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Clip: Jon Langford & Buddy Miller in SF this weekend

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  • Carl Zimring
    Bluegrass In The Park Jon Langford and Buddy Miller bring their brands of country music to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 2, 2004
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      <http://www.sfgate.com/columnists/derk/>

      Bluegrass In The Park
      Jon Langford and Buddy Miller bring their brands of 'country' music to
      Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

      by Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
      Thursday, September 30, 2004

      On the biggest and most eclectic bill yet in the four-year history of the
      free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, it's impossible to single out one
      act that least fits even the loosest definition of bluegrass.

      Nick Lowe? John Prine? The Hot Club of Cowtown?

      Clearly, the folks booking the three-day event simply go for high-quality
      music, some of it unmistakably bluegrass and country (Ralph Stanley, Del
      McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, Peter Rowan and Tony Rice); some with more draw
      among pop, rock and singer-songwriter folk audiences (Emmylou Harris, Steve
      Earle, Gillian Welch, Greg Brown).

      It seems that to get booked into Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, you have to
      play honest music that's proud of its roots. It might rock and reflect an
      intensely personal perspective, as in the songs of Buddy and Julie Miller.
      And it might get sloppy with source material that took a while to discover,
      as with Jon Langford.

      "I used to think I didn't like country music," Langford said in a phone
      conversation from Chicago last week. "I thought country music was boring
      and for old people. I guess I woke up one morning and I was 28 with a
      drinking problem -- 'My baby done left me,' and all that -- and you start
      to understand all that. It's not music for kids, I don't think. The
      experience of good honky-tonk music -- like Merle Haggard or Jerry Lee
      Lewis or Ernest Tubb or George Jones -- is the stories they are telling,
      that I think are really profound to people who have lived a little bit and
      have had slightly more negative experiences in their lives."

      It was in the early years of the Mekons, the punk band he co-founded in
      Leeds, England, in 1976, that Langford began warming up to hard-core
      country music, "from coming to the States and rubbing shoulders with
      Americans," he said. By 1985, the Mekons had digested enough Hank Williams
      and Johnny Cash to start showing like an expectant mother. With the albums
      Fear and Whiskey, The Edge of the World and Honky Tonkin', the Mekons gave
      birth to a unique country-rock offspring in their own image.

      "Looking back, most of the punk-rock songs we wrote were kind of like
      country songs," explained Langford, who will perform on Saturday with his
      mostly New York-based Ship and Pilot band. "They were all about failing to
      meet people in bars; they always had that little edge. A lot of times in
      the Mekons history, people have come up to us and said, 'You're really a
      folk band' or 'You're really a country band.' We hadn't really realized
      those connections -- we just kind of floundered about, doing what we do."

      Langford -- a collaboration addict who plays and records with the Waco
      Brothers and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and recently started his own label
      to release archival and new music from offshoot projects and friends --
      just issued only his second solo CD, All the Fame of Lofty Deeds. Culled
      from a variety of sessions, the largely acoustic album loosely chronicles
      the rise and fall of an ambitious Hollywood cowboy singer. It hinges on
      songs like "Last Fair Deal Gone Down," "The Fame of Lofty Deeds," "Living a
      Lie" and "Over the Edge."

      "A lot of the songs, I'd written kind of about a career in the music
      business," Langford said, "autobiographical as well as observations of
      other people's disasters. 'Over the Cliff' was kind of about Kurt Cobain
      when I wrote it originally, but it seems to apply to someone like Faron
      Young equally as well. Somebody described it as a country-and-western Ziggy
      Stardust, and I wish I'd made that up. It was using country music as a
      metaphor for a lot of other things."

      Langford establishes cultural and historical context with such songs as
      "Nashville Radio" and "The Country Is Young." The latter, written from the
      perspective of someone who's lived in Chicago for the past 12 years, offers
      a critique of his adopted homeland and a large dollop of forgiveness. "I
      love America. I hate what it seems to stand for in the world at the
      moment," said Langford, who makes much of his living as a visual artist and
      recently painted one of the Hearts in San Francisco. "The rich people in
      this country don't care what the people in the rest of world think about
      us. It's very arrogant, and it's very sad. It's like the rest of the world
      has this disease called anti-Americanism, and they have to cured by having
      the s-- bombed out of them."

      Buddy Miller's new album, Universal United House of Prayer, was a child of
      that same general context, but it's indelibly stamped with Miller's musical
      persona as a creative guitarist and producer (mostly notably working with
      Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle) and someone whose faith has been severely
      challenged of late.

      "Things started spiraling downward in the world and got me thinking about
      that," Miller said in a recent phone call from the Nashville home he shares
      with his wife and musical partner, Julie. "Then, a year ago, Julie's
      brother died, struck by lightning in the exact same spot where, 20-some
      years earlier, he was in a dirtbike accident that left him in a coma for a
      couple months and permanently messed him up with a really bad limp and
      without the use of one of his arms. It's been a tough year. I knew that
      there were some dots to connect, and it made me think about the kind of
      record I wanted to make."

      Joined on most tracks by gospel singers Regina and Ann McCrary (daughters
      of Sam McCrary, a founder of the renowned gospel quartet the Fairfield
      Four), Miller has made a deeply spiritual album that has little to do with
      organized religion and everything to do with saving one's own soul in this
      lifetime -- "Now everything you longed to see, you hold in your own hands"
      ("Fire and Water").

      "I think the things going on in the world are weighing on everybody,"
      Miller said. "So, I didn't mind taking a break from the dark country songs
      for a record that could go a little someplace else." Co-writing songs with
      Julie Miller, Jim Lauderdale and Victoria Williams, Miller also covers Mark
      Heard's "Worry Too Much," the Louvin Brothers' "There's a Higher Power" and
      Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side," an indictment of politicians and
      governments that co-opt the Almighty to justify their wars. "I've been
      doing the Dylan song live since the war started," said Miller. "I just
      couldn't get it out of my head."

      Miller has performed at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass every year since
      financier Warren Hellman decided to bankroll the exemplary free event in
      Golden Gate Park, but always with Emmylou Harris. This will be the first
      time headlining (the Arrow Stage on Saturday) with his wife as Buddy and
      Julie Miller. It feels like home to a musician who thought he'd never move
      to Nashville, because he "associated it with a lot of bad music, which it
      still is. But we just have our own little world" -- one that doesn't have
      room for dogma of any sort.

      "I'm not that into most bluegrass music, or most music in general," Miller
      confessed. "A lot of it is just playing that goes nowhere for me. I don't
      like flashy guitar players; it just bores me to death. But when I hear a
      voice with some soul -- that's what Ralph Stanley or Hazel Dickens have --
      that's what grabs me. It's the song and the singing."

      Jon Langford's Ship and Pilot performs Saturday, Oct. 2 at Hardly Strictly
      Bluegrass, Speedway Meadow, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. His set time
      is 2:35 pm. Click here for more information. They also play Friday, Oct. 1
      at the Starry Plough, 3101 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; 9:30 pm; $12. (510)
      841-2082. Langford and Mekons accordionist Rico Bell will show their
      paintings Sunday, Oct. 3 at Dylan's Welsh Pub, 2301 Folsom St., SF; 5 pm;
      (415) 641-1416.

      Buddy and Julie Miller perform Saturday, Oct. 2 at Hardly Strictly
      Bluegrass; set time 5 pm. They also appear Friday, Oct. 1 at Slim's, 333
      11th St., SF; show time 9 pm; tickets $16. (415) 255-0333.
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