Buddy Miller & Friends
Cayamo Sessions at Sea
This review is a guest contribution from R.S. Williams.
With a steady job as executive music producer for ABC-TV’s Nashville, as well as a hectic schedule in his own studio, Buddy Miller does not often release a new album. When he finally does, it’s bound to be excellent. Buddy Miller & Friends: Cayamo Sessions at Sea features Miller supporting some of Americana’s top artists. It demonstrates not only his sublime artistry, but his talent of nudging great singers into even greater performances.
The artists feel supremely comfortable working with Miller, and the album captures their unguarded moments. Heartfelt emotion radiates from these tracks. Before a small audience in the Cayamo cruise ship’s bowling alley, Miller records each track in one take. This works to beautiful effect. In the first few a cappella words of their cover of Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” we hear a brief, slightly nervous quiver in Kacey Musgraves’ voice. This is the “live” feel Miller often seeks in his production work, and it’s perfect here. Musgraves’ pure country voice shines through, and Miller doesn’t flatten out what a less sensitive producer would consider a “mistake.” Similarly, his duet with Lee Ann Womack on “After the Fire Is Gone” feels like the two are playing a tiny, jam-packed club: all-out, raucous, raising hell, and having fun. We just happen to be standing right in front of the stage.
Some might bemoan the song selection as predictable. Keep in mind, though, that this album aims to please both longtime fans and those just discovering Americana. For this reason, Miller’s wisdom shines through in the song selection. For instance, he showcases longtime friend Shawn Colvin on a spare, haunting version of “Wild Horses”—likely the last thing listeners expected to hear from the singer behind “Sunny Came Home.” Similarly, Brandi Carlisle and the Lone Bellow turn their cover of “Angel from Montgomery” into a hand-clapping, soul-shouting take on John Prine’s masterpiece. And Kris Kristofferson, in what may prove to be one of his last and best performances before dementia steals his rugged, road-weary voice, turns his own “Sunday Morning Coming Down” into both a tender thank you and a heartbreaking goodbye.
Miller covers familiar country music territory in excellent fashion with a variety of guests, including Doug Seegers (“Take the Hand of Jesus”), Richard Thompson (“Wedding Bells”), and Nikki Lane (“Just Someone I Used to Know”). Arrangements stay close to those of the originals, but do not bore listeners—vocals and instrumentation work perfectly. In the opening moments of “Hickory Wind,” Lucinda Williams remarks on the stellar backing band Miller has brought along on the cruise. Williams speaks what all of Nashville knows: Buddy Miller recruits only the finest.
Steve Earle once called Buddy Miller “the best f***ing hillbilly singer on the planet.” While this album doesn’t focus exclusively on Buddy’s voice, it supports Earle’s contention. Miller’s magic lies not only in his voice, but also in how his musicianship and production expertise bring out the best in everyone around him.
R.S. Williams is a freelance writer, photographer, and scholar based in LaGrange, Georgia—and possibly the only person in the world (so far!) to create and teach a fully online, university-level country music survey course. Readers may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.