By Larry Stephens
Bluegrass fans love a mystery, especially with some murder thrown into the plot. The title track of Poison Cove gives us a good dose of that. A young boy hides in the bushes and watches his father, a moonshiner, kill a revenue agent. That’s a secret he has to carry all his life. Some might call songs like this a celebration of violence but I don’t see it that way. This is a story of life disrupted, not a celebration. When the song kicks off I hear a resemblance to “Brown Mountain Light,” evidence that there are a finite number of notes and ways they can be pleasingly arranged, and sometimes songs will trigger memories of each other. “Yellow Jacket Mine,” an uptempo number about an 1869 disaster, is another one that triggers a musical memory, this time from an (unfortunately) obscure Tim Ryan CD.
Miller’s career has been that of a sideman and composer. IIIrd Tyme Out’s “Pretty Little Girl From Galax” is his composition. On his first solo release he’s penned (or co-composed) all the songs but one and proves himself as adept with words and melodies as he is with strings. On various cuts he plays guitar, mandolin and resonator guitar. He’s backed by familiar names like Shad Cobb (fiddle), Randy Kohrs (resonator guitar), Scott Vestal (banjo) and Ron Stewart (fiddle). Mark Winchester plays bass and wrote the one song Miller didn’t compose. “Swept Away,” like the title song, is going to be one of those songs I put in my favorites folder. It’s a lament, the story of a young girl swept away in a flood.
Swept away by muddy water
Damn the river, blame the rain
Swept away my only daughter
Left me here drowned in pain
The refrain ends on a minor chord and you can feel the pain in your heart. That’s good music: make you laugh, make you cry, then make you smile again.
This cut also underlines my only criticism. Miller sings lead with Buddy Melton singing tenor and Darren Nicholson (both members of Balsam Range) singing baritone. You can hear the harmony vocals, but barely, and on other tracks they are even harder to make out. I would have liked it better being able to clearly hear the harmonies along with some creative note shifting by the tenor. But this is a minor point on an otherwise great CD. I like what he gives us better than some recent top-name releases.
He starts off with some humor, a man who is going to make it to his notion of big one day because he’s “Savin’ Up For A Cadillac.” I like the sense of urgency and continuity he creates by the extended instrumental ending of “Cadillac” and the immediate jump into “A Little Bit Of You.” It would be fun to hear that on more CDs (and especially at more shows, where, to borrow a phrase, “a little less talk and a lot more action” would be appreciated).
He gives us some blues, a man who has the love of his life but takes her for granted until she leaves, and now she’s “Playing Hard To Forget.” His one gospel number, “Whose Name Do You Call,” illustrates the strength of creative arranging: every song doesn’t have to start with a banjo riff. And then there’s the Irish connection.
Some instrumentals that have been handed down through the old-time days have Irish connections, but you don’t hear many new vocal numbers that overtly mention an Irish theme. “The Saddest Man In County Clare” tells a tale repeated in all countries, a quiet tale of lost love, but set in Ireland with references to Dublin and County Clare. I asked Miller about this and he tells me, “My wife and I were spending the night in Ennis in late June 2010, and ended up listening to some tunes at a place called Patrick’s. Things were slow in town that evening, and only a few other people were in the pub. The young man in the next booth was sharing with a friend about a chance encounter earlier that day with his former love interest. Although he was trying to play it cool, it was apparent that he was still very much in love with this woman.” And that, folks, is one way to write a good song.
The other song is “Spike Island Blues.” “As we were looking out at the [Queenstown/Cobh] harbor one evening, a friend who lives there started telling me about Spike Island and the efforts that were underway to open the island for tours. He gave me an overview of the history of the prison, … . It seemed like great subject matter for a bluegrass song … During our last trip in October 2012 the prison was open … It was even more gruesome than the vision I had in my mind when putting the song together. It made Alcatraz look like a five star hotel.” History makes good bluegrass, too.
Good music from start to finish. This one’s worth every penny you’ll pay for it.