In bluegrass, the best of the best are three-tool players. They play at a high level, sing superbly and write songs that are among the best in the business. There are many fine folks who are among the very best in one of the three categories, and a few who are near the top in two. But there are few who excel in all three.
With ‘Tween Earth and Sky, her new release on Dark Shadow Recording, Becky Buller has earned entry into this elite group of musicians who do it all at a top-of-the-game level. In fact, though there are more than two months left in 2014, and many fine recordings debuted earlier, I’m willing to say this project may well end up the best I’ve heard this year. Producer-engineer Stephen Mougin caught lightning in a bottle when he signed Buller to his new record label.
‘Tween Earth and Sky has all the hallmarks of an award-winning CD: Top-notch picking, not only from Buller on fiddle, guitar and clawhammer banjo, but from an all-star cast that includes Barry Bales, Ron Block, Kenny Smith, Rob Ickes, Bryan Sutton, Jesse Brock, Sam Bush, Peter Rowan, Roland White, Mike Bubb, Tim O’Brien, Darin Auldridge and Ned Luberecki. Powerful vocals, from Buller, Amanda Smith, Dale Ann Bradley, Darrell Scott, Brook Auldridge, O’Brien and others. And incredible songwriting.
All but one of the 12 songs were written or co-written by Buller. The one that wasn’t, Southern Flavor, was co-written by Bill Monroe and is played on this recording by a band of former Blue Grass Boys.
>The whole record is worth listening to – no filler material here – but three songs near the end of the record are all you need to hear to understand Buller’s mastery of all three tools. First is Amos & Sarah, which Buller wrote with Melissa Ames, about the latter’s great-great-grandparents during the Civil War. Buller’s vocal shines, accompanied by just two guitars.
Then come two songs that are so drastically different that I’m still befuddled that one human mind could come up with both. The first is Didn’t Die, the story of the ghost of a woman done wrong out to get revenge. Dark doesn’t begin to describe it. Next up is Thank You, a Gospel song that is as sweet and bouncy as the other song is haunting.
Other highlights – hard to pick because there are no lowlights – are I Serve God, performed with just four voices – Buller, Brook and Darin Aldridge and Gene McDonald; Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers, which she co-wrote with Vicki Simmons and which is based on a true story; For a Lifetime, a doleful duet with Tim O’Brien; and Nothin’ to You, the CD opener that is the perfect canvas for Buller’s breathy but powerful voice.
Buller recently left Darin and Brooke Aldridge to front her own band while raising a child. If ‘Tween Earth and Sky is an example of what’s to come, she made the right decision and we’re all better off for it. This one is a keeper.