Scanning the Countryside: Country’s Buddy
Photo courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
I was privileged to be on hand in August for all three of Buddy Miller’s Artist-in-Residence shows at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater, the first of which marked the theater’s reopening after its repair from damage in May’s Nashville flooding. These invited “residencies” are honorary—and honored—one-per-year stands in which artists of long standing are given multiple, wide open evenings to present career-spanning shows. Kris Kristofferson chose to get up on consecutive nights and sing some 75 of his own songs. Most honorees, which have included Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Jerry Douglas, and Vince Gill, have seized the opportunity to present and appear with their musical cohorts from across the years, and so did Buddy.
A pairing that especially spoke to me was Miller’s set with Lee Ann Womack during the second of the three shows, and in particular, their duet on “Don’t Tell Me.” You’ve probably heard Lee Ann nail that one, which she’s recorded, and she also regularly does the searing “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger.” Both songs are Buddy and Julie Miller compositions. But as a duet with Buddy, “Don’t Tell Me” was different. Ms. Womack has long since learned very well the lessons that paying attention to her vocal hero George Jones can teach–what biting off just the right partial syllable can do for riveting your attention to the emotional point, what that tight, closed-mouth tension in the jaw can add to vocal drama. Her reading of this lyric was typically masterful, and her share of the performance dramatically tense.
Buddy Miller’s central vocal tack is quite different. You could find precedents for his tone in old time country, but his singing is so influenced by ‘60s and ‘70s black gospel and soul that he can sound like Ralph Stanley live in Muscle Shoals. When Miller harmonizes with others, as he often does, it’s rarely via the close, tight harmonies of old time country or white Southern gospel. More often, it’s of the loose and jagged sort right out of R&B–heard in the vocal harmonies of The Impressions or rock’s The Band, for instance. Make no mistake, though; while Miller is generally labeled an Americana artist, he’s known his country songs and singers for decades. (His own tastes inevitably draw him to the most soulful singers in country history—Lefty Frizzell, for instance. Buddy, Lee Ann and Patty Griffin took on Lefty’s “Mom and Dad’s Waltz” in that same set, and it’s Buddy who recently introduced Robert Plant to Frizzell’s Mel Tillis-written single “What You Gonna Do, Leroy?”)
In their give-and-take pairing of tension and release, the precise and the loose in harmony, Miller & Womack offered up something profoundly fresh and moving. What exactly was going on there? That same evening, Darrell Scott, the triple-threat vocalist, instrumentalist and songwriter (“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”) told the audience, “I recognized, in Buddy Miller, country music taken to its roots—which is not always understood in this town.” Hall of Fame and Museum Director Kyle Young, in his introduction to the night, had predicted a “festival of roots music.” Over the course of three evenings, that “festival” included such Miller cohorts as Bill Frisell from Buddy’s jazzy, modernizing country outfit “The Majestic Silver Strings” which has an album due out next year, his frequent back-up singers, the gospel-oriented McCrary Sisters, Emmylou Harris, for whom he was lead guitarist in her band Spyboy, and Jim Lauderdale and Shawn Colvin, artists Buddy was playing honky tonk with in New York bars as long as 35 years ago.
The question some reading this will have, no doubt, is, “But why this stuff,” or even, “Why Buddy Miller at the Country Music Hall of Fame? Is he even country?”
The distance between what country music is—very much including contemporary country—and “roots music” is simply, in practice, not as great as some have it and as “pick one or the other” binary as some would like—often for reasons of strong musical or even political/social identification. Americana becomes caricatured as “Left” and somehow upscale, and mainstream Country “Right” and somehow downscale to such a mindset. But you can’t be seriously involved with either or both of those fields without realizing that there’s not some “this is country/this is not” absolute at work, but a spectrum of sounds, backgrounds and constituencies in both more pop-oriented and more history-cognizant music—and that people of good will who love all of this music make it beautifully together, across social, political and even audience target lines, all of the time.
This is, in my experience, especially clear in Nashville, where supposedly antithetical roots music and mainstream country types hoist a few in neighborhood bars very regularly, even as they play together in sessions; where migrated musicians with backgrounds in Memphis or Muscle Shoals R&B have been playing in and influencing mainstream country music for decades; and where, for the record, Buddy Miller and Buddy & Julie songs have been recorded not just by Lee Ann Womack, but by Brooks & Dunn, Garth Brooks, Suzy Boguss, Dierks Bentley, and yep, The Dixie Chicks. When WSM-AM radio, the “Air Castle of the South,” began in the past couple of years to broadcast a fascinating, soul-satisfying mix of traditional country, contemporary country with ties to the tradition, bluegrass and Americana, it was putting an exclamation point on connections music makers have already understood.
The Country Hall of Fame and Museum has been making those connections for years. If their main temporary exhibit right now is about the Hank Williams’ family tradition, previous ones included Nashville-based R&B’s interface with country music makers, and Ray Charles’ role in country music. And it’s no mystery there that Country music was developed in the first place as a flavor of commercial pop music—one made by and for individuals rooted in music history and geography, especially, if never exclusively, with ties to the down home South, mainly because the audience went for that.
When the Hall’s museum recently expanded their permanent exhibit on the full history of country, its roots and branches, Buddy Miller found a place in the story, in a new Americana display that also includes contributions from Del McCoury, Jim Lauderdale, and Alison Krauss, recognizing–as the display tells visitors–“Buddy Miller’s ability to translate his love of old sounds into a contemporary setting.” The new displays about Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert are just inches away. The country spectrum includes—and always has included—some music with more ties to its own roots, and some with less. There are those who feel less attraction to the roots end of that spectrum, but that end has also always, always had its buddies.
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