Buddy Miller: “The Majestic Silver Strings”

There’s a sound that I love, used to introduce the second song on this album– it’s the sound of some frisky, playful guitar work, slowed down and then sped up in a way that makes it sound like the needle being dropped onto an old .45, eventually syncing up and, with a count-off, launching into a feisty take on the country chestnut “No Good Lover.” That’s the album in a nutshell: It’s pure guitar mastery from start to finish, but not in the way you might think. That Buddy Miller is an ace guitarist is not up for debate– he’s got no one less than Robert Plant to back up his shred cred– and the musicians he’s corralled into his Majestic Silver Strings troupe include jazz/blues stalwart Bill Friell, edgy Tom Waits/Joe Henry sideman Marc Ribot, and steel whiz Greg Leisz. These guys could put on a fireworks show for you if they wanted to. Much to my delight, however, they’d much rather put on a country music show.

And actually, the thing really does have the feel of a country music revue. Buddy Miller is the ringleader; he takes the lead on the first few tracks before passing along vocal duties to a star-studded lineup of country music pros (and even Ribot, whose unpolished romanticism as a singer somehow seems perfectly in sync with his guitar playing, and is an album highlight). It’s like a good old-fashioned guitar pull. Miller gets the mic back to close things out, and– how’s this for a perfect showstopper?– he gets wife Julie to join him.

It’s a celebration of great guitar playing, but much more than that it’s a celebration of country music. The songs here are mostly covers, and I think it’s fair to say that, while some of them might be familiar to you, none of them suffer from overexposure. (George Jones’ “Why Baby Why” is probably the best-known thing here.) There are lover’s laments and campfire sing-alongs; prison songs and jilted lover songs; songs of thick, syrupy sentiment and songs of unsettling gallows humor; songs for the honky tony and songs for lonesome nights on the prairie. Taken together, the material here doesn’t represent anything so formal as a history of country music, or even country guitar playing; it’s really just a love letter to the stuff, messy and heartfelt and brimming with personal quirks, humor, heartache, and general weirdness.

And as for those guitars, they’re usually used more for atmosphere than anything. Just about the boldest thing here, I think, is the opening number, “Cattle Call.” It’s a cowboy song, made for lonely nights of reverie around the campfire, and here it begins with a few minutes of gently-picked acoustic, sonorous electric, and high-and-lonesome steel guitar work, the aural equivalent of a slow-motion pan over desert plains and vistas that stretch for miles. It’s the slow and steady start that any good Western requires. Buddy’s voice comes in toward the end and carries it home, as gentle and unhurried as it began.

There’s a total lack of ego here, something that’s as evident from the lack of blazing guitar solos– which any one of these guys could peel off in a heartbeat and set the whole thing on fire, were they not so keen on serving the songs– as from the fact that, once “No Good Lover” kicks in, the emphasis is as much on Jay Bellerose’s drumming as it is on the electric guitar work. Buddy is in fine voice here, and Ann McCrary is his perfect vocal foil. Any album that wants to highlight the rich blend of heart and humor that’s always propelled country music would be a pitiful thing indeed without at least one good he-said/she-said duet, and this one is a gem– oddly sexy, or at the very least appealingly cantankerous, and rich in droll humor and bittersweet barbs. But the next Buddy song might be even better; he duets with Patty Griffin on “I Want to Be With You Always,” and it’s a mushy country weeper in the best possible sense, devastatingly beautiful.

Ribot sings lead on two songs– plus a duet with Buddy on “Why Baby Why”– and I never knew the man had it in him. Listening to his tracks is as revelatory as hearing him pick up the coronet on Joe Henry’s Blood from Stars— it seems there’s no musical endeavor to which the man can’t bring a wonderfully ragged, tattered sense of humanity and romance. His first song is a sad and stately prison song– “Barres De La Prison”– in which he brings a sort of deadpan resignation to his tale of woe; even better is “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” a six-minute masterpiece of heartbreaking frailty and ominous atmospherics. It is perhaps the album’s best showcase for its four-guitar interplay, even more so than the very fine, chugging instrumental “Freight Train.” (And there’s another must-have; what would an album like this be without a train song?)

As for the guest vocalists, Shawn Colvin’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” and Emmylou Harris’ “Why I’m Talkin'” are both exquisite ballads. I’m even more taken with Lee Ann Womack, though, whose “Return to Me is Lovely” but who really shines on the standout number “Meds”– a hilarious, heartbreaking, and somewhat unsettling tale of love and loss and anti-depressants, written by Ribot. She performs it with an actor’s instincts. But the real showstopper? Marc Anthony Thompson, the Chocolate Genius himself, lending his golden pipes to a twisted, irreverent, and again grippingly sad gallows tune called “Dang Me,” guitars and drums churning in the background like the gathering flames of Hell itself.

It’s actually a pretty good representative of the album itself– atmospheric, gritty, funny, a little weird, and totally country– but what makes this something truly superb is the balance of material like this with songs that are lighter, more playful, more sentimental; this might read on paper like an exercise in guitar-worship, but actually it’s a thrillingly lively and authentic (albeit idiosyncratic) homage to the breadth and depth of great country music– a tradition that this wonderful album simultaneously honors and joins.

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