In 1934 cowboy and cowboy singer Tex Owens was watching snow flakes fall and feeling a little sorry for all the creatures who would be stuck out in the cold that night. He told his wife, Maude, that he wished he could call them all around, break some corn over a wagon wheel and feed them. That’s when he got the idea for a song.
“Cattle Call” begins Buddy Miller’s album “The Majestic Silver Strings.” I never tire of hearing it, and only don’t play it every week on Walkin’ the Floor in fear of wearing it out for others. Buddy and the crackest of crack bands starts it off slow and sweet, all harmonics and echoes, the hooves come in a moment later, followed by what can only be the joyful play of Bill Frisell walking the melody. Having been a long time fan of Frisell I fully expected this to be an instrumental opener, but at two minutes and eleven seconds when Millers husky baritone sings those familiar words my smile spread to a grin. Then comes a soft yodel, more Terry Allen than Jimmie Rodgers, and the whole thing wraps up moments later, leaving me, like always, wanting to hear it again.
Next, the band slides into a pretty straight cover of Mickey & Sylvia’s “No Good Lover.” In music there’s an old lyrical theme where someone takes someone else’s money. That someone else is angry, yes, but also still loves. If you don’t know, then you don’t know. It lacks a bit of the looseness of the original, but retains the playfulness of the call and response. Gospel singer, and daughter of Rev. Sam McCrary of the Fairfield Four , Ann McCrary, trades the shots with Miller, and sings like a force of nature; a barrelhouse singer who sounds like she’d be right at home just past midnight.
Patty Griffin joins Miller in a duet on “I Want To Be With You Always,” one of two Lefty Frizzell songs on the album. They sing it on the other side of the moon from “No Good Lover.” I’m often guilty of reading too much into things like this, but I like the joke of coming out of a raucous blues number that mirrored Frizzell’s actual life while going into a sweet number like what he’d sing for his wife in some New Mexican jail. This one gets true country treatment with a gentle shuffle beat and a steel guitar played beautifully and simply by Greg Leisz.
Cajun music sometimes seems like the last true wild music of America. It’s raw, sometimes harsh. It can be dense and inaccessible and has the alarming ability to make the non-cajun feel like a stranger in his own land. The two-steps that come out of it though can always be ridiculously fun; primal stomps fueled by sweat and fiddles, driven by accordions and staccato rhythms played on big guitars. Its heart is a honkytonk one and what it has in common with Arkansas rockabillies and Tex-Mex Conjunto bands is greater than its differences. One of the great standards of the music is “Barres De La Prison.” Marc Ribot sings the lead and hearing it mostly in English, maybe the only time I have, I’m struck by it as if for the first time. All of Springsteen’s Nebraska could be an outtake of this song. There’s a sad acceptance to the whole thing when the singer isn’t urging us to dance. There’s also, in this arrangement, an echo of the Woody Guthrie / Pete Seeger song “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)” here in melody and theme. The ties that bind those Louisiana Cajuns, Arkansas rockabillies, and Mexican Conjunto bands go deeper than squeeze boxes and squeaky fiddles. These are disenfranchised voices trying to let go on a Saturday night. After all the drink has been drunk and the dances danced and the people have wandered out into the night this is the song the band plays while the help sweep up the week.
After a song like “Barres De La Prison” it’s time to take stock of one’s life. Typically this happens early in the morning after a hard night out with aching head and a cotton filled mouth while staring at the worst spot on the entire wall. Lee Ann Womack sings this bleary Ribot song with gorgeous authority. Buddy Miller champions the underdogs, but he also champions the ones that got big too fast. The ones that people like me overlook due to some sort of reverse snobbery all the while complaining about production styles or some such bullshit. Good on you Buddy Miller. This could be the best song on the entire album.
It’s no longer funny that men stay out half the night and spend the rent money on good time friends and booze, while women are left at home with month old babies. Roger Miller’s own version of “Dang Me” centers largely in the denial that it is actually quite funny. Yes, he says the words, but, wink, he doesn’t mean them. In Chocolate Genius’s version though, the man is haunted by his addiction, unable to escape. It could be the edgy acknowledgment needed by the toothpaste buying moms of commercial country, but this is hardly pop. What is it then? I played it for my wife and asked her what she thought, and she furrowed her brow and said, “those are the words to Roger Miller’s song? I’ve never really listened to them other than the chorus.” She said no more, but perhaps that’s enough. For me, it reminds me of “Groundhog Dog” when Bill Murray’s character tries to recreate the once spontaneous and fun snowball fight, but after a few hundred tries comes across manic and frightening. There’s lighthearted moments on this album, and maybe covering a Miller tune came out of one of those times. He is the great sad clown of country though, and maybe, after playing around with the song, they just stopped laughing.
The cowboy didn’t always sing simply for song in his heart. Sometimes, at night, or in a stampede,they sang so others knew where they were. The cowboy, Teddy Blue, says they sang “Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie” so often even the horses and coyotes would sing along. It was a English seamen’s song first and at some now unknown time it was adapted to the great American prairies. It has many siblings which share verses and melody lines, like “The Dying Cowboy,” “Streets of Laredo,” and “A Cowboy’s Meditation.” John Lomax once wrote about our Midwest expanses “you can look farther and see less than any other place on this earth.” It’s easy to see the sailors fear manifested in these endless silent fields. Marc Ribot sings the version here and it has real dread. The kind where the singer knows to be laid here is no good end. It’s a plea more than a request. One certainly to go unfulfilled.
After ten years on the radio certain relationships build. I pull a handful of CDs every week from the shelves not because I’m planning on playing them, but because I know the phone will ring and they’ll be requested. I have a pretty loose policy on requests, if you want to hear it and I have it, and it’s not completely out of left field or just plain awful (my judgement- which I feel is lenient) I’ll play it. Why not? It takes all of two and half minutes to play a song someone wants to hear. I have one listener who calls up every couple of months and wants to hear Lefty Frizzell sing “That’s The Way Love Goes.” By the time Frizzell wrote this song he hadn’t had a hit in almost ten years. He was divorced, dropped from his record label, losing his money, his fame, and a fight with alcohol which would kill him within the next two years. With this song and another cut in the same session, “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” he wrote the sound of country music for the next decade, just like he had always done. Show me a country singer that doesn’t name check Lefty Frizzell and I’ll show you a pop star. Shawn Colvin sings the song on the record. She first recorded it on a live album called “In Their Own Words,” which I once owned, but had lost and forgotten about. Hearing her sing the song brought me back to a sepia-toned time of my life in the way that only music can. It’s funny, I’ve played that request for years and never connected it. They play here sweet and slow, just the way it should be.
The liner notes say that Bill Frisell brought “Freight Train” to the sessions. It plays as a great Frisell joke, too, which is like listening to a Mort Saul album, that is to say I don’t always get it, but I laugh and enjoy myself and feel pretty good about things nonetheless. It’s a slow building romp giving nod to all that’s possible in, if not probable in, the world’s greatest folk song.
In an elastic case of reinvention we next hear the Stonewall Jackson classic “Why I’m Walkin’.” Stonewall wrote it in 1958 and recorded it two years later as filler for an album. This was in a time where commercial deejays could still drop their needles where they pleased and many of them picked this one; side two, song four, not bad. Over the years it has been covered by Ricky Skaggs, Wanda Jackson, the great cowboy singer Don Walser, and Johnny Paycheck when he was still Donny Young (listen close to his version, Roger Miller is doing the harmony). Emmylou Harris and the band stretch this two minute honkytonker into an almost six minute shuffle. This is courtship, proposal, drift, break up and regret.
To sing “Why Baby Why” on a classic country cover album is as cliche as putting a false start at the beginning of a song. It is also true that we need something to hold onto, something familiar. It’s like an English speaking scene in a foreign subtitled film. It’s not exactly home, but it’s close enough.
“Return To Me,” written by Guy’s little brother, Carmen Lombardo, is one of those standards like “My Blue Heaven,” or “I’ll Be Seeing You,” that I never tire of. Good versions, bad versions, I usually like them. Songs like these are more than words and music, they’re entire moments of time held as if in amber. Lee Ann Womack sings her second song of the album and it leaves me wanting so much more.
We do get one more. “God’s Wing’ed Horse,’ a melody from Bill Frisell and lyrics from Miller’s wife and long time songwriting partner Julie Miller. Buddy sings great with just about everyone, but with Julie it’s just a little better than that. This is Pegasus perhaps, and this graceful song would be a fine tribute. The wing’ed horse is a symbol for artists inspiration and as such is a fitting finale to an album of many inspirations. The album nods to the comforts of tradition, the idea that you can’t think out of a box when you don’t have one to begin with. It’s not content to simply pay homage or be memory though, no, above all this album champions music and lifts us to a place above those cold nights Tex Owens once worried about, and like the great wing’ed horse aims for constellation.
We’ll travel far,
to some big shinning star,
Just you and my guitar
And stay there
Sweethearts for always
~Lefty Frizell, “I Want To Be With You Always”
Post Script ~ Every person on this album is worth checking out their various other projects and gigs and albums.