Buddy and Julie Miller keep great musical company      

By John Cody

Buddy & Julie Miller: Buddy & Julie Miller, Hightone, 2001.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore: One Endless Night, Rounder, 2000.
Duane Jarvis: Certified Miracle, Hightone, 2001.
Various: A Nod to Bob, Red House, 2001.
Lucy Kaplansky: Every Single Day, Red House, 2001.
Songcatcher, Vanguard, 2001.

FROM semi-obscure beginnings as part of the insular CCM scene, Buddy and Julie Miller have seen a significant increase in their profile over the past decade.

The husband and wife team’s songs have been covered by the likes of Brooks & Dunn, Jimmie Scott, Hank Williams III, Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale, the Dixie Chicks and Brooks Williams.

Their solo discs have received raves, placing on many critics’ year-end best-of lists.

Their first-ever duo project offers ample evidence that their reputation is well deserved. Aside from a handful of covers, the bulk of the material is written by Julie.

Songs range from passionate, gritty rockers — ‘You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast’ is good old-fashioned lust, with an infectious groove reminiscent of Keith Richards at his best — to plaintive laments.

Singing of love gone wrong, love gone right, life’s journey and various spiritual matters, Julie deals with the gospel in a very down-to-earth manner.

She discussed the evangelistic nature of her writing in a recent interview with Puremusic, a web-based publication: “Give it to those who want it, and don’t push it on anybody that’s not ready. God’s the one who speaks to people. He sure waited until I was ready.” These songs bear out the effectiveness of her philosophy. The light is never hidden, but neither is it confrontational.

In addition to their joint effort, in the last year alone they’ve been involved, to varying degrees, with each of the following albums.

Buddy produced Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s One Endless Night. Outside of two originals, the disc consists of covers — including a generous sampling of fellow Texas writers, including Butch Hancock, Townes Van Zandt, Willis Alan Ramsey and Walter Hyatt, plus material by Jesse Winchester and John Hiatt, and an interesting take on ‘Mack the Knife.’

Gilmore’s plaintive voice is front and centre, supported by an able cast including Phil Madeira, Don Heffington and Steve Hindalong from The Choir, as well as guest back-up vocal spots from Victoria Williams, Julie Miller, Lucy Kaplansky and Dar Williams.

Buddy sings harmony on the Duane Jarvis disc. Jarvis has had his songs covered, and played guitar and worked with, an impressive list of acts — including Peter Case, Lucinda Williams (‘Still I Long For Your Kiss,’ reprised here, was included on William’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road), Marvin Etzioni, Julie Miller and Rosie Flores.

Playing country twang with a Tex-Mex bent, the sound is reminiscent of the Stones and Tom Petty — sloppy but tight. Subject matter is pretty much limited to love — unpretentious tunes celebrating the joys of finding the right partner, and the pain when it’s unrequited.

A Nod to Bob celebrates Bob Dylan’s 60th birthday. All 15 acts on this superbly packaged collection, which includes comments from each of the artists regarding the song they picked, are from the Red House Records stable. John Gorka, Lucy Kaplansky, Eliza Gilkyson, Martin Simpson, Greg Brown and others deliver excellent, generally acoustic-based, renditions of Dylan material. A notable exception is the high-powered Celtic-flavoured take on All Along the Watchtower by Vancouver’s Paperboys.

Lucy Kaplansky’s disc features a cover of Julie’s ‘Broken Things,’ along with a guest vocal from Buddy. Kaplansky previously recorded Julie’s ‘By Way of Sorrow’ with her folk trio, Cry Cry Cry. A former clinical psychologist, Kaplansky’s writing perspective is always insightful. Using simple yet effective phrases, like “one true word’s gonna beat a pack of lies” (from ‘Written on the Back of His Hand’), she manages to cut to the core of the issue with ease.

Standout tracks include the title song and a cover of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘The Angels Rejoiced Last Night.’ Far more polished than the other titles reviewed here, it nonetheless manages to avoid any sense of studio sheen, coming across as a genuine, well-played effort.

Songcatcher boasts a formidable list of vocalists performing Appalachian folk ballads from — and inspired by — the independent film of the same name.

Rosanne Cash, Maria McKee, Deanna Carter, Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch cover traditional material, while Dolly Parton, Patti Loveless and Julie Miller contribute original material that works well within the format.

The disc includes two excerpts from the film’s score, composed by David Mansfield (Bob Dylan/Alpha Band).

The Band: Music From Big Pink, Capitol, 1968/2000
The Band: The Band, Capitol, 1969/2000
The Band: Stage Fright, Capitol, 1970/2000

One of the most influential acts of late 60’s, the Band was a breath of fresh air in a music scene then populated by psychedelic warriors and guitar superheroes. Initially brought together as rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins’ backing group, they performed the same function with Bob Dylan before releasing their debut, Music From Big Pink, in 1968.

The look, music, and presentation was far removed from the style of the day. With clear roots in folk and country, the music was fresh, melodic, and unpretentious. Arrangements featured mandolins, fiddles, church organs, and the bare bones drumming of Levon Helm. . Rather than ignore the past, they embraced it; their debut album included a cover of Lefty Frizell’s ‘Long Black Veil’ showing an obvious debt to what had come before. Reaction from the music community was immediate: Eric Clapton disbanded Cream. George Harrison expressed a desire to play with them rather than the Beatles. The self-titled second effort, released a year later, was an even stronger collection, and included their only hit single, ‘Up On Cripple Creek.’ Stage Fright followed in 1970.

Astute chroniclers of American history, subject matter included the civil war, migration, and the loss of tradition. Ironically, four of the five members – including chief songwriter Robbie Robertson – were Canadian. Songs like ‘The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down’ and ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’ evoked a bygone era. Many – including ‘The Weight’ and ‘Dixie’ – have gone on to become standards.

Remastered with bonus tracks, all three titles are well worth investigating.

Country Roads: How Country Came To Nashville by Brian Hinton Sanctuary Publishing, 2000
Desperados: The Roots of Country Rock by John Einarson, Cooper Square Press, 2001

Desperados examines the beginnings of the country rock sound, from 1963-1973. Focusing on the pioneering Los Angeles scene, the Dillards, Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, Mike Nesmith, Rick Nelson, the Byrds and others created a fresh, invigorating hybrid that continues today under a number of monikers.

Einerson – a Canadian who has written books on the Buffalo Springfield, Steppenwolf, Randy Bachman and others – effectively conveys the excitement of the early days, when rockers discovered the Bakersfield sound and added elements of folk, bluegrass and rock to the mix.

The era brought changes fast and furious; Ian Tyson (from Canadian folk duo Ian & Sylvia) questioned his own significance after dropping from top draw attraction to yesterdays’ news once the British Invasion hit: “all of us folkies were just standing there with egg on our facesÖthe Beatles shut us downÖ ” In 1968 Ian & Sylvia formed Great Speckled Bird, redefining their approach by incorporating a decided country bent.

The first decade saw little in the way of commercial success. Stuck between two camps – to country for the rock audience, and to rock for country fans – most bands barely made ends meet. In the mid-70s the Eagles broke into the big leagues with a simpler formula, dropping steel guitars and stressing the rockier aspect of the music. While the group moved units, they were hardly the equal of their predecessors – Gram Parsons described their sound as “soulless bubble gum.” Disdained by their peers, they would pave the way for the New Country sound popularized in the 90s.

Copiously researched, including hundreds of illuminating quotes from the players who were there when it all began, Desperados is a first-rate introduction to an under appreciated genre.

Country Roads covers a far more ground – from the Appalachian Mountains a century ago through to present day. Everyone from the Carter Family to Garth Brooks is covered. The wide scope takes in folk, rock, and numerous other genres.

A more frustrating read than Desperados, Hinton takes a Brit-centric approach, and too often his logic is suspect. While the strongest writing is on country rock scene, even there it’s easy to find fault; as a long-time fan of John Stewart, one of the architects of the alt-country sound, I was taken aback to find the majority of his work written off, curtly described as ‘unlistenable.’

Numerous factual errors – the traditional number ‘I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow’ (recently featured on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack) is credited as a Beatles composition – spelling mistakes, and suspect judgment make this a frustrating – albeit entertaining – if hardly essential read.

Richard A. Peterson: Creating Country Music, University of Chicago Press, 2000

Covering three decades – from 1923-1953 – Peterson explores country music’s growth from modest beginnings into a major commercial entity, due in large part to a powerful entrepreneurial spirit.

Focusing on the struggles between pursuing sales versus the need to stay true to the music’s roots, it’s clear this is not a recent phenomenon. As early as the 1930s there were strongly held differences between those who wanted to keep the music ‘pure’ and authentic versus those open to slicker forms of entertainment. The machinations of both camps help explain how things came to be.

In addtion to the central story, the book is full of fascinating trivia, featuring such unlikely players as Senator Joe McCarthy and Henry Ford; initially, a variety of terms were used to describe the music, one of the most common being ‘folk music.’ After McCarthy included left-leaning folk musicians – most significantly the Weavers – as a target during his zealous attacks on Communism in the early 1950s, there was a concerted attempt to distance the music from the red menace. In 1953 references to the ‘folk’ nomenclature were expunged, replaced by the more innocuous ‘Country,’ insuring no one would take offense, and making it clear that this music was performed by patriot, right thinking individuals. The term quickly became the standard designation, which continues today.

Auto maker Henry Ford was one of the music’s strongest supporters. In order to curb jazz dancing, which he saw as “urban decadence,” he organized fiddle contests and square dances around the country. Ironically, at the same time country acts could be equally risqué, recording suggestive titles like ‘Pussy Pussy Pussy’ and ‘Gonna Get Tight.’

Flying Burrito Brothers: Hot Burritos! Anthology 1969-1972 , A&M, 2000
Gram Parsons: Another Side Of This Life, Sundazed, 2000

The Flying Burritos Brothers are arguably the most influential group of the current alternative country movement. Led by Gram Parson and Chris Hillman, the two first worked together when Parsons joined the Byrds for 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a groundbreaking foray into Country music that was a dud sales wise. Selling less than any other album in the group’s catalogue, it’s gone on to attain legendary status. He left soon after the album’s release – but not before playing at the Grand Ole Opry – the first rock group to ever set foot on the hallowed stage. Hillman, a founding member of the Byrds, exited a few months later. In short order they put together the Burritos. Combining Honky Tonk with rock and roll sensibilities, the group’s stellar debut, Guilded Palace of Sin (1969) sold even less than Sweetheart.

Songs like ‘Sin City,’ ‘God’s Own Singer,’ ‘Down In the Churchyard’ and ‘Hippie Boy’ touched on moral issues in a way rarely dealt with in the rock culture. Parsons had studied theology at Harvard, and the spiritual was a natural part of his songwriting landscape. Singing traditional gospel material like ‘Farther Along’ in rock palaces, Parsons brought an uncommon depth to the material. ‘Hot Burrito #1’, perhaps the group’s greatest single recording, is one of the most heartbreaking performances ever committed to tape.

Parsons’ family history was rife with insanity and suicide, and his self-destructive nature exasperated fellow band members. Missing too many shows, he lasted through one more album (Burrito Deluxe) until he was fired from the group. He went on to record two excellent solo Lps (G.P./Grievous Angel), both featuring the then-unknown Emmylou Harris, before OD’ing on a potent combination of alcohol and heroin in 1973.

Within a couple of years the Eagles – whose membership included ex-Burrito Bernie Leadon – would hit pay dirt with a watered-down version of Parson’s vision. They had the hits, but the Burritos were the real deal.

Parsons was part of a long-standing tradition of Country artists like Ira Louvin, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams who, responsible for some of the last century’s finest gospel songs, appeared to experience Saturday night and Sunday morning in equal measure. Dying young ensured legendary status, which unfortunately minimizes much of his peer’s work. Chris Hillman co-writer of many if the Burritos best tunes, Gene Clark, Mike Nesmith, Doug and Rodney Dillard, Rick Nelson and many others were every bit as talented.

Hot Burritos! includes the group’s first three albums in their entirety plus a generous sampling of stray tracks. Essential.

Another Side offers eighteen Parsons performances heretofore believed lost. Recorded on a friend’s tape deck during visits home from Harvard between 1965 – 1966, Parsons was becoming a frequent visitor and performer in the Greenwich Village clubs. Outside of five originals – including ‘Brass Buttons,’ reprised on his second solo album – the selection is made up of then-current folk favorites, including numbers by Hamilton Camp, Reverend Gary Davis, and Fred Neil. The song selection makes for an excellent illustration of the link between folk and country.

Typical for Sundazed, the packaging and sound are first-rate.

Hank Williams: Live At The Grand Ole Opry, Mercury, 1999

The ultimate country artist, Hank Williams could turn simple phrases into insights the average Joe could related to. A charismatic figure, he nailed the human condition as consistently as any writer in the last century. According to the disc’s liner notes, in the southern states “you can crack a hymnal in any Baptist Church in this part of the world, and there are his words, about love and faith and God.” That may be a stretch, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea.

A regular on the Louisiana Hayride radio show from ’48-’49, Williams’ reputation for missing performances due to physical infirmities compounded by serious pill and drink habits kept him off of the more popular Opry stage until he was simply too big to ignore. His June 1949 debut appearance ended with eight encores of his breakthrough hit ‘Lovesick Blues’ (number one for 16 weeks). That show isn’t included here, but we get the same song performed one week later, and the audience reaction – cheers all but drowning out the performance – makes clear just how popular he was. After a generous sampling of hits and obscurities – including two seldom performed sacred numbers: ‘Let The Spirit Descend’ and ‘The Old Country Church’ – the disc concludes with four tracks from July 1952. Williams’ tenure with the Opry was brief – the following month he was fired for missing too many shows. Six months later he was dead, not yet 30 years old.

This is as close as we get to hearing Hank live. A few years back Mercury released a double disc set of his Health & Happiness radio transcriptions, but those were studio recordings, whereas the Opry set has him live on stage, interacting with the audience and fellow performers.

A bonus disc offers an entire Opry broadcast from February 1950, featuring Hank as well as Red Foley, Minnie Pearl, the blackface comedy duo Jamup & Honey, Wally Fowler’s Oak Ridge Quartet (precursors to the present day Oak Ridge Boys) and more. In addition to three tracks from Williams there’s comedy routines and plenty of gospel.

© John Cody 2002

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| February 1st, 2002 | Posted in Articles |
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