october 2008

Valerie Smith & Becky Buller
Bell Buckle Records

Unassuming and inspired, Here's a Little Song brings two gifted women of different generations together in song, and they proceed to make sure you don't forget that they passed through your life. The principals are the exemplary veteran bluegrass/country vocalist Valerie Smith and one of the outstanding young bluegrass/country songwriters and fiddlers of the day, Becky Buller, the latter being a member of Smith's group Liberty Pike, whose members join them here along with a stellar cast of guest pickers from bands such as IIIrd Tyme Out and Special Consensus. Smith has had two vocal cord surgeries in recent years, with the only apparent effect being an appealing raspiness in her voice that only enhances the impact of her emotional readings; Buller offers an ideal contrast and affecting harmonizer with her high, mountain tones, so pure and piercing, an absolutely beautiful instrument used with great sensitivity to the nuances of the stories being sung. She's also a first-rate songwriter. One of her songs, "Little Bird," is a highlight on the exceptional third album by the Alaska bluegrass quintet Bearfoot (see cover story in the August issue of TheBluegrassSpecial.com), whose fiddler/vocalist Angela Oudean was a classmate of Buller's at East Tennessee State University. Three of her original songs-one co-write, two solo copyrights-are included in the dozen her, including "Hand of Help," a briskly paced, guitar-and-banjo-centered plea for self-sacrifice and social responsibility in service to a better world, referencing the life of Christ as a model, with rich, cascading vocal parts helping lend the song its propulsive feel; and a strutting, paradoxically upbeat toe-tapper, "The River," with Liberty Pike's fiddler Bobby Davis fashioning a serpentine, unceasing solo line over Buller's forceful clawhammer banjo strumming under her and Smith's close-harmonized account of the deserved demise of an unfaithful husband. Revenge gets a curtain call in Tom Roznowski's lilting murder ballad, "Hot Grease at Midnight," the title of which describes the fate befalling an abusive husband as he lay in an alcoholic stupor after beating his wife once too often (his fate is not described with the same frank, brutal glee as the Dixie Chicks delighted in in "Goodbye Earl," but the end result is pretty much the same). Arguably the most beautiful harmonizing on the disc-arguably because there's so much from which to choose-comes on Linda Wittig's stirring, country ballad, "Life Is Not a Guarantee," a straight-ahead, midtempo advisory for each of us to take charge of our lives ("we're the only ones/when it comes down to it/we can rise up or dig our own graves"), a bit of wisdom stemming from the narrator's experience with her parents' farm failing. With Smith taking the lead and Buller taking alternate lines, then engaging together in smooth, plaintive harmony, the soundscape is rich and evocative with the steady chop of a mandolin as fiddle, dobro and guitar lope every forward to the song's close. Buller takes a plaintive lead on her dramatic, eerie lament (co-written with Sarah Majors), "Heart of the House," detailing the abject loneliness a man feels in his own home after losing his wife (Bearfoot fans will note here a striking similarity between Buller's and Angela Oudean's voices, from the smooth timbre to the phrasing right down to the little hitch in their voices). There's some infectious western swing and a frisky Smith vocal to recommend the high-spirited "Tennessee Courtin' Time," some literal barnyard (and slaughterhouse) humor in the brisk, good natured Greg Brown tune, "Four Wet Pigs & The Ham Chorus," and a powerful heartbreaker in Katie Nunez's piercing "Your Goodnight Is My Goodbye," its soundscape notable for the rich, resonant dialogue between dobro, fiddle and acoustic guitar. Here's a Little Song need only be approached with an open heart. From there it will take you to some memorable places, and you will be moved.—David McGee

Buy it at www.cdbaby.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024