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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1634

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Buddy Miller's The Majestic Silver Strings
by George Graham

(New West 6188 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/23/2011)

In music, the expression "birds of a feather flock together" has a fair degree of validity, at least as far as styles are concerned. Bands are usually composed of musicians with similar musical tendencies. But it's often interesting to see what happens when players of very different backgrounds, associated with rather dissimilar genres are combined, either hired for a special project, or are drawn together by their own musical curiosity.

This week we have one of the latter, a recording by four guitarists of diverse backgrounds who combine to do a collection of mostly very old material. The group is headed by Buddy Miller, and the project called The Majestic Silver Strings.

Buddy Miller is a Nashville based artist mainly known as a songwriter whose compositions have been widely recorded by others. But he's also an active studio musician, he records his own music, and has done duet projects with his wife Julie Miller. The other players in the Majestic Silver Strings are jazz guitarist Bill Frisell who in recent years has been known for being attracted to folk and country music and giving the tunes an entirely different spin. Marc Ribot came to prominence through his work with Tom Waits, but he has released his own eclectic solo recordings and even worked with hip-hop groups. And rounding out this quartet is steel guitar and Dobro specialist Greg Leisz, a busy studio musician known for his work on the West Coast including with Joni Mitchell.

As Miller described it, they knew each other and shared something of a background in their musical upbringing. So Miller had the idea of getting together with them in his home studio, and in his words, "messing up some old country songs." And they did go back to sources like Lefty Frizell and Tex Owens, along with some traditional songs and often gave them a very different spin. While Miller is the most frequent vocalist, Marc Ribot is takes his turns, and there are various significant vocal guests including Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, Lee Ann Womack, Patty Griffin, and perhaps most unexpectedly, Marc Anthony Thompson, also known as Chocolate Genius from the soul-R&B world to do a Roger Miller song. The result is as interesting as one would expect. The old songs are given very different treatments, with a lot of musical cross pollinating going on. There plenty of distinctive guitar sounds and textures, and the sound is often rather atmospheric. The musicianship is outstanding and despite the conscious goal of twisting the old songs, the results are often quite pleasing.

In addition to the four pickers, there is a rhythm section of two first-call Nashville players, bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellarose. They literally gathered in Miller's house and recorded with everyone together, including vocals, almost completely without overdubs. It's a generous 13-song CD that also includes two original compositions in the style. The CD often has a rather dark musical texture, even on songs that one usually associates with more upbeat arrangements. But the atmospheric sound tempers that some, and there are a couple of more energetic tunes to bring things up a bit.

The opening piece is rather an epitome of the direction taken by the Majestic Silver Strings. It's the old cowboy song by Tex Owens, Cattle Call. The style may be somewhat familiar to fans of Bill Frisell, who has been taking this atmospheric approach to old songs from the folk and country worlds. Greg Leisz' steel guitar gives it good helping of spaciness. <<>>

Rather different in direction is No Good Lover, a song written by Mickey Baker, who wrote guitar instruction books that Miller and his colleagues used in their youth. Buddy Miller shares the vocals with Ann McCrary, so the result is an interesting dichotomy between honky tonk and church Gospel singing. <<>>

Patty Griffin makes her appearance on the Lefty Frizell song I Want to Be with You Always. They take it fairly straight except for the generally eclectic undercurrent of styles that come together in the playing by the respective guitarists. <<>>

The CD includes an original piece by Marc Ribot called Meds. Lee Ann Womack sings the song that outwardly has the sound of a traditional country song, but the lyrics, about pharmaceuticals, are anything but. <<>>

There is one instrumental on the CD, the Elizabeth Cotton classic folk song Freight Train. The players throw all kinds of influences together, and it sometimes sounds a bit stylistic chaotic, but edifying nonetheless. <<>>

Marc Ribot does the vocals another one of the traditional songs on the CD Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie. Usually this folk song is does in an upbeat manner, but they turn it into a kind of spacey dirge. <<>>

The most unlikely cover that the group does is of Roger Miller's classic novelty country-pop song Dang Me. Chocolate Genius' Mark Anthony Thompson, in whose band Marc Ribot has played, does the vocal and the arrangement. Thompson said that both he and Ribot both were very familiar with the song. The group really takes it in an unexpected, and I think I can safely say "strange" direction. But again, it's quite intriguing, and it definitely catches the ear of anyone familiar with the venerable hit. <<>>

The CD ends with God's Wing'ed Horse, a piece whose music was written by Bill Frisell in the style of an old Gospel tune. Buddy Miller's wife Julie wrote lyrics for it and sang it with her husband. It's another highlight. <<>>

The new release Buddy Miller's The Majestic Silver Strings is one of those thoroughly interesting recordings that happens when musicians from diverse backgrounds get together to have some fun and see what will happen. The result is definitely an eclectic mix, but one that fits together surprisingly well. The mostly old songs are vehicles for the gathered players to draw on their own musical backgrounds and creative juices to make something that I think is quite absorbing and entertaining. The guest vocalists, from Emmylou Harris to Chocolate Genius' Mark Anthony Thompson add to the breadth of the eclecticism.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B-minus. Although there is a nice intimate, live feel from having the musicians playing in a living room all together, with almost no overdubbing, the technical quality of the recording is wanting. It was done on a vintage analog tape machine and shows some of the deficiencies of the medium. The recording is not very clean, it has a somewhat murky quality and there's occasional distortion. And volume compression killed a lot of the dynamics of the performance.

An added bonus for those actually buying this nicely packaged CD, rather than the download, is a DVD which contains a nice little documentary on the making of the recording and how it came about, with song-by song explanations.

While some combinations of diverse musicians can sound like a shotgun wedding, Buddy Miller, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot and Greg Leisz each bring a lot to the table, and combining to reinvent the old country songs, makes for fascinating listening.

(c) Copyright 2011 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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