On 'Majestic Silver Strings', Buddy Miller teams up with Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, Greg Liesz, and a team of Americana music's most notable women singers to deliver an outstanding revival of traditional folk-country standards.
Reviving Country Classics
Country music earned its name, way back when, because it was by and about the people who lived out in the country. It used storytelling, simple, accessible instrumentation, and folk idioms to sing about life's extremes. Country music would either make you laugh or cry, but would hardly ever inspire feelings anywhere in the middle. That was before it became co-opted by the Nashville machine, buffed around the edges, and geared toward a more pop-minded audience. Threatened by the popularity of rock and roll, country did its best to go mainstream, to maintain sales and mass appeal. Artists who felt a natural aversion to that direction became known as outlaws, or went down entirely different roads altogether.
On Majestic Silver Strings, Buddy Miller and his band of Americana all-stars dip deep into the annals of country and western music, reviving songs which have, in some cases, been all but forgotten by modern country. On hand are Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Greg Liesz, Patty Griffin, Julie Miller, Emmylou Harris, Ann McCrary, LeeAnn Womack, and Chocolate Genius. That Buddy Miller happens to have impeccably talented friends is both a testament to and a reflection of his artistic prowess. Though his name may not be of the household variety outside of certain circles, within those circles, he's been referred to as the valedictorian of his genre. This is due largely to the fact that either his guitar, voice, songwriting, or producing skills (any or all of the above) have been behind many of the most notable projects out of this field in recent years.
Perhaps Miller's strongest skill is an intuitive ability to serve the song first. No need for flashy fireworks or overboard soundscaping. Buddy Miller can make a song work - and, for that matter, deliver a wallop - by stripping it down to its very essence. But, as he shows us here, stripping a song to its essence is possible even in the context of re-imagining its potential. For example, Elizabeth Cotten's famous song "Freight Train" (purchase/download
) becomes an all-instrumental cowboy song here, with Miller's guitar and Liesz's pedal steel weaving and bending around each other, like train tracks through a mountain range.
Other arrangements are downright not-country. For example, Miller and crew (featuring Marc Ribot) deliver an imaginatively dark, atmospheric rendition of "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie" (purchase/download) - a song which dates back as far as the 19th century. This arrangement seems truer to the song's sea shanty origins, slowly building and tossing the listener like a small boat atop a wave. Just another instance where Miller's vision manages to create the ambiance the song itself asserts. This number gives way to rather Shawn Colvinesque performance of "That's the Way Love Goes" (purchase/download) - simple, nuanced, sparsely instrumentalized, intrinsically musical and sad.
Country for a Changed Country
It's never enough to just sing an old song the way it's always been sung. Songs stick around through decades (and centuries) because of the way the song's meaning evolves. While it's hard for many city-dwellers or suburbanites now to imagine life on the high prairie amid a song like "Cattle Call" (purchase/download
), Miller et al's revival power-packs it with a new relevance. At the same time as being enjoyable entertainment, this and the other songs on the album remind us what it was about country music in the first place. Indeed, while Eddy Arnold's presentation of this tune back in the day was perhaps somewhat gimmicky, it lands on Majestic Silver Strings
as a reminder that - in the midst of a maddeningly difficult, complicated world, there is a place where the coyotes' howl still echoes against the expansive prairie.