[3 December 2008]
It’s certainly not accurate to call Buddy Miller an unknown artist. Sure, the mainstream public might greet his name with a resounding “Who?” (even though they’ve certainly heard some of his songs under the banners of LeeAnn Womack, Brooks & Dunn, or the Dixie Chicks). But any fan of Americana knows him as the outstanding, tasteful guitarist on records by folks like Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris. And then there’s his solo work, six albums and counting of stinging guitar, lonesome vocals, and songwriting that manages to blend craftsmanlike precision with raw emotion.
His first five releases are the focus of The Best of the Hightone Years (Miller released his most recent disc, 2004’s Universal House of Prayer, on New West). Any Miller disc is a fine starting point all on its own—he’s never really made a bad one—but as compilations go, The Best of the Hightone Years does a pretty fine job. It doesn’t hurt that Miller’s never swung to and fro in terms of style, so his earliest cuts from 1995’s Your Love and Other Lies sounds like they were always meant to sit beside songs from 2002’s Midnight and Lonesome. This is a good thing, no doubt, since the collection presents everything in non-chronological fashion.
There are some fine songs here. “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger” comes in on brooding, accusing guitar. Emmylou Harris sits in to supply vocals on “Cruel Moon” and “Don’t Tell Me”, while Jim Lauderdale helps out on “Don’t Listen to the Wind”. “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go” is just a barnburner, with Miller and his wife Julie practically howling at the moon while runaway percussion dominates.
In fact, one of the things that elevates this collection is the inclusion of four songs from the pair’s collaboration, 2001’s Grammy-nominated Buddy & Julie Miller. On the one hand, you could argue that most of the couple’s solo discs have been Buddy & Julie Miller affairs, since Buddy acted as a bit of a one-man band on Julie’s last two solo efforts, and Julie has often returned the favor by donating vocals to Buddy’s records. But the Buddy and Julie Miller disc presented them both on equal footing and in full twangy flight, including fine covers of Utah Phillips’s “Rock Salt and Nails” and Richard Thompson’s “Keep Your Distance” (both included here). Plus, it’s been nearly ten years since Julie Miller released a record of her own, so it’s always nice to hear her singing.
With Miller’s move to New West, The Best of the Hightone Years may very well be one of those time-honored contractual obligation releases, but it doesn’t feel that way. For one thing, the material’s uniformly strong, and it’s a fun listen. For another, there probably needed to be a best-of from this artist who’s all over the country/Americana landscape, but who might not get the attention he deserves.