Clip: Jon Langford & Buddy Miller in SF this weekend
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;
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.