This post is part of our occasional feature, Songwriter Profiles. If you have a suggestion for a bluegrass songwriter we might want to consider, please contact us.
Becky Buller was born in St. James, Minnesota. At the age of 10, she enrolled in some Suzuki method violin classes and began performing with her parents in a band called Prairie Grass. By the time she was 13, Ms. Buller had become a permanent member of Prairie Grass and began trying her luck on the fiddle contest circuit. Success quickly followed when in 1996, she won the Minnesota Junior Fiddling Championship. Her biggest fiddling influences are Kenny Baker, Curly Ray Cline, Stuart Duncan, Alison Krauss, Eddie Stubbs and Jason Carter.
While still in high school Ms. Buller began trying her hand at song writing and in 1996 she won first place in the Hank Williams Songwriting Contest held in Avoca, Iowa.
She was thrilled to be a part of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Songwriter Showcase during their 1998 World of Bluegrass week in Louisville, Kentucky. In 2001, she was awarded the first-place prize in the bluegrass category of the prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in Wilksboro, North Carolina. Her songwriting heroes include Gillian Welch, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Darrell Scott and Patty Griffin.
As a student at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in Johnson City, Tennessee, majoring in public relations, Ms. Buller was an active member of the Bluegrass and Country Music Program as well as performing with the ETSU Bluegrass Band and with Linda Lay and Appalachian Trail. She graduated in in May 2001.
In January of 2003 Ms. Buller was nominated for the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America’s (SPBGMA) “Songwriter of the Year” award. Her songs have been covered by IIIrd Tyme Out; Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike; Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver; Rhonda Vincent & the Rage; David Parmley & Continental Divide; the Mark Newton Band; and Fragment, among others.
Since May of 2001 Ms Buller has toured all over the world with Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike. She has received individual billing.
Ms. Buller has two solo albums. The first is Rest My Weary Feet, which came out in 2000 on the SRS record label and is currently out of print. It features members of Appalachian Trail as well as Beth Lawrence, Darrell Webb, Mo Canada, Megan Gregory, Donica Christensen and others. Ms. Buller wrote 10 of the 12 songs on the album and three of those were covered by other artists; Rest My Weary Feet by IIIrd Tyme Out; Why Don’t You Just Say Good-bye by Kenny & Amanda Smith; and The Blind Beggar by Jeanette Williams.
Her second solo CD, Little Bird was released on Bell Buckle Records (BBR-015) in October 2004. Her collaboration with multi-Grammy winning producer/engineer Rich Adler of the renowned SoundWave Studios in Nashville, Tennessee, Little Bird is a labor of love almost two years in the making which pairs Ms. Buller with some of Nashville’s finest musicians, including Ron Block, Adam Steffey, Rob Ickes, Andrea Zonn, Carl Jackson and Wayne Benson. Ten of the thirteen tracks are written by Ms. Buller as well as a co-write each with Grammy winning producer Carl Jackson and Valerie Smith.
Through the years she has had many of her songs recorded by others. Among them are My Angeline and Rest My Weary Feet (by Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out); Fishers of Men (Rhonda Vincent); How I Love You (The Chapmans); You Love Me Today (Josh Williams); Be Living (a #1 on Bluegrass Now magazine’s “Gospel Truths” chart for Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver); Why Do You Do What You Do, Why Don’t You Just Say Good-bye, Without A Trace (co-written with Justin Carbone) (Kenny & Amanda Smith Band); Charlie Lawson’s Still (co-written with Tommy Austin), Cabin in the Trees (the Mark Newton Band); Without Her In My Arms (David Parmley & Continental Divide); In Those Mines, Heaven Is Waiting, Jacob Spence (co-written w/Randall Conn), Engineer, The Rain, Gettin’ Ready For Sunday, My Jesus, Music to My Ears (co-written with Mark Simos & Lisa Aschmann (Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike); Carolina Rain (The Bankester Family); and Gone To Carolina (co-written with Justin Carbone), which featured on Signs album by Special Consensus and recently reached #4 on the Bluegrass Unlimited “National Survey Chart.”
The recent release, Here’s A Little Song, an excellent album of duets with Valerie Smith won a 2009 VOX POPULI award for Americana Album of the Year from the Musician’s Atlas “Independent Music Awards” as well as being awarded the 2009 “Best Bluegrass Album of the Year” title by the Rural Roots Music Commission, part of the National Traditional Country Music Association. Four more of Ms. Buller’s songs, Hand of Help, The River, The Ham Chorus and Heart of the House (co-written with Sarah Majors) can be found in this collection.
Following on from her success in the same category in 2006, Ms. Buller won the 2009 IBMA “Recorded Event of the Year” award for her participation on the recording of Proud to be a Daughter of Bluegrass.
On May 2, 2009, she got married to Jeff Haley. Becky and Jeff live in Manchester, Tennessee, with their ginger and cream cat “Curly Ray.”
Do you come from a musical family?
Yes. My parents were part of a bluegrass band called Prairie Grass that performed all over Minnesota and Iowa. Mom (Linda) played guitar and sang, Dad (Emory) played mandolin and sang. Another couple, Gordy and Roxie Schultz, sang and played banjo and bass with the band. While in high school, I played fiddle with the group. Although he never performed much with the band, my brother, Michael, is also very musical. He’s a great singer, guitar and, especially, bass player.
What was the first song that you wrote and what prompted it?
My first instrument was piano and I remember writing a tune that I played for Mrs. Monson’s music class in middle school. She gave me a “Magical Musical Moment Award” for it, which consisted of praise in front of the whole class and my choice of Tootsie Pop.
Who was the first bluegrass songwriter to make an impression on you and why?
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. I absolutely fell in love with their song Wichita, as performed by Tim and Molly O’Brien, and Tear My Stillhouse Down, as performed by the Nashville Bluegrass Band. I didn’t make the connection between writer and songs until my violin teacher gave me a copy of Gillian and David’s record Revival as a high school graduation present. That album changed my life.
How many songs have you had recorded and which was the first to be recorded?
The first of my tunes to be recorded by a nationally touring act was Charlie Lawson’s Still, the title cut of a Rebel release for the Mark Newton Band. Since then, I’ve had 70 songs recorded by groups from across the United States and around the world (Germany, Austria, the Czech and Slovak Republics, etc.) It’s exciting! I’m honored and humbled that anyone would want to learn one of my songs, let alone record it!
What inspires you to write?
Anything and everything, stray comments from someone or a bit of something I’ve read, an experience I’ve had. The key is being in the right frame of mind to catch the song as it floats by, which can be harder to do depending on the season of life one is in. I’m continually searching for a new way to be in the right place to catch the tunes.
Which of your songs gives you most satisfaction and why?
Fishers of Men. Of all the songs I’ve been privileged to write, that one has reached the widest audience, thanks to Rhonda Vincent. I have had so many churches call to ask for permission to use the tune. Every time I go to church with my husband’s family, someone asks us to sing it.
The message of the song comes right out of Mark 1:16-18 “As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ said Jesus, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.”
It’s a very simple song, something that folks can easily join in on. I’m so very honored that folks are blessed by it.
What advice can you give to a young, inexperienced songwriter?
Write everything down and don’t throw anything away; you may come back to an idea ten years later. Keep them in a notebook or on little pieces of paper taped to your bathroom mirror where you see them every morning and can ruminate on them.
Write without fear of what others will think; write because you love to write.
I’ve found that the more specific or personal a song is, the more others see themselves in it. “The devil is in the details.”
Which comes first: the melody or the lyrics?
Usually, a bit of lyric will come to mind first, but a melody quickly follows.
What are the secrets to writing a successful bluegrass song?
I honestly don’t know why it is that some songs reach people and resonate with them while others don’t. There are songs I’ve written that I love and have tried to pitch around for years to no avail. Tom T. Hall once told me that a song will eventually find that person it’s meant for, all though it may take a while.
If somebody wants to write bluegrass (or any genre,) they need to consciously study the long and glorious tradition that has come before. Tear apart Pete Goble’s Blue Virginia Blues, for instance. What makes that song a classic?
If there is one ingredient that characterizes your songs what would that be?
What is the background to the story to Charlie Lawson’s Still?
My friend Tommy Austin, with whom I played in Appalachian Trail, told me this story on the way to band practice one night. “Charlie” kept a moonshine still in the empty cistern in his front yard of his Johnson City, Tenn., area home. Everybody knew he was making the stuff, but they could never catch him. He ran a stovepipe underground from the empty cistern to the house, where the family always used a woodstove, so no one questioned why there was always smoke coming from the chimney. He provided for a family of 10 boys this way, “all meaner ‘an snakes.”
The Blind Beggar sounds as though it might have an interesting story about it.
The Bible has so many amazing stories. Of course I believe it’s the Word of God, so that makes the stories even more powerful to me. I’ve always had a hard time memorizing Bible verses on their own, but I remember them if I can write a song around them. It’s a wonderful resource for songwriters; I usually carry one with me to writing sessions along with my computer, dictionary, rhyming dictionary and thesaurus. (I can get all those resources online, but there’s something about having the actual book in my hands that such a comfort.)
The Blind Beggar comes out of Luke 18:35-43. There are at least a couple different stories of Jesus giving sight to the blind. In this particular one, the man was blind from birth and spent most of his life in front the city gate begging. When he heard that Jesus was nearby, the blind man cries out to Jesus to have mercy on him. The folks nearby tried to hush him up, but the blind man persisted. Jesus commanded that the man be brought to him. “What do you want from me?” “I want to see!” “Receive your sight. Your faith has healed you.”
From that point on, the Bible says the blind man followed Jesus. I took the liberty of speculating that he followed Jesus all the way to his death at Calvary and even saw him after his resurrection, believing Jesus was the Son of God and the only way to eternal life.