The world needs Buddy Miller as surely as we need water and sunshine and so it’s a great relief that 2016 begins with a new release from one of the greatest living voices in American music. Joined by a cast that includes Lucinda Williams, Shawn Colvin, Nikki Lane and Richard Thompson, Miller runs down tunes written by Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, John Prine and Kris Kristofferson among others. These are the fruits of sessions conducted over the last few years as the players sailed the seas on the roots cruise Cayamo. The record possesses the natural, unhurried feel that has become one of Miller’s signatures and we listen as these songs unfurl in such a way that we believe we’re hearing them for the first time.
One of Miller’s greatest gifts is working with female vocalists and maybe one of the keys to this record’s artistic success is the wealth of women who join Miller. (Eight in all, along with three men.) Each singer disappears inside the material the way a great actor might slip comfortably into the skin of a character.
Shawn Colvin’s take on the Rolling Stones classic “Wild Horses” is especially moving and revelatory as she sweetens Jagger’s melancholy lines and makes the sweeter ones more melancholy. It is both haunting and uplifting in ways that the original is not. Kacey Musgraves delivers a powerful take on the Buck Owens number “Love’s Gonna Live Here”, rendering it something that could have easily emerged over 40 years ago as it could have today. Nikki Lane performs the Porter Wagoner/Dolly Parton classic “Just Someone I Used to Know” with a conviction that rivals that heard on the original and Elizabeth Cook tears through “If Teardrops Were Pennies” sounding like vintage Dolly while losing none of her own identity.
Elsewhere, Richard Thompson makes us wonder where his full-on country album is as he makes us weep tears of joy via “Wedding Bells” and Kris Kristofferson’s take on his own “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is almost as much a revelation as Johnny Cash singing “Hurt”. Doug Seegers and Miller sound ragged and right on “Take the Hand of Jesus”, one of several tracks here that seems to have crept across the sands of time from somewhere deep in the past and Lee Ann Womack proves that she’s one of our most under-appreciated vocalists via “After The Fire Is Gone”. While Lucinda Williams’ tendency to hang on to a phrase or a line longer than one might want at times she’s at her best on “Hickory Wind”, delivering a song she seems to have been born to sing.
This is a quiet collection of songs that blends together seamlessly, the way so many Miller-related albums do, the sound of a master musician in command of the material and able to let the music take its own course to greatness. Too often these all-star affairs can’t live up to their promise because they become victims of performers who have no relationship to the material, who wouldn’t know a holler from a hollow log but that’s decidedly not the case here where each singer gives their best and occasionally even rises above what we might expect. A record like this has few rivals but many imitators but will always remain in a class of its own.