[2 March 2011]
Buddy Miller is a Nashville-based country musician who transcends “country” so brilliantly that he makes genre distinctions wholly beside the point.
As backing guitarist, singer, and producer for the likes of Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Solomon Burke, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and (his wife) Julie Miller, Buddy Miller is the world’s most sympathetic accompanist and arranger, genre be damned, a singing partner both gritty and elegant, with the guts and grit to make a beautiful singer tarnished just enough. As an artist on his own, Miller mixes gutsy roots-rock with country and folk and gospel such that the result is both brilliantly crafted and genuine. Buddy Miller shuffles or reconciles different styles like a post-modernist, but sounds utterly sincere and grounded.
Which is another way of saying: Buddy Miller is a first-class musical alchemist.
Lately, Buddy has seemed to be everywhere, mixing it up with various all-star groups that verify his incredible reputation: the Band of Joy (with Robert Plant and Patty Griffin), Three Girls and Their Buddy (with Shawn Colvin, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Griffin), and with Allison Kraus and Plant together. He recently recorded a new duet album with Julie (Written in Chalk) too.
But all-star projects don’t come any more impressive—or, thankfully, strange and idiosyncratic—than The Majestic Silver Strings. Joining Miller on guitar are jazz wizard Bill Frisell, studio king Greg Leisz, and the angular downtown player Marc Ribot. The band mixes and matches styles with an easy fluidity. Traditional country music (including a bunch of classic tunes) forms the baseline from which the boys operate, but departure is the name of the game. “No Good Lover” is a ripping good blues built around a country-fried lick, with Miller sharing the vocal with gospel singer Ann McCrary. The tune reaches for the sky, however, as the guitarists trade solos at the end, loose and free. That’s a good explanation of the pattern of The Majestic Silver Strings: It sits squarely in tradition as it flies off from it.
The invincible stable of vocalists on The Majestic Silver Strings are certainly not overrun by the axe-wielders. Lee Ann Womack sings a traditional weepy with “Return to Me”, the guitars bending and twangy, reverb-filled and deliciously orchestral. But she is also confessional and delicate on “Meds”, accompanied only by acoustic guitars. Arranged as a bare-bones waltz, this tune mixes delicacy with a sophisticated, twisting melody and edgy lyrics. Womack should sound this smart all the time.
Marc Ribot appears not only on guitar but also as a featured vocalist. “Bury Me Not on the Lonely Prairie” is set as an atmospheric tone poem, with guitars that strum and shout, ring and run backwards. “Barres de la Prison” is a lonely folk song that allows the singer to tell the story of how he wound up behind bars for life and how his family reacts—a lament drenched in textures that pile up over the slow tempo. On both these tunes, Ribot sings with a simple plainspeak, free of vibrato or affectation, just hissing out the melody and telling the tale. A nice, surprising contrast.
“That’s the Way Love Goes” is a classic Lefty Frizzell tune, sung here with bell-like purity by Shawn Colvin. Miller gives the song a simple pop-country arrangement, highlighted by a killer slide-guitar solo, followed by a statement from Bill Frisell that sets of the vocal’s return. Emmylou Harris also is beautiful on a simple classic country song, Stonewall Jackson’s “Why I’m Walkin’”. The boys obviate the need for a more complex arrangement—their bed of different string sounds makes it seem like Harris has a full orchestra behind her, so rich is the sound.
Miller sounds great in duet with Patty Griffin on “I Want to Be with You Always”, and “God’s Wing’d Horse” sets Buddy’s voice against his wife’s to strong effect. On both these songs, Buddy’s rich bellow does not so much blend with that of his female partner as it buzzes enjoyably against the other voice. And that’s just what Leisz, Frisell, Ribot, and Miller are doing on guitar—putting their textures and sounds up against each other for the sheer pleasure of making sound. This isn’t some Nashville wall of sound. In fact, the band that the The Majestic Silver Strings may sound most like is Wilco, with its carefully arranged textures expounding in the widest American musical language.
When Miller himself takes the main vocal, the results are just as fine. “Why Baby Why” (with Ribot on the low harmony) is a good ol’ stomping tune, with the groove going beyond what you would normally hear in straight country music. The muscular heft of Miller’s singing suits the groove perfectly. His vocal on “Cattle Call” is something else, an almost-corny cowboy song that lets him do a bit of yodeling over a nimble little waltz. The transformations that will follow this album opener are particularly effective after something so sedate.
Maybe the strangest, boldest track here is “Dang Me”, featuring “Chocolate Genius” (Marc Anthony Thompson) punching out a searing vocal over a groove that puts a touch of hip-hop beneath a country-blues sound. But the instrumental “Freight Train” is coolly odd too, with Bill Frisell’s left-field atmospherics starting it off, then some swinging collision of guitar styles taking over. No one solos and everyone solos (always a good sign), with the melody itself not really feeling complete until the end.
As Buddy Miller albums go, The Majestic Silver Strings feels like a keen experiment, a thrilling lark, rather than what we might be used to. Usually, Miller concocts a reasonably rocking band sound that fuses country, gospel, rock, and pop songcraft into something focused and piquant. The Majestic Silver Strings is subtler, sneakier, often prettier, and certainly more varied. The litany of guests is wonderful—they justify the way the band makes every song different, molding its sensibility around different vocal personalities. And the flux between Miller’s traditions, Frisell’s textural impressionism, Leisz’s muscle, and Ribot’s feel for the peculiar is a constant thrill—but a bit of a challenge too.
That’s the joy here. The Majestic Silver Strings is a touch strange and a heap of pretty, a dollop of tradition and a tablespoon of innovation. A guitar freak should dig it, but so should folks who crave a bevy of great voices. It can’t be pinned down. And Buddy Miller wouldn’t have it any other way.