Ten: Songs of Ben Bullington
Full Light Records
5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Across five self-released albums, Ben Bullington wrote (and performed) excellent songs. If you aren’t familiar with his music, you owe it to yourself to start exploring. Start with his last, Ben Bullington, and go from there.
How impressive was Ben Bullington? How about this? He didn’t decide to make music his life until he was diagnosed with terminal cancer a year before his death. He retired from his Montana medical practice, and hit the road. His first gig? At the Station Inn in Nashville, a guitar pull with Will Kimbrough, Scott, and Rodney Crowell, who said this about Bullington: “Back in the early seventies we were all writing songs for the purest of reasons. And there was Townes Van Zandt showing us what to do. Then along came Ben Bullington reminding us of why we do this. That’s the gift we were given.”
Ten doesn’t sound like Darrell Scott doing an album of someone else’s songs, and that is a credit to both the songwriter and the performer. It sounds fully and completely a Darrell Scott album. That similar themes are explored—lost and out of reach love, an evasive past, both personal and historical, and the changing state of country music—in Bullington’s songs and Scott’s is more than coincidence. Brought together by mutual acquaintances, the two shared a too brief friendship, first outside the confines of music, and then—even more briefly—within it. There is some type of destiny involved.
Bullington’s most known song “Country Music I’m Talking to You” is as fine a bookend to Scott’s “Long Time Gone”— that one mentions the Dixie Chicks and the other was performed by the trio is perhaps as much synchronicity as Americana music can likely handle. Suitably, Scott presents the song here as a concert recording.
Scott recorded Ten: Songs of Ben Bullington unaccompanied, providing all guitar, piano, bass, and banjo parts himself. That the instruments of other friends—Guy Clark’s own-made flamenco guitar on “Sage After Rain,” Dirk Powell’s banjo, and Christine Balfa’s guitar—make appearance is entirely befitting a do-it-yourself tribute to a friend taken far too soon.
“Born in ’55” explores the social and political upheaval of the ‘sixties. Personal pleasures comprise “Green Heart,” a pensive, philosophical journey through the wilderness. To hear the writer of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” beat out “Chosen Time,” about a mine collapse, is compelling. Then album closes with “I’ve Got to Leave You Now,” a song written before Bullington’s diagnosis, but eerily prophetic.
Darrell Scott is at his best unaccompanied, communicating intimately with an audience. That he is conveying someone else’s songs on Ten is significant. He is paying true tribute to someone he feels needs to be heard. What is most impressive is that Scott makes each of these songs his own, lending universality and permanence to Ben Bullington’s legacy.