By Larry Stephens
We last saw Milan Miller almost three years ago with his “Poison Cove” release. Buddy Melton, a founding member of Balsam Range has made multiple appearances on these pages. Now the two, raised in the same community and friends for many years, have produced a joint project that equals the fine work they’ve done before.
Miller composed several of the tracks on this CD. The opening song, “Adeline,” was penned for Melton as an ode to his daughter. It’s an upbeat number that could be taken as a song about a lover until “someday she’s gonna grow up” and then you know. “Big City Dreams Die Hard” is a story that’s been told a million times: the kid who goes to the city to make it big as a musician but never gets over the hump. Miller’s lyrics and music make this an excellent addition to the trove of stories.
It’s no surprise that there’s a long list of A–list musicians supporting the singers. Adam Steffey plays mandolin on several tracks and his Boxcars bandmate, Ron Stewart, plays his usual excellent fiddle on “Lost and Alone In This World,” a Miller–Melton composition. It tears along at a fast pace, the story of someone who ends up on the wrong side of the tracks, running from the law. In addition to singing lead on all tracks, Melton plays upright bass on all tracks but one while Miller plays guitar and sings the baritone part. (It’s a shame he didn’t sing any lead.) Marc Pruett, Melton’s Balsam Rang bandmate, plays a hard driving banjo on this and several other tracks, sharing duties with Sammy Shelor, Terry Baucom and Seth Taylor. Taylor appears on one track, playing banjo and mandolin. “Took Up Crying” was composed by Adam and Shannon Wright (The Wrights), a country duo act. A song of broken love, it falls nicely into a minor chord at the end of every chorus. Rob Ickes adds Dobro to this track. Another Miller composition is “The Boy from Valdese,” written in honor of Valdese native son and legendary bluegrass picker George Shuffler. His younger brother, Ron, plays upright bass on this track.
“When a Woman Leaves” (Miller, Adam Wright, Glenn Simmons) is a beautiful ballad about love lost, featuring Melton on bass, cello and lead; Miller playing guitar and singing baritone; and Wright singing tenor. This simple arrangement is perfect for this plaintive number. “White Oak Mountain” is a song of longing to go home, a good song that has special meaning to Melton. It was written by his grandfather, Frank Davis, and not discovered until after he passed. Where “White Oak Mountain” is bluegrass, “Tangled Web” is more jazzy, certainly not traditional country, and marks the inexact nature of this project. It has elements of bluegrass, a long list of some of the best bluegrass musicians in the business (Aubrey Haynie, Balsam Range bandmate Darren Nicholson, Carl Jackson and another Balsam Range bandmate, Tim Surrett). It has touches of country and then “Tangled Web.” But, while the songs are sometimes at the fringes (or beyond) of bluegrass, the arrangements all feature traditional bluegrass instruments. This is excellent music and you can’t go wrong with this CD.