"Collaborating With the Moon": Buddy Miller Dares Us to Be Human
Remember those miners that were trapped in Pennsylvania a couple of months ago? I hope you haven’t forgotten them or the people that rescued them; stories like that are all too rare these days. I was just as emotional as anyone else when I saw the images of them on TV, and I remember thinking that they must have been some brave-ass dudes.
But was the whole thing worthy of comparison to the story of Jesus Christ’s resurrection to the grave? Yeah, me neither—it’s one of those conceits that’s just way too easy-peasy and facile to actually shed light on anything without offending just about everyone. Anyone in the media who said or wrote anything like that would be pilloried, and rightfully so. So the fact that this album ends with a song called “Quecreek,” written and recorded just a few hours after the rescue of the miners and turning on such a comparison, must be mentioned right up front as a big miscalculation.
But damned if it’s the only mistake I can find on this record, which is shaping up to be one of the finest country music albums of the year. If you’re hung up on the “country” label, then please substitute “alt.country” for it and my sentence still stands. But Buddy Miller is as close to an old-fashioned country-music artist as we have right now: he’s been around forever without wearing out his welcome; he’s adventurous without turning his back on tradition; he’s not afraid of soul music or rock and roll, but he keeps it in the C&W arena; and he knows how to play to his own strengths and how to pull in key collaborators to make up for whatever might be his weaknesses.
The album starts with a bang: “The Price of Love” isn’t one of the Everly Brothers’ best-known songs, but it sounds great here, bursting out with some big fat bass tones, rowdy drums, and growling guitars backing Miller’s old shoe of a voice: “Wine is sweet / But gin is bitter / Drink all you want / But you won’t forget her.” The arrangement isn’t exactly Nashville Classic—it sounds a lot more like mid-period Bob Seger than anything else—but country is in the heart rather than in the details, and the way Miller’s voice wraps itself around the chorus of this song reclaims Phil and Don for the modern age. Crank this one up when you’re sitting in the back yard drinking a beer, and it won’t matter that the bass is huge and that the drums kick like 60 . . . you’ll be right back in a big fat Tennessee of the soul.
The next song introduces this album’s most important collaborator: Buddy Miller’s wife Julie. She’s a major player on the new country scene as well, both for the purity of her voice and the purity of her songwriting, and she’s released solo albums as well as an album of duets with Buddy. Julie Miller’s not flashy with her talent, but she’s just about always perfectly on-point, and “Wild Card” bears all her hallmarks. Even though it’s written by a husband-wife team 50 years after he died, it’s pitch-perfect Hank Williams, and it’s played as such: Larry Campbell’s steel guitar and fiddle give us some atmosphere, and Miller punches out some lines that would be corny if they weren’t played for so much fun: “You can be a high-rollin’ man about town / But the bets are all off when love comes around / ‘Cause there ain’t no wild card that ever could beat the house”.
Julie Miller writes or co-writes seven of the eleven songs on this album, and six of them should be classics. She’s more of a wordsmith than a tunesmith, but she displays a knowledge of genre that all songwriters should show. Her doom-laden alt.waltz on the title track is just as effective as her neo-folkie piece “I Can’t Get Over You”, even though the chorus of the former seems to share remarkable similarities to the “Pbbbt you was gone” song from “Hee Haw.” (Dating myself with that one, there, but there you have it.) The way Buddy reacts to her words is truly inspirational, and they are pretty clearly symbiotic on pieces like “Oh Fait Pitiè D’Amour”, a Cajun pastiche that flirts with rhyme disaster and comes up winning: “You play me just like a tune / Making me eat right out of your spoon / You’ve been collaborating with the moon”. Right up to the edge, that one, but never over.
But this isn’t, ultimately, a Buddy and Julie album. Buddy Miller’s voice is never without depth and cunning, and he has learned to wield it like a straightrazor when he needs to. He uncovers a naked sadness in Jesse Winchester’s chestnut “A Showman’s Life” that I’m not sure was even touched in the original (with no small assist from Emmylou Harris on backing vocals), and the malice and lust wrapped up in “Water When the Well Runs Dry” play off each other in a really disturbing way: “Hatred is a criminal out on the loose / Love might be a judge with a hangman’s noose” are yanked from his very soul, but he manages to find a chuckle in the later couplet “Can’t live by fear, can’t live by deception / I’m a man of peace, with a few exceptions.” We laugh, we think, we shiver a little bit. That’s country music the way it ought to be.
The album’s centerpiece is the cover of Percy Mayfield’s soul song “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” There are no tricks here, no fancy words, no clever arrangements (aside from a groovy Hammond B3 line by Phil Madeira), no anything to get in the way of the single best vocal performance I have heard this year. He’s out there in the wind on this one, just a man looking for some salvation in the cold hard world-Miller, like Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner and the Czars’ John Grant, is able to locate the deep soul music that has always been at the heart of great country music. I’m not saying that Buddy Miller has the voice of Ray Charles or Solomon Burke, both perfect R&B singers who sang the shit out of C&W songs, or even Whitney Houston covering Dolly Parton, but there are times during this song when it doesn’t matter. If you aren’t moved by the way Buddy Miller abandons himself during “Please Send Me Someone to Love”, then you’re not human, you’ve never been human, and you need to ask yourself why that is.
Okay, so this album ends with the aforementioned “Quecreek”—which is a tasty little folkie number, despite my reservations about the lyrical trope—so what? It’s gutsy, it’s classy, it’s funny, it’s deep, and it will sell a micro-smidgen as much as the Dixie Chick’s “brave” new record. Don’t hate on the Chicks . . . but don’t forget Buddy Miller’s record, either. He’s been collaborating with the moon, and he’s howling at it in a most wonderful way.