Buddy Miller: “The Best of the Hightone Years”

buddy-hightone

Buddy Miller has been making high-quality, rock-inflected country music for quite a while now, but he’s never had much in the way of radio play or commercial success, which has led many of his faithful fans to conclude that Buddy is simply too country– too gritty, too real– for Nashville. That’s not entirely true, of course– after all, Buddy wrote a song that became a hit for the Dixie Chicks (“Hole in My Head”), and he’s worked in the studio with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Steve Earle. Obviously, Nashville doesn’t have some kind of prejudice against Buddy– so maybe Miller’s relatively unsung career has more to do with his own humility, his own aversion to the spotlight, than anything else.

Listening to Miller’s new retrospective set, The Best of the Hightone Years, that’s a pretty believable hypothesis. Above all else, the sixteen songs assembled here portray an artist so caught up in his craft, his nose so vigilantly close to the grindstone, that commercial considerations simply aren’t a priority. These songs are modest, unassuming, and uniformly terrific– further proof that Buddy is one of country music’s great treasures, and a perfect jumping-off point for anyone who doesn’t know his work by heart already.

In fact, that’s really the only audience who will be interested in this set; there are no new tracks or rarities here, so Miller’s fans will surely have all of these songs already. They’re all album tracks from the four solo albums he made for Hightone, as well as a few selections from the duets album he cut with wife Julie– which, for their energy and humor, not to mention their heavenly harmonies, are the best songs here. “Hole in the Head” is here, as are the Buddy/Julie cover of Richard Thompson’s “Keep Your Distance” and Buddy’s own take on “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” a song that also appeared on the Miller-produced Solomon Burke album, Nashville. Most of the songs are Miller originals, of course, and they just go to show what a remarkably consistent catalog he’s developed– heartbroken, lovelorn country songs, firmly rooted in country tradition but given just enough rock and roll edge to make them sizzle.

If there’s a downside to the collection, it’s that Miller’s towering achievement thus far, the soulful gospel-rock set United Universal House of Prayer, was not cut for Hightone, and, thus, is not included here. But that album is so essential, any serious fan of roots music needs to own it anyway; and so, this collection stands as a generous, well-sequenced summary of Miller’s more overtly country albums, both a fitting introduction to his work and a fine argument for why he’s such a special artist, all too deserving of a wider audience.

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