Buddy Miller – Well I hate to see your sun sinking down and the path you take while you’re losing ground
At any rate, the album speaks to that paradox that is Buddy Miller: the wastefulness of worrying too much opposed to the actual good that comes from thinking things over in a concerned fashion. The song was written by the Millers’ late friend Mark Heard, in whose memory Julie’s “All My Tears” was written. “The song’s really appropriate for the times we’re living in,” Buddy says.
“Worry Too Much” opens with a driving bass and the rising cry of sisters Regina and Ann McCrary, who appear on nearly every track. Miller wanted a lot of call-and-answer songs on the album, and when he first heard the sisters sing, he knew he had to work with them. The sisters are the daughters of Reverend Sam McCrary, who founded the Fairfield Four.
The women often infuse the album with the feeling of attending a black church service, although Miller likes the idea of many kinds of music overlapping. “I heard their voices, which are just amazing,” he says, “but I also knew that they’d sound right with a fiddle. To me, music is music.” To that end, Miller neither embraces nor shuns being called an alt-country artist: “I don’t have a problem with that term, but at the same time it’s very vague. So much great music falls under that umbrella and it happens to be music I love.”
Miller happens to love most every kind of music, and he’s always been that way. He started playing guitar in fourth grade, even though there wasn’t a huge musical influence in his life. He sought out records on his own and says he was always eclectic. “Sometimes I’d go to a Grateful Dead show one week and to a blues show the next week,” he recalls.
Miller says he wanted to be a singer for as long as he can remember. He started pursuing his dream in the late 1960s, playing in bluegrass and country-rock bands in upstate New York and New Jersey. He moved around, following music to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin and New York City, along the way acquiring a network of friends who have sustained him musically and personally. He gives credit to all of them for expanding his musical knowledge. These days he’s giving credit to the McCrary sisters, claiming that he “can’t imagine the album without them.”
The McCrarys most effectively meet Miller’s desire for call-and-answer songs on the Louvins’ “There’s A Higher Power”, which Miller says he loves because it’s so rhythmically different from the rest of the songs on the album. A longtime fan of the Louvin Brothers, Miller says he felt he needed to cover one of their “many great songs.”
Both Buddy and Julie grew to love the McCrarys’ contributions to the album so much that one day Julie hurried out of the room and came back awhile later with a tune she had composed especially for the women to sing with Miller. The song, “Fall On The Rock”, is the most soulful track on the record, an altar call that would have sinners trembling in the aisles of any little country church with its invitation to “Fall on the rock/Or the rock’s going to fall on you.”
A string-band influence shows up on “This Old World”, which Miller says was written “long-distance” with Victoria Williams. Miller is also fond of “Shelter Me” (composed by himself and Julie) because of its simplicity, another quality he says he sought to present. “What I love about most of the songs on this album is that they’re so simple and easy to understand,” he says. “I only included the lyrics to one of the songs because the rest were so beautifully simple that I didn’t think you needed the lyrics.”
That one song is “Fire And Water”, the most poetic and powerful track on the album. Written with Julie, the song is in memory of her brother, Jeff Griffin, who was struck by lightning last year while mowing his mother’s yard in Texas.
Miller’s voice grows distinctly respectful when he speaks of the incident, explaining that Griffin was once proclaimed a “Miracle Kid” on the front page of the Waco newspaper when he survived a motorcycle accident as a teenager that left him with a terrible head injury and a permanent limp. Ironically, he was killed in the same place as his earlier accident.
Accompanied by acoustic guitar and trembling percussion, Miller sings of a man who was “left with a broken wing…standin’ out, out in the rain, looking for your way home.” Buddy says Julie was “real far along on her new record” when her brother passed away and has temporarily postponed work on the album. The couple hope to have her record out sometime in 2005.
The Millers are still mourning the loss of Griffin, to whom the album is dedicated. Buddy’s love for Julie’s family is apparent throughout our talk. “They’re all the sweetest people,” he says. In fact, the album closes with a song sung by Julie’s mother, who loved the song “The Royal Telephone” so much that she had to call and leave it on their answering machine one day. “She sings in church,” Miller says, “and has the sweetest, most beautiful voice.”
Miller’s close friend and frequent singing partner Emmylou Harris appears on “Wide River To Cross”, which may be Miller’s best vocal delivery to date. The song embodies a central characteristic of Miller’s being: He neither flaunts nor hides his faith in God. And unlike the sentimental drivel so often found on mainstream country radio, even his so-called gospel songs deal in issues of doubt and momentary losses of faith.
“This record is about how we conduct ourselves, about our responsibilities as good people,” says Harris, who has called from the airport on her way to the Democratic National Convention (“by way of a Red Sox game,” she laughs). “And it’s a pretty special record, even for Buddy, who has made many special records. It’s spiritual and transcendent.
“I wouldn’t call it a gospel album because when we categorize things we tend to limit them,” she continues. “People bring their own assumptions to the table, and I think gospel makes people think of getting to heaven. This album appeals to everyone who is searching and it’s just full of raw emotion.”
“Wide River To Cross” is a particular example of Miller’s lyrical gifts. “It’s a song that doesn’t evoke any particular deity,” Harris observes. “It’s about everybody’s soul journey, and I think it’s going to touch a lot of people.”
Another song, “Is That You”, expresses this even more clearly with its calls of “Is that you Lord, talking to my heart?” Though many religious groups shun questioning religion and God, Miller considers it part of the nature of belief. “It’s OK — it’s good — to question your faith,” he contends. “Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s the right thing or the wrong thing.”