Buddy Miller Transfixes as Country Music Hall of Fame’s 2010 Artist in Residence
Artist in Residence
Country Music Hall of Fame
710 August 2010
“I hope this isn’t too humiliating for the Hall of Fame,” explained the always humble Buddy Miller a few songs into his first Artist in Residency appearance at the just re-opened Ford Theatre at the Country Music Hall of Fame. “I don’t know all the chords… or the keys.”
It is that loose, come together in music easiness that has allowed Miller – No Depression’s most recent Artist of the Decade – to create the kinds of musical melange’s that bring together the wailing soul-gospel McCrary Sisters, adult-alt songstress Patti Griffin, hard rock legend Robert Plant and guitarist Mark Ribot. That ability to reach across genres and into the heart of the songs has given Miller a corner on a dusty rootsiness that defines Americana – and often navigates the essential truths of very complicated moments.
Certainly onstage at the HoF, Miller shuffled from quiet fervor of the religious compassion confession “All My Tears” to full on exhortation covered in kerosene faith that is “Shelter Me” to the raw want of wife/noted singer/songwriter Julie Miller’s “Gasoline & Matches.” From the secularly sultry to the sublime, Miller embodies each with equal ground.
And that defined much of Miller’s time onstage – a generous helping of his musical landscape that included sharing the spotlight with severasl guests. Beyond the do-tell sanctification of the McCrary Sisters on their own “Know My Way” and a low-slung, thick three voice in unison harmony squeeze on Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” longtime friend and collaborator Emmylou Harris – resplendent in a long red demi-dress worn wide open over a close fitting white shell and pegged Capri pants – came to the stage to share their always heartbreaking read on the classic “Love Hurts” and another take-it-as-comes turn on Porter Wagoner’s old duet with Dolly Parton “The Midnight Oil” that chugged with old school country fromp.
It is that willingness to turn it over – saying how much he learns and loves Marc Ribot’s playing, then taking a stool for a transfixingly lovely solo guitar exploration of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.” Single notes and small flourishes etched the classic melody with the sort of details that seem almost feathery, yet never quite lose their earthy grounding. In Ribot’s hands, it gives the timeworn song a timelessness that almost suspends the moment, holding the listener weightless in his progressions.
Less ethereal, but equally captivating was raconteur Tom T. Hall, whom Miller introduced by both professing his strong devotion to the Hall of Famer’s songs – as an artist and writer for others – and telling the story about the night he and Julie got to open for Hall at New York City’s legendary Lone Stone Café, standing at the top of the steep, steep staircase, peaking down to watch Hall’s show in awe. Good with a story, better with detail, the slow-talking musician regaled the audience with the memory of being out of the service, wandering the country and looking up a man who’d been in the service with him – only to show up at the house with a bottle of Jack Daniels to join his friend in lamenting the latter’s alcoholic wife.
Told with pathos and humor, it still hardly prepares one for the exquisite line-drawing rendering of all the little details as well as the heartbreaking love the man feels for the woman slipping away before him in “Pay No Attention To Alice.” With an oberservation or three, the whole scene becomes clear – and the men weave in and out of small talk, laced with the compassion of one who can’t stop the pain for the woman he loves and recognizes the tragedy before him.
Recognizing the assembled VIPs – including the always lovely former Country Music Association head Jo Walker Meador, vintage producer Jim Fogelsong and other icons – Hall laughed about playing rooms where you know the people are so much better than you, a claim that seems far-fetched given his own output. He also acknowledged that he and his best friend, songwriting partner and wife – “Miss Dixie” – had just celebrated 42 years of marriage, no small feat, all things considered in this business, and played the painfully fitting “Homecoming,” another fistful of small details that paint a picture so much larger than the moment being captured in a world-weary singer chasing the dream, passing through home to see his Dad on his way to another gig.
As an acolyte of Hall’s, Buddy Miller learned his lessons well. Tiny things yield great truths and deeper insight than even what the song’s about. It is in conjuring that haunted or homey, highly organic feeling arrangement that the guitarist/songwriter/singer with a voice that is red clay dust and broken-in boots greatest strengths emerge. It’s not just that the listener believes him, it’s that they feel the emotions from the bone marrow out.
Buddy Miller has that same hand-honed truth, insights that have been come by honestly – and learned through ache or loss or the wonder of true revelation. Not one for long stories – beyond celebrating the talent he shares the stage with – Miller’s truth is in the songs, be it the worn, but holding conviction of “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” Hall’s committed “That’s How I Got To Memphis,” which Miller deemed “about the perfect song” or the jumpy grasp of “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go,” which its need for relief and dogs on the scent urgency.
For someone with a split rail voice, Miller’s musicality defies gravity. Whether the new “God’s Winged Horse,” written by Ribot and Julie Miller, or a hushed and almost ad libbed “Walk Away Renee” featuring Harris’ silvery voice on shadow chorus vocals, there is a weightlessness to what it conjured that lets the listener transcend the mortal coil with an almost ether-like effect.
Perhaps it’s the celestiality of his work, but Miller has always found a way to make plain dirt music divine. Towards the end of the set, the collected group of singers and players brought “Wide River To Cross” to a foundation of faith. The belief permeated every note played, every “ooooh” from the women singing. The song did not celebrate the expanse of the journey, but more the commitment and sustaining grace to get to the other side.
For an encore, Miller showed that grace in its barest form: an electric guitar, Emmylou Harris and the etched fire consuming of love gone, but not over for the singer on “Don’t Tell Me.” There is beauty in that pain, nobility and dignity in a passion so true it transcends the other person’s willingness to participate.
And that sort of reality has always defined Buddy Miller: the sort of man who will find the song’s heart and stay there, color it in, fill out around it, but always true to the emotional center. It is in that that so many have been drawn to him, and it is in that, that he shall remain a beacon to all who revere what is essential in music’s ability to evoke and clarify that which is almost too hard to define in traditional thought and conversation.