As humble as he is talented, Buddy Miller meekly confessed he felt unprepared to perform at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville on Tuesday night (Aug. 10) for the first of his three shows as the museum’s artist-in-residence.
But with special guests like Tom T. Hall, Emmylou Harris, Bill Frisell and the McCrary Sisters on board, such an incredible night of roots music could never be considered an amateur night. Instead, Miller and his friends reinvigorated the Ford Theater with their voices and instruments, marking the first show there since the May flood crept into the performance space, past the second row of chairs.
All of those chairs were filled during the two-hour-plus, intermission-free set — not that anybody wanted to leave early. Miller led his set with “All My Tears,” an intensely spiritual song written by his wife, Julie Miller. After that, he joked, “I didn’t get the manual on how to do this show, so that’s my way of saying I don’t know what I’m doing.” However, the rulebook for the artist-in-residence is actually pretty short: Get your friends together and play whatever feels right.
Clearly, Miller has a deep and abiding love for R&B music, reflected in his rich, earthy vocals and hot, expressive guitar playing. Over the course of the night, he captured the soul of songs like “That’s How Strong My Love Is” and “Walk Away Renee” (recorded by Otis Redding and the Four Tops, respectively) as well as the riveting “Shelter Me Lord” and the fiery “Gasoline and Matches,” both of which he wrote with his wife.
Miller stepped away from the spotlight numerous times to shine attention on his friends. First up, the three McCrary Sisters surprised the crowd with a riveting, almost unrecognizable “Blowin’ in the Wind.” By taking away the familiar rhythm and melody, they infused the folk song with a new energy and kept listeners hanging on every phrase. After a gospel number, they stuck around to boost Miller’s slow-burning “Worry Too Much,” a song written by his late friend, Mark Heard.
Miller assembled a top-notch band to back him for the performance, with Bill Frisell on guitar, Byron House on bass and Marco Giovino on drums. Miller invited Frisell to perform a quietly beautiful version of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” and, later, the yearning folk song, “Shenandoah.” Miller noted that every time he watches Frisell play, it’s like taking a guitar lesson. He also noted that he and Frisell have recorded an album with guitarist Marc Ribot and steel guitarist Greg Leisz that’s coming out next March under the name of the Majestic Silverstrings.
With the song’s composer sitting in the front row, just a few steps away, Miller nervously introduced Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” Miller added that he’s probably played the song at every show he’s ever done and that he asks all of the artists he produces to try singing it “because I think it’s one of the best songs there is.” He also went on to say that he bought every record that Hall released, because Hall’s songs always had something to say — “even if it was just ‘I Like Beer.’”
After a sterling rendition of “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” Miller turned the stage over to Hall, a Country Music Hall of Fame member who received a standing ovation when he took his place. With an amusing anecdote about why he wrote “Pay No Attention to Alice,” the unsuspecting members of the audience might have expected a novelty song, but received a vivid, yet dark, portrayal of a West Virginia war buddy and his alcoholic wife. For his self-described “encore” (he never left the stage), he revived one of his classics, “Homecoming,” about a promising country singer who drops by to see his recently widowed father. Again, a standing ovation.
Miller enlisted another front-row guest — and Country Music Hall of Fame member — as Harris strolled onstage to deliver “Love Hurts” with Miller providing exquisite harmony. “It was a great day when Buddy and Julie Miller came into my life,” she told the audience. Miller admitted he once sent a fan letter to her record company, suggesting that he hoped he could one day play guitar in her band. Harris smiled and replied that she never got the letter — although they’ve luckily managed to collaborate many times over the years in spite of that. During their time together, they also dug up a Porter Wagoner-Dolly Parton chestnut, “Burning the Midnight Oil,” a country hit from the early 1970s.
“If we do mess it up,” Miller wisecracked, “it’s only about a minute and 40 seconds.” Harris also stuck around for a lovely and heartbreaking “Walk Away Renee,” followed by an undeniably heartfelt take on “Wide River to Cross,” bolstered by the McCrary Sisters. Then, Harris made way for two of the McCrary Sisters to amplify the raucous “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go.”
Because Miller isn’t one to rest on his laurels or draw too much attention to himself, Harris took it upon herself to appraise the night during the encore, where she joined Miller on the devastatingly sad song, “Don’t Tell Me” — although the blows were softened somewhat by their elegant harmony. “This was some show,” Harris said, still in awe. After telling the audience how lucky she felt to have Miller as a friend and neighbor and to be surrounded by such talent in Nashville, she concluded, “I’m glad this is my hometown.” Truly, she isn’t the only one.
Miller will return to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Ford Theater for shows on Aug. 17 and Aug. 24. For more information about the Artist-in-Residence program, visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s website.Find out more about Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum events.