least 35 years. 

They talk about everything, but often the conversation gravitates to music and preserving its legacy because, as Rucker notes, “we sort of grew up in the middle of it.” Eventually, Brown introduced Rucker to the contents of all those meticulously cataloged cardboard boxes in his basement.

“When he showed me the archives,” Rucker recalls, “I was like, you know, I’ve got archives, too. But they’re just piles of stuff. He’s the guy that’s interviewed everybody. And, you know, he’s taken that to heart, and created this website and these books. It’s a great way to use a bunch of knowledge from all those years ago.”

A “repository for Colorado music history”

Initially, Brown imagined the wide-ranging historical reach of the Colorado Music Experience not as a website, but as a bricks-and-mortar, physical space where patrons could eat and drink while immersed in Colorado music artifacts. He imagined a partnership with a brewery or dispensary or even a coffee shop.

Brown posed with pro wrestler Hulk Hogan in this 1988 shot. Among his sidelines, Brown worked as a ring announcer for pro wrestling matches. (Photo provided by G. Brown)

“My model was kind of Hard Rock Café-ish,” he explains, “only instead of just putting memorabilia on the walls, I’d just curate it to be about Colorado music history and partner with someone who could generate the foot traffic. But bottom line, I didn’t want to get into the bar and restaurant business.”

Then a friend asked Brown if he knew how to podcast. For someone who had extensive experience in radio, worked as a tuxedoed ring announcer for pro wrestling in the late 1980s and once hosted a Saturday morning cartoon show as “Uncle G,” podcasts weren’t a big leap. 

“So, instead of the bricks and mortar,” he says, “we focused on building that archive of people in Colorado music history who have a story to tell. And it was very liberating to be inclusive instead of exclusive — which is what a Hall of Fame entails. That’s all political — who goes in, who goes out. I want to do things on merit.”

In addition to the site’s catalog of podcasts, there’s a robust selection of videos. Brown earlier had worked on what were essentially mini-documentaries that served as tribute videos for Hall of Fame inductions. He expanded on that model to add visuals to dozens of other artist profiles. 

Still more content arrived via archival collections from various photographers who captured eras, venues and sometimes specific performers — like Michael Goldman’s visual history of Tom Petty’s Colorado appearances, reflecting a time when photographers had relatively unfettered access. 

“I spent the last two and a half years just building it up to where I think it’s a pretty compelling, and entertaining, repository for Colorado music history,” Brown says.

Decades of musician and band names are organized by year in the office of Colorado Music Experience founding director and author G. Brown as he works on upcoming editions of “On Record,” a year-by-year series of books that chronicles popular music from 1978 to 1998. He was photographed June 10, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Mark Zaremba, who works in branding and met Brown at a Louisville street fair where Brown introduced the musical acts, designed a distinctive logo for the project — an eighth note flying the Colorado state flag. His company continually upgrades the site.  

“I’ve always loved music, so to cross those two things is just the dream project,” he says. “And music has such a wide palette you can paint from. With music you can go anywhere, and the same applies to the graphics that support music.”

As Brown assembled a team to edit and produce both website content and the book project, Jon Rizzi assumed a key role in both. Rizzi, the 59-year-old editor of Colorado Avid Golfer, met Brown through Kate Glassner-Brainerd, who was working as the magazine’s art director and also had worked with Brown on previous book projects. (Her husband, former Denver Post photographer Brian Brainerd, also has contributed work to Brown’s site.)

Music quickly provided the common ground for a friendship — “we would finish each other’s sentences with song lyrics,” Rizzi notes — that quickly expanded into a working relationship. Rizzi edited a couple of Brown’s books, and they determined that, editorially, they were a good fit. Brown asked Rizzi to serve on his nonprofit’s board, in addition to editing all the print material that gets published on the online site as well as in the “On Record” book series.

“The Colorado Music Experience is one of those passion projects,” Rizzi says, “and it’s kind of a cliché, but G.’s enthusiasm is totally contagious. Not only is he a very good student of the genres that he covers but he’s also just a fan. He loves music. And you have to love something to really be a connoisseur.”

Although Brown initially dismissed the bar and restaurant idea, he remains open to finding the right “strategic partnership” that could expand the Colorado Music Experience to a physical space. He also has done outreach on music history with the aphasia patients at the University of Colorado Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic and arranged a special screening of a mini-documentary on Charlie Burrell — dubbed “the Jackie Robinson of classical music” — at the Denver assisted living facility where the 100-year-old bassist lives.

Cover art for the 1991 edition of the “On Record” book series Brown is publishing, with proceeds going to his Colorado Music Experience nonprofit. Ultimately, Brown plans to publish 21 volumes covering the years 1978-98. (Colorado Music Experience website)

Books provided Brown a separate platform for historical looks at Colorado music. He published three from 2014-16, including the all-encompassing “Colorado’s Rock Chronicles” (an updated version of his 1984 book “Colorado Rocks”) as well as volumes on the Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. 

His basement archives — and several friends who remarked that the content of those boxes called out for a book treatment — cemented the idea for the “On Record” series. Brown agreed that his collected promotional materials might make a decent book, but hesitated because “I don’t think the 100 greatest press kits would have much cachet.”

So he decided to revisit the more than 3,200 artist interviews he did over parts of three decades, with the idea of eventually producing a year-by-year look at music from a national perspective. He started by publishing three volumes — 1978, 1984 and 1991 — and has several more awaiting publication. On a whim, he entered the 1978 edition in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, where it won a silver medal in the Popular Culture category, one of several honors the books have won.

Brown describes the content of the three completed books as a composite of reporting he did over the course of his newspaper career, including fresh information, and a distillation of the material contained in those 50 boxes in his home in Louisville.

“The books aren’t Colorado-centric like my other ones,” Brown says. “So in terms of building awareness, it’s a whole new ballgame. But it all folds in, it’s all part of my work. This is my opus.”

COLORADO MUSIC EXPERIENCE TOP 50 PLAYLIST

G. Brown has followed popular music for his entire adult life, so we asked if he’d like to offer readers a playlist. He went one better — selecting not only memorable songs that have sometimes surprising Colorado connections, but also links to background information on the artists.

Click the song name below to listen on YouTube or click the artist name to see their profile on the Colorado Music Experience site.

Boxes of musician photographs are pictured during the workday of Colorado Music Experience founding director and author G. Brown on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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