Buddy Miller’s Majestic Silver Strings
New West Records
[Rating: 4 stars}
Buddy Miller is certainly on a roll these days. From his work with Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, to being the man who assembled the current band for Robert Plant’s Band of Joy album and tour, Miller is becoming known as a go-to guy for all things Americana, however broad the definition of Americana is.
So Miller called in three other ace pickers to be part of Buddy Miller’s Majestic Silver Strings, a project featuring both traditional and outside arrangements of mostly classic country songs. With guitarists Bill Frisell (Charlie Haden, Elvis Costello), Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Solomon Burke) and plays-anything-with-strings guy Greg Leisz (Miranda Lambert, Ray LaMontagne), and some stellar guest vocalists, this album may well be one of the sleepers of the year for some major awards.
Opening with more than two minutes of authentic Western music that would have Roy Rogers grinning, Miller delivers a warm and friendly vocal on the Tex Owens classic “Cattle Call,” even doing a little yodeling. This album is full of such familiar classics, as Miller is joined by frequent collaborator Patty Griffin for a nice version of Jim Beck and Lefty Frizzell’s “I Want to Be with You Always,” and Shawn Colvin delivers an excellent vocal on Frizzell’s and Whitey Shafer’s “That’s the Way Love Goes,” which was recorded by Merle Haggard and others.
Miller and Ribot sing the 1955 George Jones hit “Why Baby Why,” which was written by Darrell Edwards and Jones, who’s not normally known for his writing though he has done some. Emmylou Harris absolutely shines, as usual, on a simple and perfect version of the old Melvin Endsley/Stonewall Jackson classic “Why I’m Walkin’,” and Lee Ann Womack turns in a great performance on the old Dean Martin chestnut “Return to Me,” with a nearly two-minute intro of pedal steel and nylon-string guitar that couldn’t have been played any better.
Okay, so Dean Martin wasn’t exactly country. But this is a group of artists who can, and do, play anything. Nowhere on this recording is that more evident than on tracks six and seven, where the creative gloves come off. An intense, swampy version of Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” is given a Daniel Lanois production treatment, and the vocal by guest singer Marc Anthony Thompson, aka Chocolate Genius, makes the song sound as if it were composed yesterday. When this guy sings “Roses are red and violets are purple/And sugar is sweet and so is maple syrple,” he means it. And when he sings “They oughta take a rope and hang my ass high,” it doesn’t even resemble Roger Miller’s timeless novelty hit. It works great, with guitars exuding good taste throughout. Fabulous.
Ribot takes the vocal on the old Western (though it was said to have been written in North Carolina) folk standard “Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie,” a six-minute tour de force that might have some folks who liked the traditional country stuff scrambling for the remote. With dissonant guitars and slide work that sounds like some sort of Roy Harper-inspired free form raga, the Majestic Silver Strings show their true colors, going into an uncharted desert on the most traditional of cowboy songs. But then, what should we expect from guys who play with Tom Waits and Charlie Haden?
This record is way cool. It may not seem like it upon first listen, but after a couple spins it’s hard to forget. Here’s hoping the Majestic Silver Strings will get together regularly, and take a few more trips to both the familiar and unfamiliar territory they explore so well.