November 2002

Buddy Miller - Midnight and Lonesome
HighTone HCD8149
Released: 2002

by Wes Phillips

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Buddy Miller is my hero. He's a heckuva good guitar player and a fine songwriter, and, like Rodney Crowell, Ricky Scaggs, and Daniel Lanois before him, he's the lynchpin and musical director of Emmylou Harris' touring band, Spyboy. Yet, he never seems like country-music royalty; he comes across as a low-key working stiff who works out of his house.

Which, actually, isn't too far off the mark. Miller and his wife, the singer and songwriter Julie Miller, do work at home -- their house is more studio than lodgings, and Midnight and Lonesome, like most of their output, was recorded there. It shows. The disc has a handmade, relaxed quality that you never get while the meter is running.

Midnight and Lonesome is Miller's fourth solo record (fifth, if you count last year's Buddy and Julie Miller) and it's a corker. Buddy Miller wrote or co-wrote four of the disc's 11 songs, his wife accounts for another four, and the covers include Curtis Mayfield's "Send Me Someone to Love," the Everly Brothers' "The Price of Love," and an exquisite rendering of Jesse Winchester's "A Showman's Life" that would make a marble statue weep.

As a Southerner myself, I despise the fake folksiness that infects certain kinds of Miller's twang is the real thing. When he rhymes "water" with "ought to" (pronounced "orter," of course), it's not an affectation -- where he comes from, the rhyme scans.

But don't get a picture of some barefoot country boy -- Miller lives in the modern world, and Midnight and Lonesome, for all its relaxed, homemade feel is a thoroughly modern country record. Miller has incorporated the high-lonesome sound of real country into a contemporary vocabulary that includes Percy Mayfield's decidedly urban sensibility as well as the strum and twang of Nashville.

"When It Comes to You," one of the disc's standouts, pairs the Millers with Jim Lauderdale, as they fuse a choogling boogie-shuffle onto deliciously wry lyrics that update Hank Williams' "I've got the Money, Honey (If You've Got the Time)." "Baby, I've got my lovelight on / Baby, I've got the beat / I got twenty dollars in my shoe / and rhythm in my feet / I got more than 40 different grooves / and just as many moves / I'll be a cool rocking daddy that's who / when it comes to you." But wait -- I haven't even mentioned my favorite line yet: "I'll stick a feather in my cap and call it matrimony." How can you resist a song like that?

The last song on the disc is a throwback to an earlier time -- as well as testimony to how closely the Millers' lives and art co-exist. "Quecreek" is, of course, about the nine Pennsylvania coal miners whose ordeal in the flooded mineshaft riveted the nation's attention last July. Broadsides recounted news of the day and extraordinary events were once quite common, but we all subscribe to newspapers and watch CNN these days, and the custom has fallen by the wayside. But when you live and work in the same place as the Millers do, standard recording practice doesn't have to enter into the equation. Within hours of the rescue, Julie Miller had written "Quecreek," and she and Buddy went downstairs and recorded it.

It caught me by surprise the first time I heard it and it won't be everyone's cup of tea -- it draws parallels between the three-day interment of the unfortunate miners and that of Jesus -- but the passion and relief of the Millers is undeniable.

Midnight and Lonesome may be homemade, but it's also extremely well crafted. Miller has learned his way around a studio over the last few years and he has abandoned his reliance upon compression that marred the otherwise superlative Poison Love. M&L has a fresh, rich sound that emphasizes timbre over three-dimensionality. It may never become a hi-fi imaging demo disc, but with its infectious melodies, intelligent songwriting, and superlative playing and singing, it might remain in your "most played" pile for months at a time.