Ten: Songs of Ben Bullington
The greatest gift a music lover can give another is leading them to a great artist they have not yet discovered. This is what Darrell Scott has done for me and, I’m sure, many music lovers with his latest release, Ten: Songs of Ben Bullington.
In paying tribute to a friend and a unique songwriter gone too soon, Scott has also made one of the best albums of his very impressive career.
Bullington was a medical doctor in a small Montana town and a father of three who wrote songs in his spare time. Although he released four records, Bullington never attempted to make a career out of music. Still, his work amassed a healthy word-of-mouth following. He and Scott initially connected outside of music, simply as two divorced dads on a camping trip with their kids. Only later did Scott realize the kind of talent and skill his friend had.
Scott, of course, is the author of the modern country classics, “Long Time Gone” and “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” as well as other hits from some of the genre’s most prolific acts – all plucked from a consistently excellent and adventurous solo catalogue.
Bullington’s songs can be funny or sad (or a little bit of both). Toggling between country, folk and bluegrass, they often have the feel of great short fiction – sharply-drawn characters captured with language that’s poetic and plainspoken, and melodies that are simple yet endearing.
Diagnosed with terminal cancer in November 2012, Bullington retired from medicine and focused as much as he could on music – recording a final self-titled album and touring the country. He died nearly a year after his diagnosis.
Bullington returned to Montana when touring became too difficult. Scott would send him iPhone recordings of songs he was arranging for the tribute album. One of these recordings, “I’ve Got to Leave You Now,” closes Ten. It’s just Scott and his piano. And it’s the song that first pops in my mind when I think about the album, especially the beautiful chorus: “Our souls may mingle in the after torch…Like four friends smoking on a midnight porch. I always loved you the best I knew how…But I’ve gotta leave you now.”
It’s easy to picture Bullington singing to the three sons he left behind, or any father forced to say goodbye. Scott’s unvarnished, completely stripped-down approach gives the song a kind of power and intimacy that’s rarely achieved. Scott has one of the most recognizable voices in all of contemporary music, and he’s never sounded as compelling as he does here – his muscular baritone cracking ever-so-faintly with emotion.
This approach defines the album as a whole. Scott recorded the songs alone often in his home studio, accompanying himself with a single instrument (guitar, banjo or piano). He clearly loves these songs and sings them with great care, allowing every word to loom large. His acoustic instrumentation is rich and precise, deepening the effect of the lyrics without upstaging them.
Scott sings the slice of farming life, “Lone Pine, with lovely patience, punctuating the tale with frequent banjo intervals. The picking allows the details in Bullington’s writing to take root. And what details they are. Here’s how we are introduced to the farmer:
“Sunrise will find him drinking coffee and cream…There’s a fire in the oven heatin’ biscuits and beans…W.H. Auden lies open face down…A Miles Davis solo is floating around… He sits there and thinks about the poem he just read…How it might fit together with the day that’s ahead.”
I feel like there could be three or four songs written about this guy. Bullington’s characters are both archetypes and specific, well-rounded individuals difficult to pigeonhole. By the end of these songs, I feel like I’ve come to know these people intimately while realizing they also harbor mysteries only suggested, but very much crucial to understanding who they are and what they do.
Perhaps the most mysterious character on Ten is the narrator of “Born in ‘55.” He sits in front of a surly barmaid and sings about the national tragedies that have defined his generation – Vietnam, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. It’s never explained who he is and what motivates him to embark on these reflections. Yet he emerges as a vivid figure simply by the way he talks. On the killing of Bobby, he seethes, “That little bastard shot him in a hotel in L.A.”
Another recurring element in Bullington’s work is a deep affection for Montana and its surrounding lands. I learn from one of Bullington’s obituaries that, near the end, he considered putting the phrase, “He loved words, guitars and wide open spaces,” on his gravestone.
His song “Green Heart” is much more than the tale of a young man on a long journey to find his first love. Just as significant are the places he travels through: “Big ponderosas…the sweetness of the cotton woods…beauty of a sunrise over miles and miles of sage…Antelope and mule deer…white tail and a touch of fear…a sea of prairie grasses and a thousand birds of prey.”
I’ve listened to “Green Heart” many times. I know every step of this kid’s journey and I know what happens. The same goes for all of the songs on Ten. Yet I keep coming back simply because it’s a powerful, seductive experience to hear Darrell Scott sing well-written songs. He knows when to linger on a lyric and when to quicken the pace. It seems effortless the way he can slide from warm and sensitive to darkly comic, almost sinister, and back again.
All of Scott’s shades are present throughout Ten, especially on “Thanksgiving 1985,” about a teenager singing to his deceased father during a particularly tough day. The song swings from heartbreak to comedy to hardscrabble inspiration and a little bit of satire. It’s a thorny mix but it plants me firmly in the mindset of this talented, thoughtful, pained young man slowly carving out a better life for himself.
Most of the songs on Ten are sad. “Country Music, I’m Talking to You” provides more than enough comic relief. Presented here as a live cut, Scott sounds delightfully biting delivering lines like, “Country music, I’m talking to you…I don’t love ya like I used to…Sad to say but I’m afraid it’s true…You left me, man, I didn’t leave you…’Sunday Morning Coming Down’ would not be on your radio now…It’s more about having rum drinks by the pool…Yeah you treat us like we’re all a bunch of fools.”
The song is not just a glorious takedown of the current blitz of frat boys and spring breakers. It also confronts possibly the ugliest episode in country music history: “I wasn’t surprised but it made me sick how you turned your back on the Dixie Chicks…While waivin’ that old red, white and blue.”
As fun as “Country Music, I’m Talking to You” is, any of the songs on Ten are just as effective at throwing down the gauntlet. Here’s a collection – performed brilliantly and modestly – that manages to be thoughtful, imaginative and, yes, entertaining. It should serve as a standard bearer.