Buddy Miller Artist In Residence: August 17, 2010

August 17, 2010
In introducing the second song of his second 2010 artist-in-residence concert at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Buddy Miller brought up his recent heart attack and the death of a good friend—yet managed to make the tale life-affirming, inspiring, and side-splittingly funny.

In its way, the story symbolized Miller’s M.O. for the evening, which featured guests Patty Griffin, Ann and Regina McCrary, Darrell Scott, and Lee Ann Womack—all of whom have shared stage and studio time with Buddy and his wife Julie Miller in recent years. Dividing up in different groupings throughout the evening, Miller and his guests delved into a lengthy set steeped in the grave themes of traditional gospel, blues and old-time country music, transforming these earthy songs into uplifting, soul-stirring, heavenly music.

Whether harmonizing quietly on an old Lefty Frizzell classic, stomping through a Christian hymn, or exploring moral issues in his original compositions, Miller repeatedly proved how American music can tackle the most serious of subjects yet deliver them in the most joyful of ways.

“I don’t have to hardly work with all my friends here playing and singing,” the ever-humble Miller said at the end of the evening, after performing nearly two hours of non-stop masterful guitar and vocals. “It’s just a joy for me to get to sit back and listen to them and do a little playing.”

With his top-notch guest list, and with the one-of-a-kind ways he mixed and matched his guests through the twenty-song set, Miller made full use of the objective of the Museum’s annual artist in-residence series. As Museum Director Kyle Young said in introducing Miller, the series is designed to give a country music artist of the highest order the free rein to use the Museum’s Ford Theater stage however he desires.

“Buddy’s unflinching dedication to his craft, along with his collaborative spirit, makes him an ideal artist-in-residence,” Young said. “Seeing and hearing him up close and personal, in this small theater, you will come to understand his essence, and feel the humanity and the spirituality that inform his creativity. We are privileged to give him our stage as his living room.”

The evening began with Miller on electric guitar fronting a rhythm section of Byron House on bass and Bryan Owings on drums, with Ann and Regina McCrary on harmony vocals and Regina’s distinctive tambourine accents. They opened with “Don’t Wait,” a song written by Miller and Jim Lauderdale (who was in the audience), from Miller’s 2004 album Universal United House of Prayer.

With the same band, he presented a tender version of the late Stephen Bruton’s “Heart of Hearts.” Introducing the song, Miller recalled an e-mail Bruton, who was fighting cancer, sent him as Miller convalesced in a hospital bed after undergoing emergency heart bypass surgery in 2009. The message included the line, “sending you good vibes.” Miller, in his heavily medicated haze, was inspired by Bruton’s message to go online and buy a nice vibraphone—better known as vibes—which later were delivered to his Nashville home as his mystified wife, Julie, looked on.

On the fourth song, Miller brought out Scott, with whom he has been touring recently in Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, which also features Griffin and House. Scott performed his original song, “Hank Williams’ Ghost,” with Williams’s granddaughter, Hilary Williams, sitting directly before him in the Ford Theater’s front row. After another Scott original, “Gravity,” Miller invited Griffin to the stage. The three singer-songwriters presented a creatively arranged version of Porter Wagoner’s “Satisfied Mind” in three-part harmony.

Scott departed as Griffin spoke of collaborating with Miller, who produced her recent album, Downtown Church, recorded a few blocks from the Museum at Nashville’s historic Downtown Presbyterian chapel. Griffin described Miller “as one of the best human beings I know, on top of being one of the best musicians I know.”

With the McCrary Sisters joining in, Griffin sang a rousing version of the traditional gospel song, “Move Up.” Extending the evening’s non-stated theme, she then led the band through the ominous gospel-blues “Death’s Got a Warrant” before shifting to a sweet, spare version of “Never Grow Old,” done with only Miller accompanying her on vocals and guitar.

Next, the two singers performed a fiery Miller original, "Gasoline and Matches.” Buddy mentioned that the song had been featured in a recent episode of the HBO-TV series True Blood—“I don’t endorse the vampire lifestyle,” Miller quipped—before he and Griffin slowed things down again with a version of Lefty Frizzell’s “I Want to Be with You Always.” That song will appear, with Griffin on vocals, on an upcoming album featuring the all-star guitar lineup of Miller, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, and Greg Leisz. Griffin remained on stage as Miller and band tore through “Shelter Me” and “Chalk,” the latter written by Julie Miller.

Miller introduced his final guest, Womack, calling her “one of the most beautiful people and beautiful voices.” The award-winning country star joined Miller and Griffin on a tender take of another Lefty Frizzell song, “Mom and Dad’s Waltz.” With Scott on banjo, Womack tore into Miller’s “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” a song she recorded for her 2000 album, I Hope You Dance. Womack followed with a lightheartedly beautiful “Return to Me,” a song Marty Robbins co- wrote and recorded. Next, she sang an achingly effective version of the traditional- country ballad “Don’t Tell Me,” which Miller characterized as his favorite cover of one of his songs. Womack included the song on her 1998 album, Some Things I Know, making it one of the first mainstream country cuts the Millers had received.

The main set ended with Griffin joining Miller, Scott, the McCrarys, and the rhythm section on a deeply grooved version of “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go.” After thanking the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for his residency, Miller closed with an encore, his evocative spiritual “Wide River to Cross.”

“It’s such an honor to be invited to do this here at the Country Music Hall of Fame,” Miller had said to open the evening. By the end, as yet another standing ovation rang through the theater, it was clear why Miller had earned such an honor.

—Michael McCall